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”.
It was a time of heightening confrontation in
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”. Bangladesh
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 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”. AL
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
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. Bangladesh
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
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”. Bangladesh
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,
is home to a variety of ideas and opinions about the war of liberation that brought the nation into being in 1971. Bangladesh
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
’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. Bangladesh
These hopes were belied in quick time. On 2 October 2011, New Age, one of
’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 Bangladesh since 2003 with a background in both the print and visual media and a long-standing interest in the war of liberation. Bangladesh
No contempt involved in demanding fair play
A seeming political vendetta
Dhaka Metropolitan Magistrate Court framed charges against the daily
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.