Bangladesh Editorials Express Frustration over Limits in Reporting

John Bechtel
Washington
2021-02-03
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Bangladesh Editorials Express Frustration over Limits in Reporting Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina leaves the stage after delivering a speech during the International Conference on “The Future of Asia,” in Tokyo, May 30, 2019.
AP

Leading newspapers in Bangladesh on Wednesday expressed frustration over a media environment in which a major investigative report leveling allegations against senior leaders and key institutions in the country had been met with “silence” in the domestic press.

Editorials in The Daily Star and The Dhaka Tribune noted that media outlets had widely reported on the government response to an Al Jazeera report published on Monday, without describing allegations it contained.

“We are facing the absurd situation of publishing the government response without publishing what the government is responding to. So far, we have neither carried what the Al Jazeera reported nor any synopsis of it,” The Daily Star wrote in its Wednesday editorial.

The Tribune’s editorial, meanwhile, said the nation’s Digital Security Act “has had a chilling effect on Bangladeshi media.”

“The silence of the Bangladeshi media in this instance has been all-encompassing and deafening,” the Tribune wrote.

“The reason for our silence is simple: The current state of media and defamation law in Bangladesh, and how it is interpreted by the judiciary, makes it unwise for any Bangladeshi media house to venture into any kind of meaningful comment on the controversy.”

The nation’s Digital Security Act “contains language proscribing reporting that is so broad in its scope and threatens such draconian consequences that no responsible editor can take the chance of publishing reports that might even conceivably fall into its purview.”

A BenarNews review of at least 10 prominent Bengali- and English-language news portals on Wednesday found that they all based their reports on news releases from the foreign ministry and the army, while none of them included Al Jazeera allegations.

Allegations

The Feb. 1 report by Qatari-based television network Al Jazeera alleged that Bangladesh army chief Gen. Aziz Ahmed kept close links with his two foreign-based brothers who are on the run from justice after being convicted of the 1996 murder of a rival political leader.

The Al Jazeera documentary linked Aziz to corrupt deals with at least one of his brothers, who the report said had been able to travel to Bangladesh to meet with the army chief despite being a fugitive.

The report said that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had previously hired Aziz’s brothers Haris and Anis Ahmed as bodyguards when she was opposition leader. It alleged that the Ahmed clan’s fortunes “have been long intertwined with that” of Hasina.

It claimed that the military had secretly purchased surveillance equipment manufactured by an Israeli company, even though Bangladesh does not recognize Israel and forbids nationals from traveling there or engaging in commerce with Israelis.

The Bangladesh foreign ministry and army dismissed the allegations contained in the documentary and accompanying stories.

The Bangladesh foreign ministry in a statement on Tuesday described the report as “false and defamatory” and “anti-Bangladesh propaganda.”

It however did not specifically address any of the charges leveled against Aziz Ahmed in the report.

“The report is nothing more than a misleading series of innuendos and insinuations in what is apparently a politically motivated ‘smear campaign’ by notorious individuals,” it said, linking them to the “extremist group” Jamaat-e-Islami, one of the largest Islamic parties in Bangladesh.

The Bangladesh Army said the surveillance equipment had been procured from Hungary for an army contingent deployed in a U.N peacekeeping mission, and that the Al Jazeera allegation was based on “false information.”

‘Mature decision’

The Daily Star editorial praised the government for its “mature decision” not to block Al Jazeera’s report or “its spread on social media.”

It also expressed frustration over the lack of reporting in the domestic media on allegations that it said raised questions about the security of the country and the integrity of its institutions.

“There are people who served the PM at various times, especially during her days of struggle, who are now taking full advantage of her sense of gratitude and indulging in influence-peddling for payment in some of our highly sensitive areas,” The Daily Star said.

“There is reference to our purchase of sensitive listening devices from Israel, a country that we do not recognize. There are also the issues of false passports, NID cards and bank documents that should be looked into, especially as they involve institutions on whose integrity and honesty our security depends.”

Considered by many the leading English-language newspaper in Bangladesh, The Daily Star has a circulation of 44,000 and an editor who faces dozens of criminal charges over its journalism.

Mahfuz Anam faces 81 criminal charges filed since 2016, one of his lawyers told BenarNews.

“All of the cases were criminal in nature such as defamation and others. Currently, the courts have issued stay orders on the cases,” Chaitanya Chandra Halder said.

Mahfuz Anam turned down a request to be interviewed for this article.

‘Fear of a free press’

Passed in 2018, the Digital Security Act empowers police to make arrests on suspicion and without a warrant. Fourteen of its 20 provisions do not allow for bail, so that whenever an accused is brought before a magistrate, he or she is almost automatically sent to jail.

A media advocacy group, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said that the Bangladesh media’s decision to self censor was not surprising, while the draconian law requiring it reflected the government’s fear of a free press.

“By and large we are seeing how much of a chilling effect the Digital Security Act has had in Bangladesh,” Aliya Iftikhar, senior CPJ Asia researcher, told BenarNews.

“In the past year, we have seen dozens of frivolous DSA cases filed against journalists, and many of them have been detained for months at a time under the draconian law, for no reason other than they dared to publish critical reports. So it is not surprising that after seeing numerous colleagues in jail, the media in Bangladesh is choosing to self-censor,” Iftikhar said.

“The Bangladesh government is showing its weakness with its constant fear of a free press.”

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