Freedom of Speech

ব্লগ এখন অনেকটা পর্নোগ্রাফিতে পরিণত হয়েছে: Syed Ashraful Islam

“On the Internet 50 percent is porn material. Why should we refer to the Internet?”: Vladimir Putin

In a few days, the International Crimes Tribunal will hold a hearing to decide whether an article written by David Bergman is in contempt of court. The editor and publisher of  his employer, New Age, have also been made co-respondents to this order. It would be instructive to take a look at how Bergman has arrived at this situation, and why the Tribunal is devoting its precious time in deciding such ancilliary matter.

Bergman’s reporting, ever since this Tribunal was set up has been invaluable, for two reasons. He has provided a somewhat unbiased voice, reporting the details of the legal proceedings without the ideological goggles that hobble so many of our other reporters. Moreover, he has had at least some interaction with foreign judiciaries, and has been able to effectively compare and contrast the Tribunal against its international counterparts.

We should note, at the outset, that Bergman is British, which means that he has had some experience operating under draconian press laws. This has generally stood him in good stead. A lesser individual, perhaps an American, would have been reduced to hysterics and babbling incoherently about freedom of speech by now.

Last April, Bergman wrote a largely positive piece about the Tribunal. However, the Tribunal picked out two phrases used in the article, and took issue. One was “the tribunal showed itself to have lost its backbone” and the other was “return to being the rubberstamp?” What followed, in the Tribunal’s next proceeding, is best described in Bergman’s own words:

Judge AKM Zahir Ahmed then spoke. He said that an article had come to his attention, ‘International Criminal Tribunal: Growing Independence or a Return to be being a rubber stamp’ which was in part ‘contemptuous’. He said,’Journalists are allowed to express their views’ but cant be in contempt of court.

He then referred to various expressions that were used,’Who is he to say what does or does not have a backbone?’

Justice ATM Fazle Kabir then spoke, and asked whether ‘David Bergman was present in court.’ I put my hand up and he then asked me to stand up. He then said, ‘We have gone through this report. Your manner of reporting is very nice, no doubt … We know that you are of foreign origin and so we are warning you about your language.’

He then said that there were two words that were ‘very much contemptuous.’ He then referred to the use of the word, ‘Rubber stamp’. ‘We are very sorry about this but you can not use this words about our court. If you use these words in future then we will take action. According to the rules of this court in Bangladesh these words are absolutely contemptuous. In recognition of the fact that you are a foreigner, we will not take action against you.’

Yikes. Called out in open court. Not a fun experience.

However, it’s hard to see why hoping a court does not become a rubber stamp for the prosecution should be contempuous; here’s the same term being used regarding the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, one of the US Government’s most sensitive organs, a justice of the United States Supreme Court, and by Julian Assange regarding the British Court ruling that allows his extradition to Sweden. Does that mean that the courts of United States and United Kingdom are less deserving of our respect? Or that they have a greater tolerance for criticism?

What about the Tribunal’s objection to being relegated with the fruit fly and spiders? If that is contempuous, what should we make of thisclaim by Steve Forbes, publisher of Forbes Magazine and a Republican presidential candidate in 1996, that “the United States Supreme Court has the backbone of an eclair?” Should the United States Supreme Court take lessons from the Tribunal in comport and dignity? Or am I guilty of comparing eclairs and chomchoms here?

Well, following this little showdown, Bergman managed to stay out of trouble for almost six months. Until, that is, the Tribunal got down to its actual business and took cognizance of the charges against (a fancy way of saying indicted) Delwar Hossain Saydee. Bergman again wrote a rather milquetoast article: reviewing the proceedings so far, and mapping out the road ahead.

Again, the Tribunal confused Bergman’s expression of some people’s fears about the Tribunal as Bergman’s own opinion, and whipped out its contempt of court order. Looking back, it’s only surprising that the Tribunal restrained itself for so long. Ever since then-Justice Khairul Huq used contempt of court to accomplish what Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina could not, this particular mean of stifling dissent is extremely popular with Bangladesh’s higher judiciary. In short, the feeling is “all the cool benches are doing it, why shouldn’t we?”

The contempt order was passed down on October 3. Bergman and New Age management submitted its replies on October 27, arguing that its report in contempt of court. The Tribunal will hear oral arguments and pass its order some time in the coming week.

In all likelihood, Bergman will get away with only a verbal warning, and maybe a token monetary fine. As noted, the Tribunal is entering a crucial phase here, and it will be unwise to distract attention from its legal work by handing down an unnecessarily harsh measure, especially on such a well-regarded individual. In the off-chance that the Tribunal does impose a more punitive penalty, it will be making its own functioning decidedly more complicated, and add to the miasma of controversies that is already swirling around it.

It is always sad when a government with an overwhelming majority like the present Awami League government loses its way. Unfortunately, a host of recent developments all point to that direction. One theme that all these events have in common is that they represent attacks on free speech and political expression, something that should be sacrosanct in all democratic societies.

The most glaring demonstration of this trend has been evinced by the behavior of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who, in her speech in the last session of Parliament, accused the members of parliament of her own parties of “arming her enemies”, by criticizing some members of her cabinet, specifically Communications Minister Syed Abul Hossain. Emboldened by this, Awami League General Secretary and LGRD Minister Syed Ashraful Islam accused the media of “creating the ground for Hasina’s death.” Of course, once the two most important leaders of the ruling party expressed their disdain of dissent in media so openly, other Awami League leaders wasted no time in springing into action. Supporters of Shipping Minister Shahjahan Khan, who has faced a lot of flak for suggesting the unqualified drivers be given long-distance driving permits, have seized bundles of newspapers, and set them to fire. A peaceful human chain organized by BNP to protest the crumbling state of infrastructure was attacked and broken up by Awami League activists. To cap it all, Hasina herself, in a cabinet meeting, instructed intelligence agencies to investigate the organizers of a peaceful rally held in the Shahid Minar on Eid Day.

Unfortunately, the government has made our judicial system an indispensable tool in its all-out war against free speech. Some of the developments are petty: like a sedition case being filed against a cleric for criticizing the government during the weekly sermon. Others are more serious, like Sheershanews editor Ekramul Haq being put in police remand (code for torture) multiple times for writing about corruption charges against certain members of the cabinet, specifically State Minister for Environment Hasan Mahmud. The use of the judiciary to achieve partisan ends only promises to heat up further after the High Court convenes on October 9th after its vacation. BNP acting Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir and Standing Committee member Moudud Ahmed have already been summoned to answer charges of contempt of court. If that goes well, the field is already being prepared to embroil Khaleda Zia in the same contempt charges.

Unfortunately, these tendencies were in full display during the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution of Bangladesh, which added Article 7A stating that both to “subvert the confidence, belief or reliance of the citizens to this Constitution or any of its article” or to take any action that “abets or instigates… approves, condones, supports or ratifies” this subversion is sedition, and is to be punishable by death. Just to put this matter into perspective, given that this blogpost is fairly critical of Article 7A of the Constitution, I have just committed sedition. If a reader reads this post and approves, she has also committed sedition. Moreover, if someone then forwards this link (I know, highly unlikely) to a friend by email, that’s sedition too.

We are all going to drown in a sea of sedition.

When finalizing this Amendment, Hasina said in the House that she had acted thus to ensure ““empowerment of people, and their democratic and voting rights.” Perhaps, she had in mind, the provision that said that several parts of the Constitution, including one which titled her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as Father of the Nation, could not be altered or amended in the future. Although, it seems like depriving future generations of the power to change the document that will affect their lives in such important ways is the express opposite of empowerment.

However, Hasina is not in good company. In the United States, home of the world’s most famous constitution, there has only been, in the country’s entire two hundred years plus history, only a single proposed amendment that sought to place any topic beyond any further debate or amendment, and it was the infamous Corwin Amendment. In this proposed amendment, in a last-ditch effort to avoid the Civil War, it was proposed that subject of slavery would not be open to any future amendments, effectively meaning that no future government could outlaw slavery. As we know, the Civil War was fought, and an alternative amendment, now known as the Thirteenth Amendment, was incorporated to outlaw slavery.

Hasina and her party love to glorify the role of Awami League in the 1971 War of Liberation. Unfortunately, it has been overwhelmingly documented by Dr. Badiul Alam Majumbad of SUJON (not a big fan of BNP), that the inspiration for this Fifteenth Amendment comes directly from the Pakistani Constitution. Around the world, there are have been two prominent laws passed in the last year that punish people for saying something. One was passed in Saudi Arabia, and it mandates jail sentences for anyone who criticizes the King of Saudi Arabia. The other was in Israel, which criminalized “calling for the boycott of Israel.”

This is not good company for Bangladesh to keep. As the current government finds itself increasingly unpopular, the risk remains that it will use these new laws to further crack down on dissent and opposing political parties. Which will be a sad ending for a government that held out so much promise.

Indeed, a very bad precedent you are creating Dear prime Minister Hasina.

It started with the arrest of an elected Dhaka City Ward Commissioner ( Councilor) Mr Chowdhury Alam.

Removal of Chowdhury Alam was very important to ruling Awami League Government’s political strategy. Mr Chowdhury Alam, as elected representative from Dhaka’s city center area, was the key field level organizer of all the city center rallies/ programs of opposition of BNP. Awami League takes opposition activities very seriously. They simply don’t want opposition to exist or act in any form. Departure of Mr. Alam came as a big debacle for opposition BNP as Mr. Alam was their key figure in it’s efforts to organize street agitation in Dhaka.

It has been nearly a year Mr. Alam went missing. Nobody accounted for his whereabouts.

In this list of missing under the current regime, Chowdhury Alam definitely was not the only name. The list became long quickly within first two years of this regime.

Last name in this list is the son of an opposition political figure. A rightwing orthodox islamic political leader and a Madrassa principle, Mr Fazlul Haque Amini had been protesting, peacefully, against the new fuggy inheritance policy of the government. A nationwide strike was organized last week and rallies are taking place on regular interval. Government’s top leadership reflected the whole issue personally on Amini. Statements made by the the prime Minister as well as other senior ministers were clear indication of the level of discomfort this government is experiencing in Handling this Amini trouble.

So not sure how to handle Amini, as any direct crackdown on Amini led madrassa based politics may be perceived as attack on political Islam by rural Bangladeshis, this prime Minister seemed to have taken the Chowdhury Alam route. Like Chowdhury Alam, the news broke as an arrest of Fazlul Haque Amini’s son Abul Hasanat by plain clothed policemen. Multiple news outlets carried this news.

And exactly like Chowdhury Alam case, since his abduction, Mr Abul Hasnath remained unaccounted for. Except for denying that he was arrested, there has not been any statement from any corner of the government regarding this incident. There has not been any visible action by law enforcement agencies to solve the problem by rescuing the abducted person. Mr. Amini, the father of the victim, has been complaining that he is regularly been threatened from the mobile phone belonging to his son. Bangladesh law enforcement agencies has the capabilities to track the phone records and locate from where the calls are made. Using this system, they solve most of the crimes these days. The silence from government quarters about the abduction, Prime Minister Hasina’s continued verbal attack on Amini ( Her last statement about Amini was that Khaleda Zia let Amini loose on the government), absolute absence of any action by law enforcement men to rescue or at least trace the abducted — should be enough evidence to suspect government’s hand behind the abduction of Amini’s son.

The government must understand that denying the abduction does not let them off the hook. It is the responsibility of the government to protect the safety of it’s citizen. A man suddenly can be whisked away in broad daylight from mains street Dhaka and Government will not have any say in it — this cannot happen in a civilized society.

Abducted and missing opposition activists and their families have been the historical hallmark of all the fascist governments in history. We don’t want to believe that our country is heading the fascist way. But the series of events, starting from Dr Yunus saga to the abduction of the son of Fazlul Haque Amini force us to fear about impending fascism.

I have very little to add to the excellent summation of the recent HC verdict posted earlier. I would like to note some additional points. In our adverserial justice system, both sides get lawyers who argue for their clients. In this verdict, there was no one representing Ziaur Rahman. Whatever the merits of this writ petition, it seems unusual to proceed when one of the main actors is not represented in the case.

Much has been made out Lawrence Lifschultz’s statement to the Court, but given that he himself admits that he is reporting information that others told him, his statement becomes hearsay, and is not admissible in a court of law. Justice Manik has warned that any criticism of Lifschultz would be considered contempt of court. As we shall see below, contempt of court is a favorite weapon of Justice Manik’s. However, this sort of extension of contempt of court by fiat, to a person who is not a judge or officer of the court, is simply ridiculous. Finally, this case is directly covered by the Fifth Amendment verdict. Under that prior decision, the legality of the Taher trial comes down to whether this trial falls under these two exceptions:

(c) all acts during that period which tend to advance or promote the
welfare of the people;
(d) all routine works done during the above period which even the
lawful government could have done.

This is all the bench had to do. Did this trial increase public welfare? Even if martial law was not in effect, would another government have tried armed mutiny against the government? Instead, Justice Manik went on a determined campaign to vilify Ziaur Rahman.

Two years ago, Justice Manik was simply another Awami League hack in a position of power. However, he has certainly stood out in the last two years. He is on record defending BKSAL. He delights in hauling individuals, mainly private citizens and mid-level government employees, in front of him and berating them in most unjudicious language. On one occasion, he told Ziaul Huq Khandkar, chairman of the SEC:

পর্যায়ে আদালত চেয়ারম্যানকে তিরস্কার করে বলে, আপনি দায়িত্ব পালনে অযোগ্য। গত এক মাস ধরে শেয়ারবাজারে যে অস্থিরতা দেখা গেছে, তার জন্য আপনার মতো লোকরাই দায়ী। আদালত শেয়ারবাজারের অস্থিরতার নেপথ্যে ষড়যন্ত্র থাকার ইঙ্গিত দিয়ে আরও বলে, যিনি বিধিবদ্ধ সংস্থা ও সরকারী সংস্থার মধ্যে পার্থক্য বোঝেন না, তিনি কী করে পরিস্থিতি সামলাবেন! এটা তো একটা কমন সেন্সের ব্যাপার। দীর্ঘ দিন অভিজ্ঞতার পরও তাঁর কমন সেন্স হয়নি।এ সময় আদালত তাকে তীব্র ভাষায় ভৎসনা করে দাঁড়িয়ে থাকার নির্দেশ দেন।

However, his choicest words were reserved for Syed Abul Maqsud:

আদালত এক পর্যায়ে বলেন, একটা লোক নিজেকে বুদ্ধিজীবী মনে করে, এটা একটা দায়িত্বজ্ঞানহীন বক্তব্য। আদালত বলেন, তিনি একটা ষড়যন্ত্রকে লালন করছেন। এ সময় সিনিয়র আইনজীবী ইউসুফ হোসেন হুমায়ুন বলেন, তিনি নিজেকে গান্ধীর অনুসারী বলে থাকেন। এ সময় আদালত বলে, কিভাবে গান্ধীর অনুসারী। তিনি একটি বুদ্ধিহীন লোক। তিনি যা লিখেছেন তা মারাত্মক। এক পর্যায়ে একজন আইনজীবী বলেন, তিনি একজন বুদ্ধিজীবী। তখন আদালত বলেন কিসের বুদ্ধিজীবী, তিনি একজন নির্বোধ। অপর এক আইনজীবী বলেন, তিনি জ্ঞানপাপী, তখন আদালত বলেন কিসের জ্ঞানপাপী, তিনি নির্বোধ। আদালত বলেন, কোর্ট সম্পর্কে আপনার কোন পরিষ্কার ধারণা নেই। আবার টেলিভিশন চ্যানেলে টক শোতে বড় বড় কথা বলেন। আদালত সম্পার্কে টিআইবির রিপোর্ট সাপোর্ট করেন। টাউট, বাটপাড়, দালাল-যারা ঘুষ নিয়েছে তাদের আদালতের অন্তর্ভুক্ত করে টিআইবি বিচার বিভাগের দুর্নীতির রিপোর্ট প্রকাশ করে। সে রিপোর্ট আপনারা সমর্থন করেন।অতিরিক্ত এটর্নি জেনারেল এম কে রহমান আদালতের কাছে আবুল মকসুদকে মার্জনা করার আবেদন জানালে আদালত তাকে সারাদিন দাঁড়িয়ে থাকার নির্দেশ দিয়ে বলেন, এ ধরনের বুদ্ধিজীবীর জন্যই দেশের আজ এ অবস্থা

Justice Manik declared the Seventh Amendment illegal, but forgot to cancel the punishment for the appellant, which was the main point of the case. However, he certainly did not forget to let the nation know that he hated, hated, hated Ziaur Rahman.

Even after such devoted Zia-bashing, Justice Manik was hurt when he was not granted seniority and the recent promotion of judges to the Appellate Division were not to his liking. He threatened to promptly go on leave, but then changed his mind.

Hopefully, the spectacle that Justice Manik is making of himself and of the judiciary will cause everyone to think more critically about the necessity of placing qualified individuals on the bench. The issue here is not political identity: all individuals can have their own political philosophy. However, when law is nakedly insubordiated to partisan ideology, the image of the judiciary as a whole, and the rule of law it is designed to implement, is irrevocably damaged.

While giving the verdict on the legality of the punishment of Colonel Taher, the high-court bench of Justices Shamsuddin Chowdhury Manik and Zakir Hossain declared that the whole trial process was illegal and it was in fact a cold blooded murder of Taher by Late president Ziaur Rahman.

What high-court did to come to this conclusion? They interviewed one shoddy journalist character Lawrence lifshultz, who is a political follower of Taher’s communist doctrine. Other interviewed are also 1. Political opponents of Ziaur Rahman’s political platform 2. Supporters of ruling party who took it as their prime job to destroy Zia’s image 3. Political followers of Colonel Taher. Even the judges who delivered the justice, are publicly known nemesis of Ziaur Rahman’s ideology and are former leaders of socialist political platform based on Taher’s doctrine. And this is probably the first court proceeding in Bangladesh history where an witness could simply deliver his opinion via e mail to a third person. There was no ‘balai’ of oath taking, cross examination etc.

Before we go further into what these two judges did and what their judgment means, lets see what Taher in fact did back in early 70s.

1. Taher revolted against the then Awami League government of Sheikh Mijibur Rahman and formed and led an armed force called ” Gonobahinee”. Thousands and thousands of Awami League activists, leaders as well as general people were killed by the armed force. Any literature describing Mujib era Bangladesh will give testimony of the atrocities of Taher’s Gonobahinee.

2. While all other sector commanders were being promoted in the army as Brigadier/ Major General and who in turn helped rebuild the army, Taher was sacked from Bangladesh army by Mujib Government. ( It is unclear what Shamsuddin Chowdhury Manik had to say about this cold blooded sacking of ‘war hero’ Taher).

3. Many sources, well informed of the political military dynamics of 1975, say that it was Taher who was more likely to kill Mujib and there was an invisible race among Taher’s group and Faruq Rashids group in who would kill Mujib first. After hearing of the massacre of 15th August, most observers’ first suspicion was on Taher.

4. Taking the advantage of unstable situation of Bangladesh, Taher’s forces ( a select group of armed anti state forces including Taher’s brother Bahar) attacked Indian High Commission in Dhaka in an attempt to kill India’s high commissioner in Dhaka, Mr Samar Sen. Although Samar Sen survived with bullet wounds in his back, Police force guarding India’s high Commission shot and killed four members of Taher forces ( Including Taher brother Bahar).


The value of Bangladesh Supreme Court apparently took a big plunge under it’s new leader Justice Khairul Haque.

Few months ago, the market rate of the honor of Bangladesh Supreme Court was 100,000 taka and six months jail sentence. That was under the leadership of former Chief Justice Fazlul Karim.The full bench of the court decided that rate when they sentenced newspaper editor Mahmudur Rahman for a report what they thought was truthful yet contemptuous of court.

So it was a matter of huge public curiosity when the same editor Mahmudur Rahman was brought back to the highest court for a second contempt of court case against him. And again the three men ( two men short this time, as two seniormost judges are not working out of ‘oviman’ as they were superseded by JusticeKhairul haque to be Chief Justice) found editor Mahmudur Rahman guilty of contempt of court.

However there was a difference in sentencing. Justice Khairul Haque led court  only sentenced editor Mahmudur Rahman a fine of 100 taka and no jail term. A major plunge from 100,000 taka and six months jail fixed by previous court.

Well, this is only the first month of Justice Khairul Haque’s Supreme Court. Let’s see what comes next. From 100,000 to 100 taka in a month. Then what?

Since this government came to power media came under relentless attack. At least two electronic media were taken off air ( probably to facilitate flourishing of ten new TV channels whose license has been distributed to party hacks by this Awami League government), declaration of one news paper were canceled, a prominent editor was put behind the bars and much more.

And while all these went on, the highest circulated Bangla and English dailies, owned by same media empire, despite the face saving lip services, maintained a shrewd complacency, in turn consciously facilitating government gag on those media of opposing business or political views. Although they were warned citing Pastor Martin Niemoller , they apparently thought themselves way too invincible.

So last week a process began what was expected to happen. These two print media came under attack by Ministers, members of parliament as well as the speaker of the house.

This blog has been vocal against this media house for quite a long time. This blog feels that the editor of the Bangla Daily under attack has done more harm to democracy and fair journalism than anyone else in history of Bangladesh. This editor and cohorts developed a new tactic of propaganda in favor of their political philosophy. It pioneered news-making culture in Bangladesh. Not only it’s op-eds and editorials were critical of it’s political opponents, news published by these newspapers are inadvertently adulterated to promote its petty partisan agenda. Without a blink of an eye, it’s editorial policy can change the content of the headline news item to support its own agenda. This newspaper has been cruel to it’s opponents in character assassination. Over the last decade, to drive it’s own goal, this specific media was so rampant in character assassination, it can be charged with agenda driven character genocide.

As the editor in question has all along enjoyed his rights of free speech in committing character genocide, now if any politician or member of parliament felt aggrieved, she/he must have the right to speak it out, be it in parliament, be it in a political rally. It is not fair to throw unsubstantiated attacks and start fear-mongering about attack on media when those under attack protests.

However rightful criticism and threat from government officials/ law makers are two different issues. And despite having such strong opinion about the media in question, this blog refuses to support the threat on this media house by the parliament. If this blog abhors double standard, this blog must criticize the attack on free media, hence criticize the recent parliamentary proceedings. And unlike progressives dealing with Daily Amar Desh and it’s editor Mahmudur Rahman, this blog refuses to add any qualification of exception to it’s unconditional criticism of the threat on Daily Prothom-Alo and the Daily Star.

To be more specific, this blog condemns the threat of the senior MP Suranjit Sengupta on enacting contempt of parliament law and protests threats of the speaker, at least two ministers and other senior parliamentarian (Sheikh Selim) of summoning an editor in front of parliamentary committee. There is already a place to complain against misadventures of media, that is called the Press Council. Any complain on media must go through press council. And any other form of state inflicted punitive/ corrective measure on media is absolutely unacceptable.

1. Bangladesh Supreme Court is imposing a new sort of blasphemy fear in our society. They just jailed an editor for six months and a reporter for a month and fined financial penalty to additional others for reporting some facts which the court even did not try to refute as false. Courts stand was like this, ” be it fact or truth, as long as we six men feel someone has written something which we consider harmful to our image, we shall punish him/ her. And there will be no appeal to this verdict because there is no court above us in this land”.

2. The report in vernacular Daily Amar Desh quoted a senior lawyer and ex justice, Mr TH Khan, as ” Chamber Judge Means Stay (of High Court Order)” as the title . The report chronicled the spate of cases where this chamber Judge Mojammel Hossain, acting on the plea of government’s lawyers, blindly stayed all high court orders without any exception. Cases he stayed included high court rules to cancel police remand ( which means police torture in Bangladesh) although there are previous high court ruling discouraging ‘Police Remand’. The person Daily Amardesh quoted was present in the court as a lawyer. Court did not bother asking him a question. The court did not bother discuss the facts whether indeed chamber judge means stay or not. The Supreme Court did not bother/ dare go into that detail because they knew all what Amar Desh published was true.


Amar Desh published a report called চেম্বার মানেই সরকারপক্ষে স্টে (“Chamber Judge automatically means stay order in favor of the Government”) on April 21. The Supreme Court found this article to be so offensive that it found both Amar Desh’s editor Mahmudur Rahman and the staff reporter who wrote it, Waliullah Noman, in contempt of court. Mahmudur Rahman has been sentenced to six months of jail and fined Tk 100,000, in default of which he will have to serve one more month in jail. Noman has been sentenced to one month’s jail and fined Tk 10,000 in this connection. He would have to serve an additional seven days in prison if he fails to pay the fine.

There are several interesting points in this matter.

Let it be pointed out that Mahmudur Rahman did not go the usual route of hiring Barrister Rafiqul Huq and then making an unconditional apology. In fact, he did not apologize to the Court at all, something that has enraged Awami League hacks to no end. In standing up for what he believes in, Mahmudur Rahman followed in the tradition of Kazi Nazrul Islam and Gandhi when they spoke to the Court in their respective cases; like them, he has refused to back down in the face of state power.

In the Amar Desh article that gave rise to this whole matter, several inconsistencies had been pointed out: instances when the prosecution had presented false information to the court or acted in defiance of its prior order to get its way. During the trial, not a single of those allegations could be refuted, for the simple reason that they are all true. Thus, we are left at a dangerous state: speaking the truth is now a crime in Bangladesh. This may be tolerable in an imperial colony; it cannot persist in a free, democratic society.

There are two broad judicial models in the world. The British model, until 2009, was that the House of Lords was the supreme court. Thus, there was no ultimate difference between the three branches of government: the executive branch was also the elected leader of the executive branch and also the ultimate legislative branch. This model was just abolished last year, and UK got its own Supreme Court.

The American model, with the three different branches checking each other, is the one which Bangladesh seeks to emulate. The power of judicial review, in which, the judicial branch can also strike down a law passed by parliament, is an American concept. But, the price that the Court pays for meddling in public matters is that it must also bear public scrutiny. Thus, when Antonin Scalia goes duck-hunting with Dick Cheney, it is not contempt of court to question his partiality on cases directly related to the former vice-president. Or when Clarence Thomas’ wife becomes a prominent Conservative fund-raiser, it is not contempt of court to wonder how such activities will affect her husband’s decisions. And as for sentencing someone to jail for not referring to a judge as “The Honorable,” any such case would be laughed out of court.

Our Supreme Court cannot have it both ways. They cannot claim the power to meddle in political matters, and then, pretend they are above public scrutiny. The price of meddling in matters best left to politicians is that one must also be able to bear the scrutiny and abuse that is directed towards the politicians. Otherwise, best to retreat to the safer realms.

As Robert Jackson said of another Supreme Court, “We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.” The Supreme Court would do well to remember the limits on their power, and the perils of wading into political questions. Otherwise, they are inflicting grievous, perhaps irreparable harm in the very institution they are professing to protect.

Amar Desh Publishing Ban Struck Down

Updated: Amar Desh online version again available.

Article 39 of the Constitution of Bangladesh:

39. Freedom of thought and conscience, and of speech.
(1) Freedom or thought and conscience is guaranteed.
(2) Subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of the security of
the State, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation
to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence-
(a) the right of every citizen of freedom of speech and expression; and freedom of the
press, are guaranteed.

Bangladesh Supreme Court just struck down the Awami League government’s ban on popular newspaper Amar Desh. Amar Desh online version is now available.


New York Times published an incisive editorial on the current Supreme Court bench led by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.  The editorial starts addressing the courts ‘most unsettling tendency’ in it’s judgement in Citizens United VS Federal Election Commission case.  The editorial launches it’s criticism of Justice Robert’s court stating that “the Roberts court demonstrated its determination to act aggressively to undo aspects of law it found wanting, no matter the cost”.  NYT criticizes the Citizen’s united VS Federal election commission verdict as—” If not quite legislating from the bench, this is not a formula for stability.”


On 16 June 1974, the Awami League government led fathers of PM and several other senior ministers and MPS of current government, decided to shut down all print media except two government run newspapers. In addition government took over the ownership of two leading but privately owned newspapers ( Daily Ittefaq and Daily Observer) and kept them running as government mouth pieces.

Since then 16th June used to be observed by journalists in Bangladesh as black day as thousands of jouralists lost their livelihood instantly. However as the years passed, younger generation jouranalists choose to forget 16th June evets and 16th June is no longer a black days. At least if yu scan the mainstream media in Bangladesh, you hardly seeany mention of it.

Media definitely has its bias towards Awami League and it is less to AL’s credit than to BNPs fault. BNP leadership or policy makers never made it a priority to take smart steps and befriend junior media personnel. Hence smaller acts of aggression on Media by BNP governments get much more media atention than bigger attacks by successive Awami League governments. Events like a police officers fist fight with a elderly photojournalist, or arrest of a stinger etc attarcts disproportionately more protests/ criticism from media than large scale crackdown by Awami League governments.

There is no dobt that if one looks deep into the facts, media suffered much more at the hands of Awami League than BNP. Even when Awami League was in opposition, media was not immune from acts of aggression by Awami League leadership.

Not taking lesson from 16th june events, when Awami came back to power next time, it decided to shut down four very popular governmet run weeklies and dailies. Although financial problems was shown by the government as the main reason, it was very clear that the closure was done simply out of vengence on the journalists working on those outlets. PM had to settle some score with Nirmal Sen for his famous headline, ‘Swavik Mrittur Guarantee Chai…’ or Shahadat Chowdhury for being supportive of popular President Ziaur Rahman. And during the time it was closed, both weekly Bichitra and Daily Doinik Bangla was very much financially viable sec to Bichitra’s popularity and government ad revenue to Doinik Bangla. After closing down veryu popular barnd Bichitra, PM sister Sheikh Rehana was given the ownership of the name and she ran an abysmal weekly on the same name before killing it.

When 3rd Awami League government came back to power, in addition to print media, it had to deal with electronic media. Keeping up its tradition, government imposed a harsh gag on all electronc media, preventing them from iviting guests critical of government’s acts. In quick succession it closed down two TV channels and one newspaper, arrested one editor and is currently torturing him under custody.

In 18 months of its rule, government also did not hesitate impose draconian rules like blocking Youtube, esnipe, facebbok.

Last week Police raided vernacular Daily Amar Desh, arrested its editor along with some senior journalists, locked up the office and the press that publishes the newspaper. Police cited some procedural flaws as reason for closing down the newspaper. Any reasonable reader will understand, if there was any procedural flaw it was government’s for not processing the application to change the publisher in reasonable time. Several media personnel and observers have stated that there was no flaw on Amardesh’s side and this was confirmed by summery dismissal of this government decision by the high court.

However although the newspaper is being republished now under high court order, there is fear among its journalists that government is trying to force a change of ownership and turn it into a meek pro government mouthpiece. As a part of the strategy, the editor and owner of the newspaper remains under police custody. District level judicial courts have allowed the government to take Mr Rahman away from Dhaka’s central Jail to undisclosed location for questioning. This kind of arrangement is known as ‘remand’ in Bangladesh. Political leaders belonging to all parties have confirmed in the past that remand means state conducted torture. It is very clear that if police has to ask Mr Rahman any question they can do it as much as they want to do it Dhaka central jail. The massive structure has facilities to conduct such interrogation. But the lower court judges, clearly under pressure, allowed the police to take him to an undisclosed location.

And Mr Rahman has confirmed the tortures on him while he was produced before court before a second phase of his total 12 days remand began. Mr Rahman, told the court under oath that he was taken to a place in Dhaka Military Garrison where he was first undressed. Then few unidentified person started beating him till he became unconscious. He told the court that no relevant question was ever asked to him. The partisan lawyer working on behalf of the government, when asked by media about the torture, replied that as Mr Rahman was able to walk and talk in the court, proving that it meant he was not tortured!

Mr Mahmudur Rahman’s plight confirms what the political observers in Bangladesh was fearing over the last year. Current Bangladesh government has a very intolerant attitude towards media. After several very bold reporting of corruption and double standard by this government was published in Daily Amardesh, most veteran political analysts in Bangladesh knew that this Awami League government will not tolerate this sort of reporting. Mr Shafiq Rehman is a legendary journalists, whose weekly, Jaijaidin, was banned twice by the military dictator Ershad in 80s, and who had to flee the country for fear of persecution by the dictator. He recently wrote, after the Amar Desh event, that he learnt that this government had two priorities; evicting opposition leader Khaleda Zia from her home and arresting editor Mr Mahmudur Rahman for daring to expose high level corruption in the government.

From the acts of shutting down TV channels for showing footage of rigging in bye election, closing down newspaper for publishing government documents accusing Prime Minister’s son of corruption and putting a tight gag on TV talk shows, it is clear that this elected government has decided to run a rule of fear and suppression. This is very worrisome. But more worrisome is the fact that the government started all this within only 18 months of its rule. That means worse days await Bangladesh in the upcoming 3 1/2 years.

Updated I: Amar Desh report on the plot.

Updated II: Case filed against Mahmudur Rahman, validating his prediction.

Updated III: Government shuts down Amar Desh and cancels its publication declaration.

Updated IV: Police surround Amar Desh building; Mahmudur Rahman’s arrest likely.

Updated V: Mahmudur Rahman arrested.

Updated VI: Mahmudur Rahman produced in Court.

Updated VII: Another case filed against Mahmudur Rahman, Amar Desh Deputy Editor and Chief Correspondent Syed Abdal Ahmed, four other staff and another one hundred unnamed individuals.

Updated VIII: A discerning reader, M. Amin, has commented below that the common thread running between the banning of Facebook and the closure of Amar Desh at this critical point may be the Government inquiry reports about the BDR massacre. These reports initially became available on Facebook, and Amar Desh has been publishing them on a daily basis.

Media reports are claiming that the government has picked up Hasmat Ali, the Publisher of Daily Amar Desh. Amar Desh Editor Mahmudur Rahman has claimed that the government has picked up Ali to pressurize him to file cases against Mahmudur Rahman. In true Bangladeshi fashion, the authorities are denying that they even have him in custody, and the family members are too terrified to speak out.

Why, so soon after the disastrous ban on Facebook, this crackdown on another media outlet? Mahmudur Rahman has long been a thorn on the side of this government; his paper broke the alleged corruption story between the Prime Minister’s son, Sajeeb Wazed Joy, and Chevron. Amar Desh also earned the ire of the First Family by detailing their internal squabbling about which of their relatives by marriage played the most anti-Bangladeshi role during the Liberation War of 1971.

Some of Amar Desh’s greatest hits from just the last two months:

Indian sky marshals to serve in Bangladesh.

Pro-Pakistan role of State Minister for Law Quamrul Islam’s family during 1971.

Marrying grandson of Rajakar is fine: Sajeda Chowdhury.

Details of the previously unpublish government report of the BDR massacre.

Sheikh Helal given unique treatment by the Court.

High Court Judge Iman Ali a British citizen; constitutionally barred from holding post.

Quamrul Islam sensitive about being removed as Public Prosecutor by the High Court during past Awami League government.

Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir blasts ACC, questions Latifur Rahman and Dr. Mozaffar Ahmed.

Corruption allegations against Rashed Khan Menon.

Battle of the in-laws: Nuru Mian v. Naila Musa (“Prince” Musa Bin Shamsher) (part 1) (part 2).

A few alarming events took place last few days. Let me list them,

1. A young men was arrested for doing cartoon caricature on our Prime Minister. Per newspaper reports, he did the same thing on PM’s son a little while ago. Law enforcement agency tells he also publish classified government report on BDR mutiny in facebook.

2. Same day, a few hours later, government banned facebook in Bangladesh on the pretext of it allowing materials hurting people’s religious sentiments.

3. Main media outlets which commands >90% readership reports those above stories with their mild spins. Through their spins, facebook ban is a temporary two day event and it was banned by BTRC. The news of the arrest was very successfully deprived of a headline by hiding it in the facebook ban news. In the news of the arrest the media told the nation that that young man was arrested for drawing cartoon on BOTH THE LEADERS, i.e. Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia.

4. My friend emailed me, visibly alarmed at a Naya Diganta news when some Madrassa nuts brought out a rally demanding facebook ban. To me it read like that the whole facebook ban is an act of the right wing nuts, our government had no option but to comply with their demands. So lets be very wary about the those right wing nuts . [ And give the government a break. ]


I replied to my friend that I am equally alarmed at all four above mentioned events. The right wings demands are concerning. Equally concerning to me are the efforts by our progressives who control our mainstream media to undermine this draconian act of the government and make it look like that our Prime Minister has nothing to with this.

I also wrote that when such things ( e.g. arrest cartoonist Arif arrest case) happened during 1/11 era, we never hesitated to make it a top down government crime and raise our voice by all the means we had. I also reminded my friend that if this kind of incident took place before 2006, what would have been our reaction? Would it have been an act of BTRC and RAB, would the arrest news got hidden in another news? It would have been a direct crime of Khaleda-Nizami cohort to make the country Afganistan.

It is ridiculous to assert that the ban was due to pressure on the government by the right wing Islamists. Just yesterday the number two person of the ruling party confirmed Law Minister’s previous announcement that government will change constitution to remove Islam as the state religion and other non secular amendments. In last ten months this government did not allow the main religious party Jamat e Islami to hold one single street rally anywhere. This has is nothing to do with a rally by Madrassa leaders like Amini or the publication of this news in Naya Diganta.

I would like to take this opportunity to challenge our friends in media, blogosphere to rise to this occasion. This is our opportunity to show the nation that our agenda is for a progressive cause, not for a partisan cause. I believe the cause is progressive, but it is our job to make the nation believe the same.

I am afraid, the whole facebook arrest and ban are ill advised actions of the government to contain some news which they either don’t want people to know or be used as false propaganda against government. This government banned youtube previously for publishing BDR mutiny related audios. Recently facebook was also used to publish some document purported to be classified government report of BDR mutiny. There may be great unease at this sort of activities. Religious sentiment may be an intelligent ploy this time to kill the bird and put the blame on the Islamic fundamentalists.

Facebook ban is a very dangerous precedent. We definitely reserve the right to ban materials that may hurt our feelings. But that could have been done in a more smart way. The specific page that contains any offensive material could be blocked. Whole facebook ban or arresting someone for caricaturing a political leader are not expected from a democratic government. If we ban facebook today, we will ban other outlets tomorrow and then whole internet will come under attack some day.

And we must see and say the spade a spade. It is equally dangerous to see some acts of bigotry are tolerated only because a friendly government is in power.

The recent controversy on Chevron deal and the follow up political rumblings surrounding the PM’s son and her energy advisor on one side and Amar Desh editor on the other side has captivated nation’s attention for the last few weeks. While we debate how freedom of speech is being used to trash political opponents, or how political thuggery is trying to gag free speech, the very important issue of a specific corruption allegation is getting crowded out.

 Let’s keep Mr Sajib Wajed or Mr Mahmudur Rahman out of the issue. Mahmudur rahman is making full use of the victimhood, and his showmanship on this issue is ugly. And Mr Wajed is also dragged in this issue unnecessarily or prematurely. It is an unfortunate fact of life for the children of politicians of Bangladesh and beyond that they are always under close scrutiny and often victim of rampant character assassination attempts.

 However, leaving these individuals aside, we are still left with a specific corruption allegation that has merit enough to demand further discussion and scrutiny. Amar Desh reports a specific corruption report with copies of leaked official correspondence.

The specifics of the corruption allegation are self revealing. A $52 million job was allocated to Chevron without required transparency that includes a tender process. And while protesting the report, PM’s energy advisor repeatedly misrepresented facts. While he said there was no bid in three tenders, the fact is that the Government cancelled earlier lowest bid from Korean Company Hyundai only to award the job to Chevron. He also lied about his agenda for the US trip.

Instead of relying on Amar Desh, let’s turn to the premiere newspaper of Bangladesh, the Daily Star.    The Daily Star printed at least seven reports on this specific issue. (Interestingly, while Amar Desh report is based on government documents, the Daily Star series report, as usual, is based on unnamed sources.  But let’s leave this aside, as no one would accuse the Daily Star of partisan hatred of the current government, or Mr Mahfuz Anam, its editor, of ugly showmanship.

On April 11 2009, the Daily Star warned that a compressor station for gas distribution pipeline was being planned to be awarded to Chevron which would “… unduly give Chevron the authority to control major chunk of the country’s gas distribution system. This will definitely create a number of serious legal complications over the authority and ownership of the compressor station and the distribution pipeline” .

Another follow up report published on June 21 2009 quotes a gas transmission expert: “Even if we accept the idea of pumping PSC investment in compressor, I say Muchai gets no priority for a compressor station now. Because of high volume of gas produced by Chevron, the gas pressure at Muchai and onwards is 1024 pressure per inch (PSI). This pressure will stay for a couple of years at this point. But we need a compressor at Ashuganj where the pressure drops to 700-800psi. A number of new plants are being set up close to the Ashuganj pipeline system. Then why prioritise Muchai now?”

The same report also quotes another official: “Petrobangla’s extreme reliance on foreign investment in the gas sector has already created a precarious situation for the national exchequer. The cost of gas is now very high because foreign companies are producing more gas than the national companies which have been denied adequate funds for their healthy growth”.



[Photo Banglar Chokh]
The all powerful editor of the most circulated daily in Bangladesh, Mr Motiur Rahman, is begging apology, knees bent, to the boss of the bigots and the head Islamist of Bangladesh,  Khatib Obaidul Haque. Supervising the apology ceremony is none other than the information advisor (Minister) of Bangladesh, Mr Moinul Hossain.