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Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Where do adolescents stand in our agenda?

With all the focus on adults and children, adolescents slip through the cracks


The neglect of the need for adolescent development and protection by 2030 in Bangladesh is likely to harm the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), early girl-child marriage, child bride pregnancies, and infant mortality amid the coronavirus pandemic.

A private think-tank, the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), critiquing the budget, said it didn’t prioritize lives and livelihoods, even though the Finance Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal claimed in the Jatiya Sangsad (parliament) that it was focused on livelihood.

In the case of adolescents in the scenario, inadequate fund allocation of the government has impeded the implementation of the adolescent health program.

Dripping disbursement of funds has affected the program implementation for more than one-fifth of the population of adolescents in our country.

Nevertheless, there is a National Strategy for Adolescent Health 2017-2030. As usual, from 2017 until now, there is no visible progress in providing adolescent service.

In fact, different governmental departments, as well as national and international NGOs, are implementing the adolescent health program -- unfortunately, it does not cover the entire adolescent population of the country.

The policy-makers, politicians, and a segment of the society believe that the population are children and adults only, sans adolescents. This notion has trained the mindset of parents and community leaders, as they do not recognize the need for adolescent health care services.

It’s worth appreciating that the government has a political commitment from policy-makers and community representatives to implement the program according to the laws related to the rights of the child.

As Wahida Banu, executive director of Aparajeyo Bangladesh, said, the adolescent program should be expanded to all levels of the country involving government, NGOs, and civil society to cover all adolescents.

It was indeed a frustrating initiative to establish Adolescent Friendly Health Services (AFHS) corners in all educational institutes, including schools and health centres in the country for providing medicines, sanitary napkins, and health advice and counselling.

Bangladesh is home to 36 million adolescents, making up 22% of the population. But adolescent-friendly services are not a familiar concept, remarked Wahida Banu.

Both Plan International and Aparajeyo Bangladesh fear that the present coronavirus pandemic has begun to take its toll on the high rate of child marriage -- adolescent girls in Bangladesh are at risk from early pregnancies, violence, and a lack of nutrition.

Of the women aged between 20 and 24, as many as 53% were married before the age of 18. There is a high fertility rate among adolescents, coupled with their families who have limited awareness of health needs.

As understood, adolescents lack access to health facilities and information on hygiene, especially during first menstruation, said Rehan Uddin Ahmed Raju, who conducted a research on “Analysis of Annual NPoA Budget of the National Strategy for Adolescent Health 2017-2030” on behalf of Plan International and Aparajeyo Bangladesh.

Raju stressed the need for the government’s urgent intervention for the adolescent population in the country during the Covid-19 outbreak.

This includes key information on reproductive health, nutrition, and psycho-social counselling. These conditions contribute to high mortality rates of newborns in Bangladesh, besides neonatal and maternal morbidities.

The program for the adolescent population needs to be augmented at the soonest, and Wahida Banu fears that urgent action is needed to achieve the targets, in order to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 23 June 2021

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at Twitter @saleemsamad

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

The elections that broke Pakistan

Independence hero Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Pakistan military junta President, Genera Yayha Khan (right)


The inclusive elections were the first since Pakistan was carved out in 1947

A separate state for Indian Muslims to live happily ever after in Pakistan came to a dead end after Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s brainchild -- the controversial “two-nation theory” -- collapsed after 24 years, when East Pakistan bifurcated and became Bangladesh.

Apparently, the free, fair, and credible general elections held in 1970 stirred a political hype in the eastern province of Pakistan and led to the gradual realization of their identity as a nation-state. 51 years ago, the general elections of the national and provincial assemblies were held on December 7, 1970 -- to elect members of the National Assembly. The inclusive elections were the first since Pakistan was carved out in 1947.

The top-secret intelligence message transmitted from Dhaka to the Rawalpindi GHQ of the hawks of the Pakistan Army predicted that the Awami League would get one-third of seats, while factions of the Muslim League, the Pakistan Democratic Party (PDP), and other Islamist parties would hold two-third majority. The Rawalpindi hawks were confident that a political coalition could be easily matched to corner Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s party, the Awami League.

Probably due to the physical distance of 1,000 miles between the two wings of Pakistan, with the huge India in the middle, the “mango people” (aam janata) had no clue about the rulers of Pakistan and the ruling bourgeoisie class.

A fierce contest began between two socialist democratic parties, the eastern political party Awami League, and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in the western region, over who would govern Pakistan. The time for the electoral test arrived in 300 constituencies, of which 162 were in East Pakistan and 138 were in West Pakistan.

The Awami League became the single majority in the eastern wing, while the PPP managed to make a dent in the two provinces of Sindh and Punjab, but were rejected in Balochistan and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) provinces. In reality, the PPP faced stiff competition from the conservative factions of the Muslim League, the largest of which was the Muslim League (Qayyum), the pro-Marxist National Awami Party (Wali), as well as Islamist parties like Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), and Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP).

The result was a victory for the Awami League, which won an absolute majority of 160 seats, all of which were in East Pakistan.

This victory was a big test for the flamboyant politician Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, leading the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), who won only 81 seats out of 138 seats in the western region. Nevertheless, the two leading parties failed to add feathers in their caps and become a national political party in 1970.

In the five provincial elections held 10 days later, the Awami League swept in East Pakistan, while the PPP were the winning party in Punjab and Sindh. The Marxist National Awami Party emerged victorious in the then NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and restive Balochistan.

During the political impasse on March 1, 1971, the Rawalpindi hawks unilaterally cancelled the first National Assembly scheduled in Dhaka to blackmail Sheikh Mujib to come into their terms for the handover of power.

Unfortunately, the military dictator Yayha Khan’s parley with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in mid-March reached a stalemate, as the latter refused to withdraw Martial Law, clamped in March 1969.

Mujib argued that Martial Law must be withdrawn before the parliament session commenced.

48 hours after the dialogue collapsed, the “Operation Searchlight” genocidal campaign was launched.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 8 June 2021

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at; Twitter @saleemsamad

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

The last 10 days of East Pakistan



On March 15, 1971, Yahya Khan arrived in Dhaka amid growing political unrest and no light at the end of the tunnel. His mission was to halt the “civil disobedience movement” called by Awami League leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Rawalpindi GHQ insisted that Yayha Khan needed to make a final bid to ensure Pakistan’s integrity after meeting Sheikh Mujib. The following day, Sheikh Mujib met Yahya Khan at Bailey Road. 

Mistrust and suspicion between Mujib and Yahya had heightened to such an extreme level that their first meeting had to take place in the bathroom of the Presidential Suite. The Awami League leader refused to hold parleys in the President’s House drawing-room on suspicion that it could be bugged, writes Ian Talbot, author of Pakistan: A Modern History.

In an hour-long parley, President Yahya wanted to justify the cancellation of the maiden National Assembly session on March 1, 1971, whilst Sheikh Mujib remained defiant on his demand to withdraw the martial law.

Meanwhile, the non-cooperation movement coupled with street agitation continued.

Yayha was dragging his feet on the withdrawal of the martial law promulgation. He argued that if martial law was abrogated, there would be a “constitutional vacuum.” Mujib quickly said that he would request his advisers to sit with the president’s advisers to work out a formula that would resolve the so-called “constitutional vacuum.”

On Mujib’s advice, Dr Kamal Hossain met the president’s principal staff officer Gen SGM Peerzada and argued that under no circumstances did the postponement of the national assembly session, scheduled to be held in Dhaka, have any justification.

On March 17, Mujib-Yahya’s closed door parley resumed again. As usual, neither the Hawks in Rawalpindi nor the Awami League’s party office issued any media statement. Thus the media was publishing speculative news in Dhaka and Karachi.

Meanwhile, the Awami League rejected the formation of a 5-member probe body to determine why the army was called into action and the reasons behind the killing of agitating people during the shutdown.

Instead, the Awami League formed an alternative 3-member enquiry committee consisting of Captain Mansur Ali, Khondaker Mostaq Ahmad, and Abidur Reza.

On March 19, a third round of parley between Mujib-Yahya was held and it was decided that there would be another meeting the following day. Representatives from both sides had a separate meeting to formulate the basis of discussion for the impending meeting to break the political impasse. Failing to negotiate, President Yahya and Sheikh Mujib were at a standstill along with their advisors on March 20 for two hours. In fact, it was to be their last meeting. Yahya Khan was shrewdly leading towards an inclusive meeting to prove that the dialogue had entered a dead end.

On the call of Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani to observe “Swadhin Purba Bangla Dibash” on the Republic Day of Pakistan on March 23 -- except the government buildings and military garrisons –– all over the country, the independent Bangladesh flag was hoisted.

While the dialogue was in progress, the Rawalpindi Hawks secretly prepared its infamous genocidal plan -- “Operation Searchlight” -- which was launched at midnight on March 25. Hours later, Sheikh Mujib was detained and flown to Karachi.

First Published in the Dhaka Tribune, 1 June 2021

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at <>; Twitter @saleemsamad

Threat of Legal Action Chills Journalism in Bangladesh

Activists hold placards during a demonstration demanding the repeal of the Digital Security Act, in Dhaka on February 27, 2021


SRINAGAR, INDIA: Bangladesh's Digital Security Act is hastening the country's decline in press freedom, with authorities using the legislation to jail journalists and others who are critical of the government and its response to the coronavirus pandemic, local media and analysts say.

In 2020 alone, the law was used to charge around 900 people, including several journalists, according to Amnesty International. 

Bangladesh's information minister, Hasan Mahmud, has said in interviews that the act is needed to protect people online. But rights groups and local journalist associations say the Digital Security Act and other laws, including the Official Secrets Act that was used to detain an investigative reporter in May, are adding to pressures for journalism.  

Activists shout slogans during a protest against the Digital Security Act (DSA), in Dhaka on March 3, 2021, following the death…

Kamal Ahmed, a Dhaka-based freelance journalist, said that even before the widely criticized law was passed in 2018, the country was on a downhill trajectory.   

The space for critical journalism has been shrinking along with a distrust in the election process, following a 2013 vote boycotted by the opposition, Ahmed said. The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has become more authoritarian and intolerant to criticism, which is driving the persecution of the voices of dissent and criticism, he added.  

According to media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Hasina's government has "taken a markedly tough line with media." RSF cited the Digital Security Act and prosecutions related to pandemic coverage when it ranked Bangladesh 152 out of 180, where 1 is freest, on its annual press freedom index. 

The Center for Governance Studies, an independent Bangladeshi research group, says the Digital Security Act has been used most against opposition politicians, followed closely by journalists. 

In an April report, the organization concluded that the law has "disproportionately impacted the journalists" and is an obstacle to press freedom. Its data found "that activists and supporters of the ruling party have been able to create a frightening situation using the law."  

Bangladesh's Sampadak Parishad, or Editors' Council, was one of the groups that opposed the law from the start. "Our fear is now a nightmare-reality for the mass media," the council said after arrests of Ahmed Kabir Kishore, a cartoonist, and Mushtaq Ahmed, a writer, in May 2020. 

Bangladeshi students clash with police during a protest in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Monday, March 1, 2021. About 300 student…

Mushtaq Ahmed was denied bail several times and died in prison on February 25. 

His death and the ramping up of prosecutions is leading to calls for the law to be reformed and press freedom to be better protected.  

During the pandemic, dozens of journalists who covered corruption or reported on cases of food aid being taken from poorer regions, were hit with legal complaints, said Saleem Samad, an award-winning Dhaka-based journalist. "Those who dared critiquing of the pandemic health care management were also prosecuted under repressive [Digital Security Act]," Samad said. 

The act has resulted in widespread self-censorship, especially among the newsroom gatekeepers, Samad said, adding that in-depth stories on corruption and accountability of elected representatives or lawmakers are missing in the media.  

Bangladesh's Ministry of Information and Broadcasting did not respond to VOA's emailed requests for comment.  

Speaking after the death of Mushtaq Ahmed, Information Minister Mahmud said that he and the government are "cautious … that no journalist is victimized by  misuse of the act." Authorities have also said they are reviewing the law to ensure it cannot be abused.  

Legal challenges 

The Digital Security Act is not the only legislation that media and analysts say is being used to target critical reporting. Journalists can also face charges under the sedition law and Official Secrets Act. 

Samad has firsthand experience of this, having being detained for several months on sedition charges while working on a documentary for Britain's Channel 4 Unreported World series in November 2002. The journalist ultimately had to leave the country and said he returned in 2010, only when his case was finally quashed.   

More recently, reporter Rozina Islam of the Prothom Alo newspaper was detained under the 1923 Official Secrets Act, following a complaint lodged by a Health Ministry official.

Bangladeshi journalist Rozina Islam, center, is escorted by police to a court in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Tuesday, May 18, 2021…

Bangladesh Arrests Journalist Known for Unearthing Graft

Islam is known for reporting on corruption involving the Ministry of Health and others

Islam was charged with photographing government papers in violation of the act and penal code. She was detained briefly on May 17 at the Shahbagh police station in Dhaka and could face up to 14 years in prison or even the death penalty if convicted. 

Sajjad Sharif, managing editor of Prothom Alo, told VOA the court has granted his reporter bail.  

"She is right now admitted in the hospital and is undergoing physiological treatment as she was mentally harassed and traumatized as well during her detention," Sharif said. 

Naman Aggarwal, the global digital identity lead and Asia Pacific policy counsel at digital rights organization Access Now, said both the Official Secrets Act and Digital Security Act provide the government with wide powers to contain critical speech under the camouflage of protecting national security or cybersecurity. 

The government is able to take down content it deems "fake, obscene, or defaming" or damaging to the state or religious sentiment, and prosecute people based on ambiguous standards, Aggarwal said.  

A Bangladeshi reporter based in Dhaka, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told VOA that a few years back only a few politicians showed their anger by showing muscle power or via the legal system, but nowadays even high up officials are taking action. "It becomes quite harder to do corruption-related news nowadays," the reporter said.   

Mohammad Tauhidul Islam, a special correspondent for the business desk of Maasranga Television, believes that journalists are becoming more cautious. "The journalists are maintaining an undeclared line not to question government high ups." Islam said, who is of no relation to Prothom Alo reporter Rozina Islam.  

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington-based research group, told VOA he believes the pressure on media is driven by Dhaka's desire to control public narratives. Authoritarian moves in recent years include efforts to rein in any form of dissent, including from the political opposition and civil society, he said. 

To its credit, Bangladesh's media corps has responded with loud and frequent condemnations that run the risk of prompting additional government crackdowns, Kugelman said.  

"The media in Bangladesh has not shied away from taking a strong stand on behalf of press freedoms," Kugelman said. "In fact it has been leading from the front in this effort, with press freedom watchdogs abroad adding their support."  

First published in Voice Of America (VOA), 1 June 2021