Monday, April 30, 2012

Bangladesh: Old tensions return to threaten journalism

South Asia Press Freedom Report for 2012 that the IFJ is releasing, on behalf of the South Asia Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN) on May 3, World Press Freedom Day

Bangladesh’s journalists forged a common platform, the Sangbadik Shramik Karmachari Oikya Parishad (SSKOP, or United Committee of Working Journalists and Newspaper Employees) and organised early in March 2012 to demand the formal notification of a new wage fixation body. This followed the failure of Bangladesh’s Ministry for Information to formally constitute the eighth wage board for the newspaper industry through gazette by the end of February, despite an assurance from Information Minister Abul Kalam Azad at a meeting with the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ) on 22 January.

Within days of Bangladesh’s journalists resolving on pressing their demand for a new wage deal, the Newspaper Owners’ Association of Bangladesh (NOAB) mobilized in opposition. “Forming a new wage board three and a half years after the seventh wage board award will put the newspaper industry into a big crisis,” NOAB said in a statement issued on 19 March. The SSKOP responded within a day with the suggestion that the newspaper owners, rather than resist the formation of a body mandated by law, should adopt a strategy of cooperation in a spirit of transparency and openness.

Seven wage boards have been formed so far under a law adopted by Bangladesh’s parliament in 1974. The newspaper industry has resisted each of these and only complied with the statutory wage awards decreed after losing legal battles that have gone up to the country’s highest courts. The record of compliance remains patchy and uneven, with several of the new media outlets that began operations in recent boom years choosing to ignore the imperative of decent wages.

The Eighth Wage Board was announced by the Government of Bangladesh after representations from the country’s journalists about increasing costs of living and growing job insecurity. A chair has been nominated for the board and the various stakeholders from the side of the news industry employees, including both sides of the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ) have named their representatives for the board. Yet the formal notification remains to be issued and the news industry owners continue to resist.

Over the year gone by, Bangladesh’s journalists took on several other challenges in unison, offering realistic hope that decades of politically induced estrangement within their ranks would be overcome. The level of rancour in political exchanges though, remained high. One of many flashpoints was the political rally by the national opposition in Dhaka on March 12, when three television channels were blocked for viewers in the city for the duration of a speech by the leader of Bangladesh National Party (BNP), the country’s main political opposition.

The three channels — Ekushey Television, Bangla Vision and Islamic TV — were inaccessible for viewers between 3 pm that day, approximately an hour before the opposition leader began her address, until 6:30 pm, after she concluded. Staff at the affected TV channels revealed that the Cable Operators’ Association of Bangladesh (COAB) had been asked by the government to suspend the transmission of the three channels for this length of time. There were also reports that emerged then, that the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (BTRC), which grants licences for use of the broadcast spectrum, may have directly intervened with certain channels to dissuade them from covering the opposition rally live.

Following this, notice was issued to Ekushey TV by the National Board of Revenue for failure to submit tax returns for three years. The channel claimed that it was yet to complete a financial audit for the years in question since it was preparing for an initial public offering (IPO) of shares. The alibi may not have been very strong, but the event fed into the story of deep partisan divisions and a vindictive attitude by those in authority towards media outlets that do not offer unconditional support to the Awami League (AL), the party that has been in power since early 2009.

Soon afterwards, it was reported that nineteen journalists in the south-western district of Pirojpur had presented themselves to the district police station on March 14, demanding protection from threats issued by the district branch of the ruling party at a public rally the previous day. The journalists were reportedly threatened with violence following their publication in local newspapers of critical reports about two members of the elected district council. The reports, which alleged that two local politicians had been involved in corruption and nepotism, were subsequently republished by daily newspapers and news channels based in Dhaka. Members of the ruling party were then reported to have told the journalists that if they continued publishing critical reports about the two elected members of the district council, they would be forced to leave town or “chopped into pieces and buried”.

Heightening confrontation

It was a time of heightening confrontation in Bangladesh and the media was caught in the crossfire. In February 2012, a coup attempt by Islamist elements within the army was seemingly discovered and thwarted. Around then, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajid raised the temperature in her war of words with the opposition. Press freedom as an issue was debunked. As the Prime Minister then said, the media was guilty of “exaggeration”. Under the newly gained freedom under her regime, the press was “writing at its will, no matter what is right and what is wrong”.

This was a freedom that it did not enjoy under the reign of the parties now in opposition, said the Prime Minister. As she said it then, the press used to receive “invisible advice” from certain quarters all through the BNP’s tenure in office that began in 2001. Not one of the cases of the sixteen journalists killed during that time had been properly investigated, she said.

The ruling party followed with a mass rally on 7 March 2012 as a preemptive gesture ahead of the opposition show of strength of 13 March. Disruptions caused to civic life in the city featured widely in media reporting of the 7 March rally. When the government took recourse to extraordinary measures to ensure that the opposition rally of 13 March was deprived of mass participation and denied due media coverage, editorial commentary tended to be extremely critical. As the Daily Star, Bangladesh’s leading English newspaper, commented editorially: “The tragedy for the AL is that in attempting to suppress the opposition it has suppressed the citizens. Ordinary people were subjected to indescribable sufferings just to prevent the BNP from holding its rally. .... We also condemn the fact that the mass media, especially the electronic media, duties during yesterday’s opposition programme. Several TV stations were barred from airing uninterrupted live coverage of the rally. A few channels that were covering stories of public sufferings during the course of the day were visited by intelligence people and told to tone down their coverage. In other cases the cable operators were partially prevailed upon to take some channels off the air during the peak hours of the opposition’s rally. Such blatant interference in the media’s function amounts to suppression of the freedom of the media and public’s inalienable right to know”.

There has been in short, a considerable decline in tolerance levels for free media commentary since the early days of the Sheikh Hasina regime. To recall, within a year of Sheikh Hasina taking office in her latest tenure as Prime Minister, the Bangladesh cabinet had formally approved an amendment to the criminal procedure code, which granted immunity against arrest to editors, publishers, journalists and writers in defamation cases. A provision of the Special Powers Act 1974 that allowed government to shut down newspapers at will was repealed in the first year of the new government’s tenure.

The Bangladesh Press Council (BPC), which was set up in 1974 and went into a period of oblivion before being revived in 1993, has powers of censure and admonishment. Over the years, the council has evolved a point of view which holds that journalism is a profession that requires licensing. The model the BPC had in mind is analogous to the certification of legal or medical practitioners by empowered professional councils in Bangladesh, as also various other countries.

The idea of licensed journalists, while seemingly rather outlandish, does have some traction in the Bangladesh media community. More than anything else, this is an indication of how deeply the imperative of a professional code of ethics is felt among the country’s journalists. The applicable code promulgated by the BPC, includes a declaration in its preamble that the “war of liberation, its spirit and ideals must be sustained and upheld, and anything repugnant relative to the war of liberation and its spirit and ideals must not be printed, published or disseminated in any manner by the press”.

Quite clearly, this diktat of what is acceptable or not in media practice imposes too stringent a norm, prone to arbitrary interpretation and abuse. As a plural society, despite its relatively high degree of linguistic uniformity, Bangladesh is home to a variety of ideas and opinions about the war of liberation that brought the nation into being in 1971.

By seeking to bring unitary homogeneity to this multiplicity of views, the media code proposed by the BPC was seen to make little contribution to social harmony.

Through 2009 and the following year, when the Sheikh Hasina government made clear its intent to bring to trial those guilty of the worst abuses during the 1971 war of liberation, there were hopes that a new consensus would emerge on the four decade-long history of the country since independence. It was hoped that this in turn would be an antidote to the bitter divisions that have plagued civil society and the media community, especially since the brutal murder of the leader of Bangladesh’s liberation struggle, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975. The execution of five of those convicted of the crime in January 2010 was seen as a point of closure for a bitterly contested past. And the setting up of the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) soon afterwards and the opening of the war crimes trials were thought to be the occasion for finally bringing all unsettled disputes of ideology to consensus.

These hopes were belied in quick time. On 2 October 2011, New Age, one of Bangladesh’s English language dailies, ran an article on its op-ed page titled “A crucial period for International Crimes Tribunal”. David Bergman, the author, is a British national resident in Bangladesh since 2003 with a background in both the print and visual media and a long-standing interest in the Bangladesh war of liberation.

The ICT took objection to certain of the points made in the article and three days later, issued a notice asking why the writer and the editor and publisher of the newspaper should not be cited for contempt.

Particular sections of the article that found mention in the notice, referred to the public mood which seemingly had prejudged the guilt of some of the individuals who were up for trial before the ICT, as also the procedural weakness of seeking convictions merely on the basis of one witness statement on events that were over four decades in the past. Questions were also raised about the ICT’s rigour in assessing all witness depositions before it took cognisance of purported offences.

No contempt involved in demanding fair play

Nurul Kabir, the editor of New Age, submitted a detailed response to the ICT on 23 October 2011. On 19 February 2012, the ICT discharged the three media persons though without observing in its obiter dicta that the article in question was indeed contemptuous. The New Age editor and the author of the impugned article were issued a grave “caution” by the ICT and told to be more mindful of the spirit and process of the law in future actions. Since the hearings of the ICT commenced, there have been reservations voiced over procedure and also its potential contribution to national reconciliation. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon described the process as “essential” when he visited Bangladesh in November 2011, but international human rights bodies have been careful to underline the need for appropriate procedures and assurances of fairness. A leading figure of the civil society effort to document war crimes and build a broad consensus on the need for the trial, M.A. Hassan, has conceded that the manner in which it has been undertaken, is “fragmented”.

“We have not being able to touch the tip of the iceberg even, because 95 percent of the crimes were committed by the Pakistani army”, he says. Bangladesh’s leading human rights monitoring and campaigning body, Odhikar, has cautioned that the way in which investigating and prosecuting teams have been  “alarming”. “Witnesses were seen giving testimonies to teams in the presence of television cameras, which were later broadcast. The investigation must protect the rights of victims and witnesses, including their privacy and above all, safety”. Odhikar has drawn attention to the need for a witness protection programme. International observers have also cautioned that “trial by media” could jeopardize chances of fair judicial procedure and undermine public faith in the integrity of the trial.

A seeming political vendetta

On 31 July 2012, Mohammad Ekramul Haq, editor of the Sheersha News web portal and the associated weekly newspaper Sheersha Kagoj was arrested at his home in a neighbourhood of Dhaka on charges of extortion. He was reportedly led away blindfolded and his family was allegedly dealt with roughly by the police making the arrest.

Haq was since remanded to police custody. Charges were made against him of sending two reporters to the office of a local businessman a week before, to threaten him with negative news stories on the Sheersha News website, if a sum of Bangladesh Taka (BDT) two million (just under USD 27,000) was not handed over.

These charges were challenged by other journalists, including staff at Sheersha News, who claimed that the businessman who made the complaint against Haq before a local magistrate did not have his offices in the premises named in his complaint. Initially remanded for two days on orders of the Dhaka city magistrate, Haq’s remand was extended by another two days on August 3, after fresh charges of extortion were laid against him by the leader of an association of Bangladesh government employees.

He was finally granted bail after three months in detention. In granting bail on 25 October 2011, the Bangladesh High Court observed that the principal complainant in the case of extortion, a fruit trader from the capital Dhaka, had furnished an identity and address which proved false. Shockingly, Haq was rearrested at the gates of a Dhaka prison on 1 November, at the moment of his release on bail. A fresh case of extortion was filed on the basis of a complaint from an official of the income tax department in Dhaka.

The government of Bangladesh meanwhile, challenged the High Court bench order granting bail before the Supreme Court, which heard the matter on 2 November 2011, and declined to stay it. Meanwhile, a Dhaka trial court on 9 November ordered his continuing detention in the new cases that had been filed. Five days later, the High Court issued an injunction against implicating him in any further cases and ordered an end to the harassment. Yet it was only on 25 November 2011 that Haq was released from prison.

The course of the cases brought against Haq, the hearings and the final outcome of the bail process lent credence to initial suspicions that the multiple charges brought against him were part of a political vendetta. Observers within Bangladesh suggested that his arrest may have been retribution for news reports carried on his website and newspaper regarding allegations of corruption in public works projects in Dhaka.

On 13 September 2011, the Dhaka Metropolitan Magistrate issued a summons to three journalists from the Bangla language daily Jugantor, after defamation charges were laid against them by Shahjahan Khan, a minister in the Bangladesh government. Charges were brought against editor Salma Islam, executive editor Saiful Alam and reporter Jashim Chowdhury following the publication of two reports in Jugantor which questioned the high expenses incurred in foreign travel by the minister and his political associates.

A court in Jhenaidah district in the west of the country on 31 January 2012 convicted a local student, son of a political leader of the Jamaat e-Islami party, of publishing “objectionable and misleading information” on the social networking site Facebook. The individual concerned had been assaulted by loyalists of the AL after he reportedly wrote what were deemed derogatory words about Bangladesh’s first president and liberation movement icon, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on his Facebook page. In declining the plea for leniency as he ordered the student jailed, the magistrate said that there was sufficient documentary evidence available to warrant a summary conclusion of guilt.

On 27 March 2012 the Amar Desh, its acting editor Mahmudur Rahman, and four others, including a correspondent Walliullah Noman, in a case of defamation brought by the BTRC. The case arose from two reports published in the newspaper in October 2009, which were headlined “India Controls the BTRC”. Both Rahman, who was a senior advisor to the BNP leader Khalida Zia during her last tenure as Prime Minister, and Noman, were imprisoned on contempt charges by the Supreme Court in August 2010.  Noman had served a month-long sentence and Rahman, six months and an additional month for refusing to pay a fine.

Dhaka Metropolitan Magistrate Court framed charges against the daily

Since his release in March 2011, Rahman has had to respond to multiple cases of defamation brought against him, mostly by leaders and activists of the AL.

One of the most traumatic events of the year gone by was the twin murder of a journalist couple, Sagar Sarowar and Meherun Runi, in their home in Dhaka on 11 February 2012. Sarowar was a news editor for private television channel Maasranga, and his wife Runi was a senior reporter with another private television channel, ATN Bangla. Their bodies, both bearing deep stab wounds, were discovered on the morning of 12 February by a five-year old son.

As the official investigation failed to make much headway, Bangladesh’s journalists observed a one-hour work stoppage on 27 February. The demands for a thorough investigation and the swift arrest of those responsible, were made by a broad coalition of media organisations. Failing to get much of a response, the journalists unions began a relay hunger-strike on March 2.

Dhaka city police for their part, indicated they had a fair idea of the motive behind the crime, but could not reveal any details because that, ostensibly, would impede the investigation. A city court meanwhile, issued an order restraining “speculative media commentary” on the matter.

This was read by many as an effort to restrain legitimate investigative journalism. At the time that this report is sent to press, there has been no progress in the investigations, at least as far as the public are aware.