Journalists fear crackdown in Bangladesh

Tensions rise after media houses critical of the ruling party are shut down.

Newspapers which are critical of Bangladesh's ruling party risk being shut down, say analysts [Reuters]

Dhaka, Bangladesh – Media workers here in Bangladesh’s capital fear that ever-greater restrictions are being imposed upon them by officials. Two Bengali daily newspapers and two television channels, all reportedly with links to the country’s opposition movement, have been shut down “temporarily” over the past year.

Furthermore, as the government begins its second term in power, the ruling party has said that a National Broadcasting Policy for private television channels would soon be brought in to ensure “free and fair media practices”.

Critics say this is an ominous sign for the freedom of the press.

“Whenever a government talks about a media policy, they are in fact talking about controlling the media to their own convenience,” said Nurul Kabir, editor of New Age.

‘Temporary’ shutdown of media houses

Inqilab, one of the nation’s oldest Bengali-language newspapers, was shut down “temporarily” on January 16, after the daily published a report: “Indian troops assist in joint forces operation in Satkhira.” The paper continues to publish news online, despite its physical presses being stopped.

Whenever a government talks about a media policy, they are in fact talking about controlling the media for their own convenience.

by - Nurul Kabir, New Age editor

The article had attempted to investigate a series of rumours and documents doing the rounds on social network websites, which claimed that Indian soldiers had taken part in an operation in violence-torn Satkhira, a border district in the country’s south-west, before the national polls took place on January 5.

After the report’s publication, four journalists, including Ahmed Atiq, the story’s lead reporter, were arrested at the Inqilab offices.

“The printing house of the Bangla daily Inqilab has been closed for running a misleading report,” said Information Minister Hasanul Huq Inu on January 17. “It will be reopened if the Inqilab authorities win in the case filed for running the report.”

A case was filed by the government complaining that the “baseless” and “fabricated” report had tried to “demean the image of the country and the military”.

A Dhaka court on January 20 granted a two-day remand for detained Ahmed Atiq and sent Inqilab‘s news editor, Rabiulla Robi, and deputy chief reporter, Rafiq Mohammad, to jail.

Syed Ahmed Gazi, Inquilab‘s defence lawyer, said that sources for the article were attributed at the court. “Although action is being taken against the reporters, with Atiq being taken into [custody], the shutdown of the daily is unreasonable. The government did not show any valid logic behind shutting down the daily’s print edition,” he told Al Jazeera.

While questioning the credibility of the report, Shahed Chowdhury, President of Dhaka Reporters Unity said the government could have protested against the report through an official rejoinder, which is the normal practice here – “rather than arresting the journalists”.

Journalists in Bangladesh feared that Inqilab may suffer the same fate as Amar Desh, another pro-opposition Bangla daily, whose printing press was raided and sealed by police in April 2013, after the arrest of editor Mahmudur Rahman, a critic of the ruling party. 

Despite a High Court ruling on August 7, 2013, asking the government to explain why its obstruction of the press should not be declared illegal, Amar Desh‘s lawyer said the government had not responded – nor had there been a hearing following the judgment.

On May 6, 2013, the broadcast signal of Diganta Television and Islamic Television, two pro-opposition TV stations, was suspended – on charges of inciting religious extremism and causing social unrest. Both channels had tried to cover the Hifazat-e-Islam rally in Dhaka earlier in the day.

“To make investigations easier, we had provided 24-hour footage of our channel and that of pro-ruling party television channels of the said day,” Shams Eskander, managing director of Islamic Television, told Al Jazeera. “We had also requested the Information Ministry let us initiate transmission without airing the news. But none of our requests were granted.”

Investigations on whether they had ulterior motives behind their broadcasts and publication, are still going on... Inqilab has already regretted and apologised for its report. By making such statements, the opposition is resorting to falsehood.

by - Hasanul Huq Inu, Information Minister

When asked about the fate of these media houses, Information Minister Inu told Al Jazeera that they remained under suspicion. “Investigations on whether they had ulterior motives behind their broadcasts and publication, are still going on. The matters will be decided once the investigation ends,” he said.

Referring to the opposition’s allegations that the four media outlets were shut down due to any alleged political stances they may have taken, Inu said: “These allegations are baseless. For example, Inqilab has already regretted and apologised for its report. By making such statements, the opposition is resorting to falsehood.”

National broadcasting policy

Many journalists, especially among TV outlets, are wary of the draft National Broadcasting Policy.

The proposal includes guidelines for broadcasting; licensing as well as advertisements, and also a section about the nature of programmes that would be deemed “improper”.  

With 40 rules and regulations, covering 46 approved government and private television channels, the policy contains several clauses that delineate boundaries that programming must not cross. The policy also empowers the information ministry to make all necessary decisions regarding broadcasting licenses.

“The policy will be passed within a few months,” Inu told Al Jazeera. “We will have another discussion with the stakeholders on January 29, where we will seek more feedback.”

‘Violation of media freedom’

Nurul Kabir, of New Age, maintains that the goal of the policy is to stifle dissenting voices. 

“Given the fact that the incumbents of the day have closed two television stations and two mainstream newspapers, it’s only natural that they are planning to control the media in general for own political convenience,” he said. “This is a clear violation of democratic freedom of expression of the media as well as of the people in general.”

While criticising Inqilab‘s report for being “politically biased”, Fahmidul Haq, associate professor of mass communication and journalism at the University of Dhaka, said arbitrary shutdowns of media houses were an ominous sign of the government disregard for legal procedures.

“Any policy that can give the government a right to cancel licences or curb criticism of government activities will be a violation of media freedom,” he concluded.

Source: Al Jazeera