Friday, March 13, 2015

Daily Star: In the government's cross hairs


It is important that journalists and those concerned with free speech and the independence of the media in Bangladesh support the Daily Star and in particular its editor Mahfuz Anam who are under attack for publishing a picture of a wall poster of the banned Islamic organization Hizb-ut Tahrir under the heading 'Fanatics raise their ugly heads again' along with a caption:
“Taking advantage of the current political crisis in the country accompanied by wanton violence, banned extremist Islamist organisation Hizb-ut-Tahrir published and pasted posters in the capital in an attempt to foment unrest within the armed forces. This poster was found pasted on a wall in an alleyway near Bangla Motor intersection yesterday.”

First a lawyer lodged a case  against Mahfuz Anam and two journalists over the article suggesting that it was 'instigating' a breach of the peace, and a court on 15 February asked the police to investigate the matter.

Then three days later, on 18 February the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, was asked the following question in parliament:
"A nondescript poster in one corner of Banglamotor has been blown out of proportions on the pages of Daily Star. Carrying the poster of a banned outfit in the paper is surely helping it to propagate its cause."
And she responded, in the following way:
"We will move against those who help the Hizb-ut-Tahrir by publishing their posters in the paper …. "I don’t care whether they have written positively or negatively but by blowing up the visual image of this nondescript poster at a corner of Banglamotor which would have attracted no attention, the paper has helped the radical cause."
So much then for the independence of the executive and the judiciary!

Then then days later, the prime minister's son - who is also an adviser to the prime minister - then weighed in a blog post calling for three people** including Mahfuz Anam, to be arrested for sedition.
The Daily Star prints a half page copy of a poster by banned terrorist outfit Hizbut Tahrir urging army soldiers to overthrow the Government and seize power. This is all yet another conspiracy by our so called “civil society” to grab power.  ….. They disgust me. …. The Daily Star has written one false story after another about fake Chhattra League bombers, all of which have been refuted. Yet not one of them has demanded that BNP-Jamaat stop their violence. Now we know why. They want the violence to continue and indeed want to help the BNP-Jamaat kill more people. They want to blame our Awami League Government no matter what so that they can ride the Army’s coattails back to power just like 1/11. This is treason. They should all be arrested and tried.
One would want to dismiss these absurd allegations as the ridiculous rant of an inconsequential observer, but unfortunately, Sajeeb Wajed is the prime minister's son, an adviser to the prime minister. All in all, he has clout. When I and a group of foreign journalists interviewed Sajeb Wazed over a years ago after the 5 January election, he was asked about his relationship with his mother:
Q28: People say your mother does not rely on aides, she really makes her decisions herself. Does she ask ever you for advice, do you give it to her and does she take it? 
A28: All the time. She asks all our advisers most of the time, I will have two advisers going back and forth with me with opposing views and I have to present. We discuss everything. It is a very democratic process
So what he says matters.

A court order seeking investigation of the paper's editor and two journalists, followed up by a Prime Minister's statement that the paper will 'face action' and then the prime minister's son calling for the arrest of the editor on sedition. All in a matter of two weeks. This is serious intimidation. At the very least a shot across the bows, and perhaps a very clear warning against criticising the government, not just to the Daily Star but to other media.

Be aware. There are government loyalists out there scouring the papers, and blogs, looking for any opportunity to file legal cases against newspapers, TV stations (note ETV) and journalists whom they consider for one reason or the other to have crossed the line (I myself have suffered for this). The Daily Star and Prothom Alo - the country's two most successful papers - which take an independent position from the government - are however particularly in this government's cross-hairs. The Prime Minister stated in an interview a year ago (see Q16 and 17) that:
"both those newspapers, their only job is to see the dark. They cannot see any light."
And the prime minister's son has also previously attacked Prothom Alo as being 'anti-national'.

As to the article in the Daily Star, which started this whole thing, I could not write a better analysis of the situation that that written by Zafar Sobhan, the editor of the Dhaka Tribune and indeed by Mahfuz Anam himself which I am setting out below

First, Zafar Sobhan, article titled, 'Time for a pop quiz'
A newspaper publishes a picture of a poster put up by the banned extremist organization Hizb-ut Tahrir in an apparent attempt to foment unrest in the armed forces, under the heading: Fanatics raise their ugly heads again.

Below the picture, the caption reads:

“Taking advantage of the current political crisis in the country accompanied by wanton violence, banned extremist Islamist organisation Hizb-ut-Tahrir published and pasted posters in the capital in an attempt to foment unrest within the armed forces. This poster was found pasted on a wall in an alleyway near Bangla Motor intersection yesterday.”

What would you conclude was the intent of the newspaper and what would your response or reaction be?

(a) You would conclude that the newspaper had done a good job of informing you of a troubling development, and your reaction would be to hope that the government would take notice of this renewed threat.

(b) You would conclude that the newspaper has done a good job of passing on this stirring call to arms, and your reaction would be to waste no time in preparing yourself for the coming uprising against the tyranny of the state.

(c) You would conclude that the newspaper was in bed with HuT and was trying to stealthily advance its agenda under the guise of reporting the news, and your reaction would be to promise severe action against the offending newspaper and its editors.

If you answered (a), congratulations, you have passed elementary reading comprehension and responded in a logical and reasonable manner, as one would hope from a conscientious citizen.

If you answered (b), not only is your reading comprehension in need of remedial help, but you also may wish to find some new and better friends.

If you answered (c), congratulations, you are the prime minister of Bangladesh.

Please note that answering (c) means that you must believe that a not inconsiderable number of people answered (b).

I think that almost everyone who gives the question a fair-minded reading would answer (a) and that almost no one would answer (b). And if no one would answer (b), then it is clear that (c) is the wrong answer, too.

Except, of course, this isn’t just an academic exercise. The offending poster was in fact pasted all around Dhaka city on the night of February 10 and its picture was published on page 3 of The Daily Star the following day.

Not only has this resulted in a case being filed against the newspaper’s editor, chief news editor, and chief photographer, but the prime minister has helpfully weighed in, offering her opinion that “the paper has helped the radical cause” and promising stern action against the newspaper (to a chorus of sycophantic cheers in parliament).

Does anyone else (and I mean only those people who actually have their own opinion and cannot reliably be counted on to agree with anything the PM says) really believe that the Daily Star was attempting to stir up trouble by publishing this news item and picture?

Isn’t it clear that precisely the opposite is true, that the newspaper was trying to do what is its job to do: Namely to inform the public? Is this not an issue of public concern? Does the public not have a right to know that this kind of subversive activity is taking place? Is the offending poster not a matter of public interest?

And does anyone really believe that by publishing the picture, the newspaper advanced the agenda of the outlawed outfit and its supporters?

Section 505 of the Penal Code, under which the case has been brought, makes clear:

“Whoever makes, publishes, or circulates any statement, rumour, or report, with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, any officer, soldier, sailor, or airman in the Army, Navy, or Air Force of Bangladesh to mutiny or otherwise disregard or fail in his duty as such ... shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to seven years, or with fine, or with both.

It does not amount to an offence, within the meaning of this section, when the person making, publishing, or circulating any such statement, rumour, or report, has reasonable grounds for believing that such statement, rumour, or report is true and makes, publishes, or circulates it without any such intent as aforesaid.”

Was the picture published with any such intent or is there any such likelihood of such a reaction to its publication? To ask the question is to answer it.

The government has enough real enemies and enough real crime to deal with without having to manufacture imaginary ones.

What next? The government has already made it clear that it is unhappy with the way the media has covered the current crisis the country is going through. Next, perhaps it will be telling us what is acceptable to say about the crisis and what is not.

The government complains bitterly and constantly that the media is not foursquare behind it in its fight against terrorism. It is constantly telling the media that we should be on their side, and that to remain neutral in the current situation is to be a party to the terror.

But you can’t complain that you don’t get a fair shake from the media and question why they are not on your side at the same time as you are showering them with abuse and accusing them of being fifth columnists who are no better than the terrorists.
And by Mahfuz Anam, in the Daily Star, titled, 'Free media not the enemy'
Threat to Bangladesh's prosperity and democracy does not come from the free and independent media. It comes from terrorism. And you can only fight terrorism by taking the people with you, and that you can only do if you allow the free media to play its role. Hence, we must express our astonishment and complete shock at the PM's declaration on the floor of the parliament on Wednesday -- accompanied by table thumping of many MPs present -- that action will be taken against The Daily Star. Why? Because we reproduced, on February 11, a poster of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a banned organisation. We published a photograph of the poster with a big heading "Fanatics raise their ugly heads again". The caption said, "Taking advantage of the current political crisis in the country accompanied by wanton violence, banned extremist Islamist organisation Hizb-ut-Tahrir published and pasted posters in the capital in an attempt to foment unrest within the armed forces. This poster was found pasted on a wall in an alleyway near the Bangla Motor intersection yesterday."

Can there be any doubt as to the purpose behind our publication? The photograph, with its condemning heading and caption, makes it clear that our purpose was to warn the public and inform the government about how taking advantage of the present violence the banned outfit is trying to raise its "ugly head" with the dangerous propaganda.

The prime minister, however, felt differently, saying, "Publishing the poster of a banned organisation in a newspaper means helping to publicise that banned outfit. It is most unfortunate that The Daily Star gave such a huge space to publish a poster pasted in a corner of Bangla Motor of Hizb-ut-Tahrir… Perhaps none would have read that poster. Irrespective of whether (the paper) wrote in a negative or a positive way, I think giving such a big coverage to a poster is tantamount to patronising Hizb-ut-Tahrir…But I don't understand why they (The Daily Star) did this. However, we are taking appropriate action against those who are trying to patronise Hizb-ut-Tahrir by publishing its poster."

We want to unambiguously state that the prime minister's statement is ill advised, and no free and independent media will survive in Bangladesh if what has been said is implemented.

Let us first take the accusation that by reproducing the Hizb-ut-Tahrir poster we have helped with its publicity. In a lighter vein we want to point out that if we are "guilty" of taking a wayside poster and giving it coverage, the PM by her speech on the floor of the parliament gave the poster much more coverage than we could ever have.

More seriously, if terrorism is to be fought effectively, then public support behind it is a must. To get the requisite public support, the government and the free media must work hand in hand. This can be achieved only by allowing the free media to play its due role of informing, and in necessary cases, (as in this one) alerting the public and the government as to what the terrorists are doing, what they are saying, who they are targeting, and how they are going about it. It is the duty of the media to let the public know what is going on, especially the activities of organisations that mean to harm our state, our independence, our society, and our culture.

If informing the public and the government of activities of terrorist outfits is tantamount to helping to publicise them, then the whole world's media is "guilty" of the "crime" that The Daily Star is supposed to have committed.

Every action, every word, and every video rendering of Osama bin Laden or his successor Ayman al Zawahiri which were uploaded in some obscure Al Qaeda websites were immediately taken by the Al Jazeeras, BBCs, and the CNNs of the world, and published by the media of almost every country of the globe, including Bangladesh.

Were we then all supporters of bin Laden? Was the British media supporting the IRA when for decades it covered their terrorist activities and reported on their secret networks, often publishing IRA's secret plans of attacking the British army? More recently after the bus bombing in London and the bombing in Birmingham, the UK and the world media covered them extensively. The Basque separatists (ETA) in Spain are regularly covered by the Spanish media. Terrorist bodies in Denmark, Germany, and France are under constant media focus. Often they publish exclusive interviews, organisational manifestos, or plans of action. Never the media of these countries are accused of helping the terrorists.

Are we helping Boko Haram by publishing their atrocities? Would the world be better off if we ignored what they had done to nearly three hundred schoolgirls, and the recent killings of the people of other faiths?

What about the brutalities of ISIS? Is the media guilty of helping them by telling the world about them?

In our region, does not the Filipino media cover the activities of Moro National Liberation Front and its offshoot, Abu Sayyaf Group, in Mindanao? These are separatist bodies wanting to disintegrate the country. Still the media covers them as diligently as possible. In fact the media helped to steer a dialogue between the government and the separatists who have now signed a peace deal, and are being absorbed in the mainstream of the Philippines.

Closer to home, does not the Indian media cover the activities of its own extremist groups? For decades, they have been writing about the separatists in the seven sisters. More recently after the attack on the Indian parliament, and the attacks on Taj Hotel and Mumbai railway station, terrorism and extremism is one of the most important areas of coverage by the Indian media.

Pakistan is being torn asunder by terrorists. Many Pakistani journalists are being killed while covering them. Are they helping the terrorists or helping the fight against them?

Focusing on our own country, have not the media done a sterling job in raising public awareness, helping our anti-terrorism efforts?

Perhaps the most illustrative case for us is that of Bangla Bhai. He came to spotlight in 2004 when his JMJB (Jagrata Muslim Janata, Bangladesh) and JMB (Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh) started killing people in Rajshahi and Naogaon areas in the name of cleansing the districts' outlaws.

On May 17 of that year, Bangla Bhai rounded up three individuals, killed one of them after three days, and hung his body from a tree for the public to see.

The Daily Star and the Prothom Alo exposed the workings of this terrorist group and created public awareness about them. It was The Daily Star that published a huge picture of the hanging body and rang the alarm about Bangla Bhai's activities.

The erstwhile premier Khaleda Zia, in a meeting with editors in August 2004, said, "Bangla Bhai does not exist. It is a media creation."

In March 2005, on the floor of the parliament, Khaleda Zia said, "It's a propaganda against the government and the country. And it is aimed at causing a rift within the four-party alliance."

Thankfully she did not order any action against those of us who were most vocal in exposing the extremist-terrorist outfit.

Her finance minister, Saifur Rahman, dubbed the onset of Islamic militancy across the country as nothing but "foul propaganda" by a section of the media. "Taking advantage of the press freedom, some media outlets (read The Daily Star and the Prothom Alo, also the present suspects) have been making propaganda about fake issues like human rights violation, emergence of fundamentalist forces, and repression on minorities. A section of the print and electronic media is carrying out well-orchestrated propaganda against the government."

Similar statements were made by other ministers of BNP-led four-party government, including Nizami, Amini, and others.

Did The Daily Star give publicity to Bangla Bhai when it informed the public about him or was it alerting the public, and especially the government to fight against them? Was The Daily Star helping Bangla Bhai when we published the horrendous picture of the man, executed by the terrorist outfit, hanging from a tree?

The incumbent prime minister said, "Irrespective of whether the paper wrote in a negative or positive way… giving such a big coverage of the poster is tantamount to patronising Hizb-ut-Tahrir." How can this be? The editorial position of a paper is its very "heart and soul". Differing editorial positions is the very raison d'ĂȘtre that so many newspapers exist. It is the fundamental reason why people prefer one newspaper to another. Are we to understand that the PM sees no difference in the coverage of the on-going war crime trials, or saw no difference in the past coverage of the tragic BDR incident and the subsequent trial?

Following Sayedee's verdict, a rumour was deliberately spread that an image of his face could be seen on the surface of the moon. Many papers published the picture of that image including The Daily Star, just to prove that the photo was doctored. So if "negative or positive" makes no difference, then are we not guilty of giving the fake picture a publicity by publishing it?

We printed the infamous photoshopped pictures showing the Imams from the Holy Kaaba gathering in support of Sayedee. The Daily Star exposed the fraud by publishing those fake pictures alongside the real ones. Again if "negative" or "positive" made no difference then the printing of those fake pictures alongside the real ones makes us guilty of giving publicity to the fake ones.

When Hefajat claimed thousands to be dead, after an action by law enforcers that evicted them from the Bangladesh Bank area, it was this newspaper -- because it had few reporters and photographers placed all night on site -- which could resolutely assert that the death toll during the night was 12 or 13, with several others dying from later incidents. If "negative" or "positive" is "irrelevant" then those who claimed thousands dead and those of us who contested, were no different.

Again if "negative" or "positive" makes no difference, then how to differentiate between newspapers that contested Tarique Rahman's recent distorted and false claims about Bangabandhu and our Liberation War, and those who just published his views without comments?

We would like to draw our prime minister's attention to the fact that the workings of the media can be seen in two broad perspectives -- democratic and totalitarian.

In the democratic perspective the fundamental belief is that an "informed public" is the best guarantor of national interest, and all sorts of democratic freedoms. Thus in this dispensation all information is made available to the public, so that they judge what is good and what is bad for the nation. No restriction is put on the media.

In the totalitarian way of things, the view is that the government is the best guarantor of national interest, and hence the public will only know as much as the government allows it to know. It is often said that of the many reasons why the Soviet experiment collapsed, one of the main ones was the absence of a free media. The Soviet leaders just did not know the truth about the country they were governing, and thus had no idea that it was collapsing under their own feet.

Coming back to the Hizb-ut-Tahrir poster, we printed it for the sole purpose of informing the public and the government that a banned organisation is again becoming active. The poster was not only pasted in a corner of Bangla Motor but in many other parts of the city. The photo, our heading, and the caption make the nefarious aim of the banned organisation very clear.

There is no way one can misinterpret our "intent" which is how a media report must ultimately be judged, unless it is a deliberate exercise to the contrary. Our purpose was to "serve the public" by informing them, which is the only way to build a strong and participatory democracy. Is the nation better served when such information is kept hidden from the public eye, or when it is shared with them so that every citizen of the country can resist those both individually and collectively?

We conclude by saying -- which is an article of faith with us -- that in any clash between a government and a free media, the government wins, but only in the short run. It is the free media that wins in the long run, with some valuable nation building time being lost in the interim period. It is our hope that this will not happen in Bangladesh which is poised to grow sustainably only if democracy and the free media are allowed to play their designated roles. We have no time to lose.

** Full disclosure: One of the three attacked in Sajeeb Wajed's blog happened to be my father-in-law, Dr Kamal Hossain.

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