Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Daily Star, media ethics and hypocrisy - 12 things you need to know

After a two month hiatus, the BangladeshPolitico blog is back .... and there is much to catch up with.

Lets first start with the big media story of the moment.

Just days before The Daily Star celebrated its 25th anniversary, its editor Mahfuz Anam was questioned on the ATN News* Television channel about the paper's role during the state of emergency that took place between 2007 to 2009.

This was the period when - with a looming manipulated election on the horizon - the military took over, installed a civilian caretaker government, and remained in power over two years before holding elections that brought the Awami League back to power in 2009.

During this period, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, the leaders of the country's two main political parties were arrested (and placed in house detention) and charged with corruption - on the basis of evidence provided by other politicians and businessman who also had also been arrested in droves.

It looks like Mahfuz had no idea that he was going to be questioned about this matter - and one of his responses during the exchange has created a firestorm in the county.

The exchange
The relevant part of the interview started with a bdnews24 correspondent, Nasir Uddin Ahmed, accusing the Daily Star of 'preparing' and 'leading the field' for the arrest of Sheikh Hasina in 2007 by publishing an article in the newspaper which claimed that Sheikh Salim had accused his cousin Sheikh Hasina of 'taking money from people everyday'.

The Daily Star editor responded by saying that the complaint should be 'against the entire media, as every newspaper, other than New Age had published the same news'. Nasir replied to this by saying that bdnews24 also did not publish this news. Mahfuz then made this final comment, and it is this which has been the focus of attacks against him:
"I think that during my entire journalist life, the news provided to…..the news that was provided by DGFI was unsubstantiated. I was not able to prove it independently, I wrote that I was not able to verify it independently. But if you ask me, in my entire life as a journalist and editor, it was a big mistake. I have done a mistake. I should not have published the news that DGFI had provided. It was a bad editorial judgment. I admit it without any doubt."
You can read a translation of the relevant part of the interview at the end of this post (and the original bangla TV interview can be seen here)

What articles were being referred to?
In relation to Hasina's alleged corruption, it seems the the online newspaper reporter was mixing up two different articles published by the Daily Star. One, which was published on 22 June was titled: 'Confession in court: Selim shared extortion money with Hasina'. It stated that:
Detained Awami League (AL) leader Sheikh Fazlul Karim Selim yesterday confessed to a metropolitan magistrate that he shared with former prime minister and AL chief Sheikh Hasina Tk 2.99 crore he extorted from the managing director of a power company. Details of his confessional statement given to Metropolitan Magistrate ABM Abdul Fattah in the extortion case could not however be known.
Azam J Chowdhury, managing director of Eastcoast Trading Private Ltd, filed the case against Hasina and her cousin Selim with Gulshan Police Station on June 13 for extorting over Tk 2.99 crore. .......
The AL presidium member, arrested on May 29, was brought to the magistrate's chamber at 3:40pm and taken away at 6:00pm after his statement was recorded.
Selim's lawyers however raised questions over this since he was not given three hours to think about confession before his statement was recorded.
His counsel Kamrul Islam submitted a petition to the magistrate saying that his client's confessional statement was not recorded lawfully.
The second one was published on 3 June 2007. It was titled: 'Hasina regularly took money from magnates: Jalil tells joint forces'. This stated:
'The detained high profile political and business leaders continue to divulge startling information to the Task Force for Interrogation (TFI) about their corruption.According to their confessions political party high-ups and government ministers were submerged in rampant nomination trade during elections, shared among them regular monetary contributions from businessmen and foreign companies in exchange for government business contracts, and extorted money from suspected criminals in exchange for saving them from the law.
Detained former FBCCI president Abdul Awal Mintoo might be made a state witness in the case against Awami League (AL) president Sheikh Hasina in connection with a high-tech frigate purchase scam, sources said. Mintoo told interrogators that Korean company Daewoo bribed Hasina Tk 1 crore to close the deal. The amount was deposited to an account which she supposedly has been using for the purposes of her party politics on her own discretion.
Sources said detained AL General Secretary Abdul Jalil told TFI that his party chief Hasina regularly received money from several industrialists and businessmen. He said she used to receive Tk 50 lakh to Tk 1 crore from each of those businessmen before launching any political programme or a movement.
Jalil also confessed that before the recently stalled general election, established businessmen and other wealthy people competed for AL tickets, and it was not a problem for people with illegally earned money to win party nominations, the sources said. .......
The response
The Prime Minister's son, Sajeeb Wajed, stated on his Facebook page that 'I want Mahfuz Anam behind bars and on trial for treason'. Then the Prime Minister's nephew, Barrister Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh, initiated a debate in parliament stating that Mahfuz Anam had “confessed” that he ran stories in his newspaper in 2007
“as part of a conspiracy to create grounds to banish Sheikh Hasina from politics, file false cases against her and put her in jail. .... He published those fabricated, false and cooked-up stories in The Daily Star without confirming or verifying authenticity of the information provided by the DGFI [Directorate General of Forces Intelligence]. ... I demand resignation of Mahfuz Anam for carrying out propaganda and for publishing reports on those false allegations... I demand that the newspaper be shut immediately. ....  Journalism is a noble profession, but he has disgraced it. He has no right to be a journalist any more. Steps should be taken so that he cannot do journalism any more.
The barrister also argued that the Daily Star editor should be prosecuted for the constitutional provision of 'sedition'. Six other members of parliament made similar criticisms. (They are an extraordinary set of attacks, and it is worth while reading them here)

Since then two Student leaders of the governing party have filed defamation cases alleging that the Daily Star editor has defamed the prime minister of the country. Then two days, later another two people had done the same in different parts of the country. And finally, an assistant public prosecutor  is now seeking to prosecute Mahfuz Anam for 'sedition'.

Here are the 12 points that you need to know about this fiasco

1. This is not the biggest story about DGFI and the media going on right now

The most important and current story relating to Directorate General Forces Intelligence and the media concerns how in August 2015, the military intelligence agency has ordered the country's major businesses (including all the mobile phone companies and Unilever, Bangladesh's leading consumer product company) from advertising in both the Daily Star, and its sister paper, Prothom Alo - the country's two most read English language and Bengali language papers respectively. (Also see link here, about this)

The order has no basis in law - the DGFI nor any other government body has the authority to make such an order - and it is simply 'enforced' through the authority that comes from being the country's most feared intelligence agency. As a result, the papers have lost about one one third of its income. The verbal extra-legal order remains in place, five months on

The advertising blockade is about seeking to bring the independent media in line, and to give a message to all the press that the government can take action against it if it crosses a line. No one quite knows where the line is, and so everyone plays safe to protect themselves. By 2019, government strategists no doubt hope that the media will be sufficiently fearful that it will help ensure a smooth transition to a new Awami League government. The poor reporting in the recent municipal elections - compared to the  much more critical reporting of the City corporate elections in April 2015 - is testament to how this strategy is succeeding.

It is this intimidatory action, against the leading independent newspapers that is the greatest cause of concern relating to media ethics and the freedom of media in the country.

2. No Bangladesh media has reported on the blockade of Daily Star and Prothom Alo

There is not a single newspaper and TV editor in this country who does not know about the blockade, and Telenor (the owner of Grameen Phone) has also also given a statement acknowledging that it has been coerced into stopping advertising - yet not one of the nearly thirty TV stations (including ATN News*) nor one of the countless newspapers (including has reported about this intimidation of the Daily Star and Prothom Alo.

3. The criticism of the Daily Star is part of an attempt to crush independent media

The vitriolic attacks on the Daily Star and the legal harassment of its editor over his recent interview are not part of upholding any principled journalism. It is certainly the case that the Daily Star has practiced some shoddy journalism (see below) - but the same criticisms could be made of any number of newspapers and editors both in their reporting between 2007-9, and from 2009 to the present day. With a few exceptions (and my former paper New Age is amongst them), the failures of the Daily Star are the failures of all Bangladesh media. All that has changed is that since 2009, is that it is opposition politicians/activists from the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami whose 'confessions' are written about or whose alleged criminal conduct are the subject of unattributed law enforcement sources. And the Awami League loyalists of course have no problem with that at all.

No, there is no principle here. These nasty and vicious criticisms have a similar motive as the advertising blockade - an attempt to close down, or at least subdue, any influential independent media or dissent that is not within their control.

4. The attacks on Daily Star (and its sister paper, Prothom Alo) are part of a pattern

It is important to remember that these attacks are part of a pattern - any opportunity to attack and criticize these papers, the government and its proxies will take.  In March 2015, prior to the current vicious attacks  and the advertising embargo, in response to a news article published in the Daily Star writing about a Hizb-ut-Tahrir poster, the prime minister stated in Parliament that:
"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."
And the prime minister's son stated then:
"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.
Criminal cases were also lodged against Mahfuz Anam over this.

And then back in May 2014, Wazed posted another Facebook post, attacking Prothom Alo:
"I am shocked that Prothom Alo, our largest Bengali newspaper, referred to our War of Liberation as an India-Pakistan war. By doing so they have insulted the memories of 3 million martyrs who were brutally murdered during the war. I consider this a heinous offence and those responsible must be sacked immediately.
It, however, does not surprise me. If you will recall, during the military regime from 2007-2008 Prothom Alo quite openly backed the dictatorship. They have proven time and again that they do not believe in democracy.
Now they have proven that they do not even believe in Bangladesh. Let us boycott Prothom Alo and send them a message. We will oppose anyone who does not support Bangladesh.”
And after this the Prothom Alo building was attack by pro-government activists.

5. The Daily Star did not support the army in politics - nor the arrest of Sheikh Hasina

What is particularly sad about this imbroglio is how politician and journalists have sought to traduce the reputation of the Daily Star by falsely accusing it of being 'against democracy', 'supporting the army in politics', and 'seeking the arrest of Sheikh Hasina'.

As the Daily Star has itself illustrated by the re-publication of two articles here and here, this was not the paper's position at the time of the state of emergency. It has a much more nuanced view, and one must of course not forget that the Awami League itself supported the initial 'take-over' of the army in January 2007.

6. Reporting on 'confessional' statements is highly problematic in the context of Bangladesh

Articles relying on court confessions, which are not held in public, are problematic in two ways. First, the reporter is often relying on interviews with unnamed law enforcement/judicial officers, to find out about the contents of a confession which is given in private. To what extent can these law enforcement officials, who have a vested interest in the news being reported in a particular way, be trusted to provide an accurate summary of the confession?

At the very least, before writing about a confession in court, a journalist needs to be certain what an accused has stated - and unless the reporters sees a copy of the signed confession, s/he should not publish it. The Daily Star article itself stated that 'details [of the confession] ....could not however be known' suggesting that they had not seen a signed statement setting out the contents of the alleged confession.

Secondly, confessions in Bangladesh are known to be very often the result of coercion and  torture. So, if a newspaper does decide that it is going to report any confession it must add a caveat stating that it is common for accused to be tortured whilst in police custody. In relation to the Daily Star article, how likely was it that Selim would have provided such a statement against Hasina unless there was a high degree of coercion? The Daily Star however should be given credit for including  a quote from  Selim's lawyer who said that he 'was not given three hours to think about confession before his statement was recorded' as required and therefore the confession was 'unlawful'.

7. Selim did give a 'confessional statement' to the magistrate

For all the huffing and puffing about the Daily Star article on Selim's accusations against Hasina, it was the case that Selim did give a 'confessional' statement implicating Hasina in some way - and that was basically what the article stated. Not much else.

8. Poor reporting on 'confessions' is widespread in Bangladesh media

It is extremely common for all kinds of newspapers, including bdnews24, to publish articles based upon confessional statements - where it is not clear that the reporters have actually seen the  signed confessional statement and where the report does not mention the likely coercion/torture that has taken place before the confession was given.

So bdnews24 very often report on 'confessions' (sometimes putting the words in inverted commas, and sometimes not) without providing any source. An example is this recent article titled: 'Pakistan diplomat's links with terror groups revealed'. This is based on a confessional statement of someone called Idris.
'In his judicial confession before Dhaka Metropolitan Magistrate Abdullah Al Masud under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), Idris named Second Secretary Fareena Arshad as the diplomat he was in contact with.'
It is not clear if the reporter saw an actual copy of the signed statement. Even if he did, there is nothing stated about the very likely torture that would have preceded the so called 'confession'.

In another article concerning an alleged gang rape, stated:
'Sakibul Islam Babu and Aslam Hossain testified before a magistrate on Saturday, confessing their involvement in the gang-rape. .....
They told the court that Arif was the one who planned to rape the girl. There was another man named ‘Haider’ with him. Babu let ‘Arif’ and ‘Haider’ use the building.'
How does the reporter know what was told in court? In an article on a so called confession given in relation to the killing of the Italian national Cesare Tavella, it is very clear that the reporter had not seen any document, as he talks about 'reportedly'.
One of four suspects, arrested over Italian citizen Cesare Tavella’s murder in Dhaka last month, has reportedly confessed before a Dhaka court to his involvement in the crime. 
So the Daily Star's reporting on the confession is reflected throughout Bangladesh media.

9. Reports on the basis of unattributed law enforcement officer statement is poor journalism

The second 2007 Daily Star article on alleged corruption involving Sheikh Hasina contains information apparently obtained from law enforcement officials who may or may not have questioned detained individuals. There is no attempt to substantiate the allegations. The story is simply an amalgamation of stories given by law enforcement officials which may or may not be true. There is no thought given to whether the police are telling the truth or whether the detained people may have said these things under coercion. This is poor journalism

But again, such reports were common in the Bangladesh media between 2007 and 2009 and remain common now.

In this article in the Dhaka Tribune, for example, Investigators: Jamaat-Shibir planned to kill secular VIPs on November 1, the alleged statements of a man detained by the police are given - but all anonymously sourced. The reporter just speaks to an officer known to him or her, and publishes what they say, anonymously.

Such examples are common throughout Bangladesh media right now - with opposition activists and politicians being the targets.

10. A wake-up call for Bangladesh media

The focus on Daily Star's journalism during the state of emergency has done one good thing - it has shone a light on the problems in the way in which much of the Bangladesh media report information given by law enforcement officials. Statements, often anonymous ones, given by law enforcement and intelligence officers, are published without any thought to whether the reporters have any evidence to substantiate the allegation. Whilst reporting of on-the-record interviews of police press conferences is legitimate, the publication of allegations made by anonymous officials, unless there is independent verification, is not.

11. There is no offense of 'Treason' in Bangladesh

One might hope that the the son and 'advisor' to the prime minister (and the person apparently being groomed to replace her one day as leader of the Awami Leader) would at least know, particularly when he demands that someone should be jailed for the crime, that there is no offense of 'treason' in Bangladesh.

12. Whatever wrong Mahfuz is acknowledging in the interview, it is not 'sedition'

The prime minister's nephew, Barrister Taposh an advocate, and a barrister to boot. It is therefore particularly surprising that he thinks what Mahfuz has done could in any way be considered to be treason under section 7A of the constitution, which is titled, 'Offence of abrogation, suspension, etc of the Constitution. It reads
(1) If any person, by show of force or use of force or by any other un-constitutional means 
(a) abrogates, repeals or suspends or attempts or conspires to abrogate, repeal or suspend this constitution or any of its article; or 
(b) subverts or attempts or conspires to subvert the confidence, belief or reliance of the citizens to this constitution or any of its article, his such act shall be sedition and such person shall be guilty of sedition. 
(2) If any person-(a) abets or instigates any act mentioned in clause (1); or (b) approves, condones, supports or ratifies such act, his such act shall also be the same offence.
First, what show of force or use of force or other unconstitutional means has Mahfuz committed? This is an essential component of the offense, and without it, there is simply no offense

Secondly, even if one could show evidence of use of force (which one can't), how has he 'subverted or attempted or conspired to subvert the confidence, belief or reliance of the citizens to this constitution.' Sheikh Hasina, at the time was a private citizen. She was not, 'the constitution'.

And it is a surprise that an assistant public prosecutor could in any way think that Mahfuz's action was an offense under section 124A of the Penal code - which reads:
"Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government established by law shall be punished with  imprisonment for life or any shorter term, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.
Explanation 1.-The expression "disaffection" includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.
Explanation 2.-Comments expressing disapprobation of the measures of the Government with a view to obtain their alteration by lawful means, without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section.
Explanation 3.-Comments expressing disapprobation of the administrative or other action of the Government without exciting or attempting to excite hatred, contempt or disaffection, do not constitute an offence under this section."
Apart from the ridiculousness of applying such an offense to articles of the kind published by The Daily Star (or indeed all the other papers), how did these article bring into 'hatred or contempt' or excited or attempted 'to excise dissatisfaction' towards the government. Sheikh Hasina was not even at the time part of the government!

* Correction: 
An earlier version had incorrectly stated that it was on a different TV station

Translated Extract of the Interview

Munni Shaha: I would like to hear Chotoda’s statement, if he has any question

Nasir Uddin Ahmed: My question is regarding what Mahfuz bhai said - that during the year 2007-2008, when there was military controlled government, the way Munni has mentioned it…..but the thing was not exactly like that. The complaint that we have against you is, you have prepared the field for it to take place. .....

Mahfuz Anam: Please prove it. You have to prove it. Where did I do to prepare the field.

Nasir Uddin Ahmed: That was in the newspaper….

Mahfuz Anam: No, you have to prove it. You cannot say something on television and go away.

Nasir Uddin Ahmed: Let me explain

Mahfuz Anam: Yes, please explain, where did I do it.

Nasir Uddin Ahmed: For example some of the news that appeared in your newspaper, such as, the headline of two news that appeared in your newspaper on March 2007. One of the headlines was, ‘In TFI cell Falu said that, Tareq Zia provided 50 crore taka to save Mr. Abdur Sobhan’s son'. The figure ’50 crore’ was clearly mentioned in the news. Another news was published most probably on 31st May. On 16th July Sheikh Hasina got arrested, and on 31st May it was published on your newspaper that ‘Sheikh Selim said that, Sheikh Hasina takes money from people everyday’. And this news was published with an unnamed source.

Mahfuz Anam: But….but you have to mentioned the foremost fact that, this news was not only published in The Daily Star, but also in all the other newspapers.

Nasir Uddin Ahmed: But you were in the lead.

Mahfuz Anam: I don’t remember that…..each and every newspaper published that news

Nasir Uddin Ahmed: But I remember that.

Mahfuz Anam: But you have said that we prepared the field, but when the news was published, the military takeover was already done.

Nasir Uddin Ahmed: …..Yes the field…it was…..

Mahfuz Anam: no no, excuse me. You are saying that we created the field. That means, prior to the military takeover, we did something that created a field and helped the military to takeover. But the example you provided is after the takeover of the military. So, where is the field that we created?

Nasir Uddin Ahmed: No, before arresting Sheikh Hasina.

Mahfuz Anam: Okay….so we have created the field to arrest Sheikh Hasina?

Nasir Uddin Ahmed: It is the complaint against you

Mahfuz Anam: Why are you only complaining against us? The complaint should be against the entire media

Nasir Uddin Ahmed: But the entire media was not responsible for this

Mahfuz Anam: No! Each and every newspaper published the news. Except…I give credit to Nurul Kabir. There was only one newspaper that did not publish that news, it was Nurul Kabir’s The New Age. And I think…..

Nasir Uddin Ahmed: The place where I work…..our newspaper did not publish that news also

Mahfuz Anam: where do you work?

Nasir Uddin Ahmed: I work in

Mahfuz Anam: Bdnews24 is not a newspaper, I was talking about newspapers

Nasir Uddin Ahmed: of course it is a newspaper..

Mahfuz Anam: yes, I am sorry, it is an online newspaper, I stand corrected. I do not know whether you published the news or not.

Nasir Uddin Ahmed: no, we did not publish it

Mahfuz Anam: Yes, you people did a good job. But to my knowledge, only New Age did not publish that news, and for that reason I give credit to Nurul Kabir

Munni Shaha: Mahfuz bhai, you are giving credit to him for not publishing the news, so are you trying to say that, they acted responsible by not publishing it?

Mahfuz Anam: Yes

Munni Shaha: But I would expect Mahfuz Anam to act responsible before anyone else

Mahfuz Anam: yes…and if you ask me… I think….let me finish…I think that during my entire journalist life, the news provided to…..the news that was provided by DGFI was unsubstantiated. I was not able to prove it independently, I wrote that I was not able to verify it independently. But if you ask me, in my entire life as a journalist and editor, it was a big mistake. I have done a mistake. I should not have published the news that DGFI had provided. It was a bad editorial judgment. I admit it without any doubt.

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