Media ban in Bangladesh

BY SUBIR BHAUMIK| IN Media Freedom | 09/01/2015
The High Court bans media coverage of opposition leader Tarique Rahman.
It’s another sign of intense polarization, says SUBIR BHAUMIK (Photo: Tarique Rahman; Courtesy: bengalinews24.com).
Usually, governments tend to impose bans on speeches that could fuel public disorder. Regular hate speeches aimed at rival communities can provoke such action against a group or political party in a tense pluralistic society. But on Wednesday, the Bangladesh High Court issued the kind of ban that the government has so far, despite grave provocations, refrained from imposing.
 
The order bans all media – print, radio, TV, social media – from reporting the statements of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) senior vice-chairman Tarique Rahman. Since 2008, he has been based in London after fleeing to avoid trial on charges of money laundering. Rahman was recently declared a fugitive by a court for failing to turn up for standing trial but that has not stopped him stirring up controversies with his outlandish statements at BNP events in the UK. 
 
"The court has said that as long as Tarique remains a fugitive, no print, electronic or social media can publish or broadcast any news on his speeches, statements or meetings in the country," said Deputy Attorney General Biswajit Roy. 
 
Following the ban, a case of sedition has also been filed against Tarique Rahman and ETV managing director Adbus Salam. Tejgaon police Sub-Inspector Borhan Uddin brought the treason charges in court .

"Both threatened the country’s sovereignty and tried to create hatred against a legally constituted government by broadcasting and uttering false and fabricated information,: Borhan told Bangladesh media.

"They had also tried to create a rift in the judiciary and internal conflicts within the army, border guards and police," says one of the charges listed in the case.

Salam had however been arrested on a case of pornographic content.

 
Considered the heir apparent to his mother Khaleda Zia, a former Prime Minister who has led the BNP since the assassination of her husband  General Ziaur Rahman, the son is seen as the hardline leader in the BNP-led 20 party alliance , the main force behind the  turbulent agitations to bring down the government of Sheikh Hasina that led to scores of deaths and destruction of public property in 2012.
 
The High Court order came after hearing a petition by Nasrin Siddiqui Lina, known to be close to the ruling Awami League, who argued that Rahman’s remarks were not merely offensive to the country’s liberation war legacy but could also disturb public disorder. 
 
There has been no indication so far whether the BNP will appeal against the order. However, suspected BNP activists set fire to the ancestral home of one of the judges to vent their frustration.
 
One BNP leader, not willing to be quoted for fear of inviting contempt of court, said that an appeal stood little chance of being favourably considered in a higher court  in view of what he called  ‘the politicization of the judiciary’. 
 
“The government or the ruling party will get the verdicts they are looking for. That is the way it is,” he said. Awami League ministers, however, insist their government is against interfering with the judiciary.
 
Of the many controversies Rahman has stirred, two stand out. The first was when he claimed that his father, Ziaur Rahman, was the first President of Bangladesh because he was the one who declared the country’s independence in March 1971 immediately after the Pakistani crackdown on the Bengali movement. 
 
This claim was flawed. His father, then a Pakistani army major, was not the first to read out the declaration , though he did do it once. It had been read out earlier by the Awami League‘s Chittagong leader M. A. Hannan on behalf of the undisputed leader of the Bengali movement, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who had already been arrested by the Pakistani Army. In any case, does someone become a country’s president by virtue of reading out a declaration of independence?
 
But so nasty is the confrontation between the two leading political families that those with the BNP-led alliance  lauded Rahman while   the Awami League blasted him. Even veteran ministers like Amir Hossain Amu could not resist a jibe. ‘This Tarique is a disgrace, he is half literate, he has no idea of our history.” 
 
Then, a month ago, Rahman called Mujib a ‘razakar’ (a Pakistani collaborator) and a ‘Pakbandhu’ (Pakistan’s friend), not a ‘Bangabandhu’ (friend of Bengalis) as he is popularly called. Again a strange logic was given: by not calling Bengali soldiers and officers to an armed revolt earlier in 1971, Mujib is said to have missed out on the chance of an early victory over the ‘small contingents of Pakistani troops’ deployed in East Pakistan until mid-March. 
 
If, claimed Rahman, Mujib had called for the revolt in February or even early March, the Bengali troops would have easily defeated the Pakistanis and much bloodshed could have been avoided. Quite apart from the fact that Rahman is clearly no historian and clearly no military strategist, he crossed the line by using the word ‘razakar’, a very dirty word in Bangladesh. 
 
A day after the word was used and the speech went viral, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina warned Khaleda Zia: “Control your disgraceful son or be prepared to face the consequences.” 
 
Alongside the ban on Rahman’s speeches, the government moved against the Ekushey TV channel by arresting its owner Abdus Salam in a night raid under a law curbing pornographic content. But the staff say the real reason was that the channel was covering Rahman extensively. 
During the Opposition violence in 2012-13, the government had closed down TV channels close to the Jamaat-e-Islami and arrested senior journalists close to the opposition. 
 
As the tone of public debate plunges further and as the opposition continues its efforts to topple the Hasina government, the polarized nature of Bangladesh politics casts a bigger shadow than ever before on media freedom. 
 
(Subir Bhaumik, a former BBC correspondent and founder editor of the now defunct "Seven Sisters Post", is currently senior editor with the Dhaka-based bdnews24.com. He is author of two books on North East India -- "Insurgent Crossfire" and "Troubled Periphery".)
 
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