Sunday, June 06, 2010

Acts of self-destruction


FIRST, SHUTTING down the telephone companies, next came closing the TV channel, then came blocking Facebook, and now cancellation of the declaration of a newspaper; one after another, the government actions do not testify well for a democratically elected government committed to upholding the right of its citizens, ensuring free flow of information, building digital Bangladesh and safeguarding freedom of press.

These are all integral elements of a democratic system which the current government is boastfully pledging to enhance. However, the government actions over the aforementioned matters in the last few months are absolutely paradoxical, to say the least.

A few months ago BTRC, a regulatory organ of the government, raided a few telephone companies' offices and shut their operations down on the pretext of using illegal VOIP. Before taking such a drastic action, did the BTRC ever think of the inconveniences of their tens of thousands of innocent subscribers who were not a party to that alleged illegal operations?

Hundreds of employees of those organisations lost their livelihood in the abrupt actions of the BTRC. It is the government's action that is solely responsible for their inconveniences and naturally the blame fell squarely on the government's shoulder. Subscribers or unblemished employees did not find anyone in the administration to address or redress their government-created grievances. Should we attribute this as a "government for the people"?

A TV channel allegedly owned by the opposition supporters has been shut down on the grounds of some "technical" irregularities, which are neither transparent nor understandable to most of the ordinary citizens. It resulted in laying off thousands of workers who are rightful citizens of the republic.

Making an analogy, by some quarters or individuals, to closing down the Ekushey TV by the erstwhile government does neither bode well for the free flow of information nor for the superior democratic credential of the current government, as it continues to claim.

On the pretext of removing an objectionable cartoon of the prime minister, it is simply ridiculous to close the popular website, Facebook. It is debatable if the drawing a cartoon of the PM in cyberspace, in a democratic society, is a crime to start with.

Even if it is so, only the perpetrator of the crime should be dealt with as per law of the land, not by closing down the website which reportedly has almost a million users from within the country itself and many more millions of users of Bangladeshi origin from every nook and corner of the globe who keep in touch with their near and dear ones back home on a daily basis through this website.

In fact, the popularity of Facebook in Bangladesh should be testifying positively in support of the government's pledge to build a digital Bangladesh. The damage has been irreversible and the self-inflicted wound will never be healed, while the government's reiteration of building digital Bangladesh would simply sound self-contradictory.

Finally, a newspaper owned and edited by an opposition politician, has been shut down and its declaration has been cancelled. To make the matter look even worse, he has been arrested and sent to jail.

The arrest capped a 17-hour drama played out after the paper's publisher, who himself was briefly detained, sued the acting editor on Tuesday night. Ironically, it is the same person who dragged five of the eminent personalities of the nation to dock with a shady accusation is behind bars for a charge not more tenable than the one brought up by him a few years ago.

This is not to say that the detained acting editor as an icon of journalism by any measure. Since his assumption of the ownership and editorship of the vernacular news daily, an otherwise inclusive daily has been transformed into a mouth-piece of blunt lies and third-rated propaganda machine of the main opposition.

It ceaselessly spreads anti-Indian and anti-government venom through baseless stories, a hallmark of BNP-Jamat politics. It never bothered to publish any rejoinder sent by the victims of its baseless stories, a basic journalistic norm to start with. Having said that, what the government has done in dealing with the yellow journalism is not only unacceptable but absolutely self-defeating.

In the arena of press freedom, anyone is entitled to his opinion, but is not entitled to creating a "fact" of his own. It does not allow anyone to say or write anything about anyone without proper substantiation. It does not give the journalists absolute immunity from divulging their source of information.

Every democratic society must be having well-defined laws and rules to deal with the publications of unsubstantiated stories involving individuals, society, or the government, resulting in defamation, a serious offence in a free society.

It was reported that as many as 31 cases have been filed against the detained acting editor in various courts in the country involving publishing unsubstantiated stories resulting in defamation.

However, so far none of them have seen the light of day, and no serious legal proceeding has ever been drawn against him in the court of law. It reflects either the weakness of the existing laws in dealing with the crimes or the inability of the judicial system to bring the perpetrators to book, thereby giving immunity to publish unsubstantiated stories to mislead members of the public with the ulterior motives.

If there are weaknesses in laws, the government has all the legislative powers within its arsenal to legislate new laws, guarding the absolute freedom to publish truth and nothing but the truth and with well-defined consequence to deter the practice of yellow journalism.

Failing to resort to due process, arrest of a grade B politician-turned grade C journalist will simply backfire in transforming him into a martyr. It is a simple lesson of history. Instead of doing what the government ought to have done, what it has done is simply self-defeating and will simply accelerate its sliding further down the slope of democracy and good governance if it, at all, means something to the government leaders of the day. #

First published in The Daily Star, Bangladesh, June 5, 2010

Dr. Mozammel H. Khan is the Convenor of the Canadian Committee for Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh