Journalism


March 12 saw over a hundred thousand people gather to listen to Khaleda Zia speak. They came, despite the fact that all long-distance transportation to Dhaka, including buses, trains, and ferries, had been stopped the last three days, that police was indulging in mass arrests of anyone even suspected of going to the rally, and that on the day of the rally, AL workers armed with weapons were stationed at various points of the city to “discourage” people from attending the rally.
But you wouldn’t know any of that from reading Afsan Chowdhury’s latest. In fact, his piece is a perfect illustration of the iron-clad rules governing BD journalism. All criticism of AL is generic and vague: “AL came out looking like a bunch of scared rabbits”, “the AL who now stands out looking inept”, “But what the AL also did in its failed attempt to contain the crowds from swelling was use its cadres”, “AL had a bad case of nerves”, “AL decided to add to it by making direct broadcasts impossible”, “the party came out looking so novice like, out of depth and touch, hardly the kind of maturity that can handle a political crisis.”
You see, AL is a party governed by a series of inter-changeable drones, and all members have the exact same contribution to policy-making, so it makes no sense to mention the prime minister, or any of her advisers, or members of her cabinet. The party is governed by a hive-mind. Everyone is equally culpable: no need to mention anyone by name.
By contrast, the criticism of BNP is sharp and personal: “Khaleda where her political imagination is limited by her lack of understanding of what people want”, “she however left out was significant which is any reference to the War Crimes Trial”, “It was a very convenient but unpleasant silence on the part of Khaleda Zia”, “Khaleda has declared a number of new programmes including a hartal. So we are back to the hot and heavy season.”
Simple: BNP bad, Khaleda Zia worse.
Finally, this may come as a shock to Chowdhury, but there is no law “that forbids any criticism” of the war crimes trial. There is, however, Section 39 of the Constitution of Bangladesh, which is titled “Freedom of thought and conscience, and of speech.”  It protects the right of all Bangladeshis to express themselves as citizens of a free and democratic country. Perhaps he should glance at it.

Daily Star Report Blaming Hawa Bhaban

About ten months into the current Awami League government’s tenure, Daily Star produced this sensational investigative report. In blaring headlines, it pinned the blame for the August 21 assassination attempt on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Tarique Rahman (referred to as Hawa Bhaban bigwig in report), and some other BNP leaders. The assassination attempt was billed as a joint venture between BNP and an Islamic fundamentalist organization.

The timing of this report was extremely significant. Two years ago, it was quite common to hear predictions about BNP breaking apart or an end to the Zia-brand of politics. Rovian dreams of Awami League’s permanent majority was quite du jour. BNP was scheduled to have its annual party council at the end of 2009. A feasible connection between Tarique Rahman and a murder charge would not only put BNP’s leadership transition into question, it would have given the government a huge bargaining chip against the largest opposition party.

Julfikar Ali Manik claimed that a “highly privileged document” from “a top accused of the grenade carnage” was the source of this information. This document finally went public on April 7 2011, when Mufti Hannan was brought in front of a magistrate to give a confessional statement that mirrored exactly what the 2009 Daily Star report had claimed. Important to note, Hannan had already confessed to his own involvement in this crime back in 2007. This additional information was only to pave the way for Tarique Rahman and other BNP leaders to be also indicted for the same crime.

Fast forward to September 27, less than a week ago. Having involved everyone the government wanted to involve, the case starts. Mufti Hanna submits a document stating that his supposed confessions were extracted by torture. How does Daily Star cover the story?

Daily Star Report on Retraction

It buries the retraction deep into the story. Which is funny, because the news that the government allegedly extracted a confession from a prisoner in its custody, only so that it can frame opposition politicians, ought to be big news. Amar Desh has reproduced the entire petition, including description of the torture. Eyebrows have been raised for less.

Daily Star Report on BNP

The next day, BNP, quiet understandably, held a press conference claiming vindication and pressing for the name of its leaders to be dropped from the charge-sheet. Again, in the headline, Daily Star made no reference to the alleged retraction. A casual reader glancing at the headline, as I did, would have probably thought it referred to some garden-variety claim made in some rally somewhere, and missed this entire back story.

In an incredible counterattack, to make sure the retraction of the confession was downplayed, Daily Star printed a competing news article claiming that Hannan’s legal petition had no standing. The next day, it got eminent jurist State Minister for Law Quamrul Islam to say the same thing.

Daily Star Report on Retraction of Confession

Let us look at the legal claims that a confession given under Section 164 cannot be retracted. Section 164 (3) of Bangladesh’s Criminal Procedure Code states:

(3) A Magistrate shall, before recording any such confession, explain
to the person making it that he is not bound to make confession and that if he does
so it may be used as evidence against him and no magistrate shall record any such
confession unless, upon questioning the person making it, he has reason to believe
that it was made voluntarily; and, when he records any confession, he shall make a
memorandum at the foot of such record to the following effect :-
“I have explained to (name) that he is not bound to make a confession and that, if he
does so any confession he may this confession was voluntarily made. I was taken in
my presence and hearing, an was read over to the person making it and admitted by
him to be correct, and it contains a full and true account of the statement made by
him.
(Signed) A. B.,
Magistrate.”

This makes abundantly clear that voluntariness is at the heart of any confession obtained through Section 164. The fact that confessions extracted through torture are illegal are no surprise; the courts of Bangladesh have been very exact in this regard. Our Supreme Court has explicitly held, in State Vs. Abul Hashem, 3 MLR (HCD) 30, that a magistrate cannot record a confession that is extracted through torture. And then, just to make sure, the magistrate has to affix his own signature at the end, verifying that the statement was not produced through torture.

What factors should a court look at to see whether there were any indication of torture or general police coercion? One very important factor is whether the confession is extracted after being in police custody, or whether there is any possibility that the witness may be taken back to remand right after his interaction with the magistrate. In State Vs. Farid Karim, 8 BLT(AD) 87, the fact that the accused was in police custody for unexplained two days before the police produced him for making confessional statement, was one of the important factors in the confessional statement being found involuntary.

Has Mufti Hanna been taken in custody, also called remand, often? According to a very desultory Google search, he has been remanded for 7 days on September 6, 2009, 5 days on September 12, 2009, 3 days on September 23, 2009, for 7 days on December 3, 2009, for 3 days on July 18, 2010, 2 days on August 22, 2010, and 5 days on December 27, 2010 . After making the statement, he was remanded for 1 day on April 26, 2011. That makes for 32 days of remand, and potential police torture, before and  1 day after making this confession statement. During the remand hearing held on August 22, 2010, Hannan tallied the number of days for which he had been in remand at 369 days over the past five years, and begged the magistrate not to grant any more remand. Remand, though, was granted.

Hanna was in police remand for half of September 2009. Presumably, it was this during this period that the document which became Julfikar Manik’s investigative piece was produced.

Even if this confession was made through torture, should we care if such confession statements cannot be retracted? Yes. There exists a plethora of judicial opinion, specifically State Vs. Lalu Miah and another, 39 DLR(AD) 11, which holds that any allegation of torture which forced the confessional statement, is to be treated the same as a petition for the withdrawal of the statement. Now that Hannan has claimed torture in police custody, the judge must decide whether his earlier confessional statement is credible. So the claim that there is no legal basis for withdrawing his confessional statement is without merit.

So why is this about the Daily Star’s coverage of this whole issue, rather than the much serious issue of torture of a prisoner in government custody, in a conspiracy to subvert the opposition political forces. There are two main reasons. The first is that we hear about these human rights violations through newspapers, and especially the Daily Star. If not for the Daily Star, Limon would be rotting in a jail cell or dead by now. So, when the newspaper itself decided to obfuscate the story and shift the focus to legal technicalities like getting permission from jail authorities instead of the much bigger and more serious allegation of torture in government custody, it renders hollow its supposed commitment to human rights and reinforces the suspicion that the news printed in Daily Star is slanted to serve a particular agenda.

Secondly, torture does not occur in a vacuum. No torture can flourish in a society unless it decides, as a whole, that certain individuals or classes of individuals are exempt from the protection of law. It very much seems like Daily Star has made such a finding for Mufti Hannan, which makes the paper, in general, and the relevant individuals, in particular, accomplices to torture. And the insidious thing is that the class of people who can be tortured tends to grow and metastasize at unbelievable speed. You may think that it only includes people with beards, and then suddenly, it also includes young university students out at night. 

This saga is by no means over. While there is an aspect to it that has a purely partisan aspect, this incident also serves as a reflection of the values that we hold as a society. And those values are fraying fast.

Updated: Meanwhile, over at The Economist, the party continues.

The poisonous politics of Bangladesh: Reversion to type

Banyan: In the name of the father

Favorite sub-heading: The Sheikh of things to come. Wish I had thought of that myself.

The storm created by the article in the Economist and some of its allegations have, by now, reverberated through Bangladesh’s blogosphere. A question that keeps arising is the motivation behind this article. A close scrutiny of the Economist article makes clear that this article marks a clear break in continuity from previous Economist articles, as well as the general editorial line that the Economist has adopted towards the successive anti-BNP governments that have in power in Bangladesh since 2007. This article has cast doubts on the general fairness of the 2008 election (“bags of Indian cash and advice”) and the entirely positive predictions made about granting transit to India (”Indian security corridor”). It has hinted that Hasina’s shenanigans are not going entirely unnoticed in the outside world (“Sheikh Hasina, who is becoming increasingly autocratic”). It has emphatically burst Hasina’s favorite claim about, in general, being more honest than the previous government (“Corruption flourishes at levels astonishing even by South Asian standards”), as well as her boasts that her dynasty is better than the Zia dynasty (“Mrs Zia’s family dynasty, also corrupt”). And certainly most gratingly for Hasina, the article comes right out and points out that her obsession with her father is starting to border on the abnormal (“Hasina is building a personality cult around her murdered father”).

What could lead to such a dramatic u-turn? Not just some well-placed leads or a momentary whim. This article is the forerunner of large things to come.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is visiting Bangladesh next month. The questions has been asked: why does he need to come to Bangladesh all of a sudden? Part of the answer may be that we are in one of those rare moments when an Indian Prime Minister needs his Bangladeshi counterpart’s help, and not the other way round.

2010 was a magical year for India, and for Singh. India set a record of sorts by hosting the heads of state of all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, BJP continued its in-fighting and slide to irrelevance, and there were no clear challenges on the horizon. 2011 has seen a dramatic reversal of events. The 2G spectrum has seen the former telecom minister sent to jail. He has, in turn, implicated both Singh and Home Minister Chidambaram in the conspiracy. This scandal, its inept handling by the PMO, and the subsequent demands that the PMO be kept out of the ambit of the Lokpal bill, has irreversibly stained Singh’s image as a clean politician. The Supreme Court has finally instructed the police to inquire into vote-buying allegations regarding the no-confidence motion brought after the nuclear deal with the US. All of these present potent challenges to the government.

Singh has also been weakened by a coterie of senior ministers who have been leading the charge to bring Rahul Gandhi to the forefront. While the young Gandhi has been an abject failure in his mission of reviving his party in the Hindu heartland of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Bihar, the full scope of the perils facing his party and his leadership will only be apparent when (not if) Congress loses the next election. However, Congress is now a reflexively dynastic party, and Singh has proved to be ineffective in keeping his council of ministers under control and prevent factionalism by those using Rahul’s name.

In this circumstance, Singh’s upcoming trip to Bangladesh represents the equivalent of the Indian cricket team making a tour of Holland. The Bangladeshi government will be fawning and servile, all demands will be met, photo opportunities will abound, and Singh can bask in the glow of taming a country where one in four individualis an ISI stooge.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that this article in the Economist is an effort by the anti-Singh faction in the UPA government to pre-emptively tarnish any of the gains that may accrue to him from the Bangladesh visit and further solidify his status as lame-duck prime minister. If we hypothetically assume for a second that bags of cash did change hands prior to the 2008 election, the receiver, Sheikh Hasina, would probably not divulge too many details. But the person giving the cash could. Coincidentally, in the absence of Sonia Gandhi for her mystery surgery, the four-person team which is in charge has not included Pranab Mukherjee, the senior-most Congress minister in the cabinet. It has included A. K. Anthony, the second-most senior Congress minister.

India has never handled dynastic transitions particularly well. The upcoming one promises to have enough drama to rival Mughal-e-Azam. But unlike past instances, Bengal will hopefully be spared direct involvement this time around. However, collateral damage, as evinced by the Economist article, may be unavoidable.

Out of the two items posted below, at least one is a explosive news, if only news value is considered and if we decide not to mention the significance of this news in terms of Bangladesh local politics, geopolitical conflicts, soveignity of Bangladesh, land disputes etc. And the other news points to high stake financial mismanagement, esp during the weeks when our media is obsessively focused who siphoned how many billion taka from a bank or from the stock market.
AGARTALA: Dhaka has allowed New Delhi to erect fencing along the zero line of the international border so that Indian homes and farms located close to it are not impacted, a Tripura minister said here on Friday.

India has been erecting the barbed wire fence along its 4,095-km border with Bangladesh passing through West Bengal, Tripura, Assam, Meghalaya and Mizoram to check trans-border movement of militants, prevent infiltration and prevent border crimes. As per international norms, the barbed wire fencing has to be built 150-yards inside India from the zero line of the international border.

“For erecting the fence (at 150-yards from the border line) along the 841-km of the 856-km India-Bangladesh border with Tripura, over 8,730 Indian families’ homes, paddy fields, lands, farms and other assets had fallen outside the fence (making them) vulnerable,” Tripura revenue and finance minister Badal Choudhury said.

He said: “Due to stipulated distance for putting up the fence, over 19,359 acres of land, including farmland, have fallen outside the fencing in Tripura alone.”

“Following Tripura government’s persistent demand, New Delhi appraised Dhaka about the problems in erecting the fencing at the 150-yards from the boundary and the Bangladesh government has allowed India to erect the fencing at the zero line’ in certain stretches to save Indian properties and congested human habitations.”

________________________________________________________________________
IANS, Apr 10, 2011, 01.03pm IST

DHAKA: Indian telecom major Bharti Airtel has an “unfair market advantage” over its competitors in Bangladesh, a report said here Sunday.

The draft Cellular Mobile Telecommunication Operators Licence Renewal Guidelines 2011, prepared by the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) on behalf of the posts and telecommunications ministry, allows unfair market advantage to Airtel, the latest operator to enter the market, “telecom industry insiders” were quoted as saying in New Age.

Right from Airtel’s 70 percent stake in Warid Telecom for $100,000 to allowing Airtel to exchange spectrum band access free of charge, “the government and the commission have displayed a bias towards Airtel in their treatment of the telecom industry”.

Four leading operators – Grameenphone, Orascom (Banglalink), Axiata (Robi) and Pacific Bangladesh Telecom Ltd (Citycell) – are up for licence renewal in November, after the expiry of the 15-year term of their licences.

Airtel, which acquired the licence in December 2005 for $50 million, is not up for renewal until 2020. It gets a window of nine years in which it will be providing services for much lower rates, the report says.

According to the draft, operators will need to pay application fee, licence renewal fee, annual licence fee, revenue sharing, social obligation fund as well as separate licence fees and charge for spectrum use.

The spectrum fees have been set at Tk 1.5 billion ($20 million) per MHz of GSM 1,800MHz band frequency and Tk 3 billion ($40 million) per MHz of GSM 900MHz band to be multiplied with the utilisation factor of each of the operators.

In total, Grameenphone would have to pay Tk 55 billion ($755 million), Banglalink Tk 29 billion ($410 million), Robi Tk 30 billion ($400 million) and Citycell Tk 6.2 billion ($85 million).

Top officials of the four leading operators say the proposed fee is too high and will force the operators to increase prices for services.

“Outside of Grameenphone, the three other operators still operate on losses and, therefore, we do not understand the justification of this staggering fee,” a top official of Banglalink said.

An official said Airtel’s promotional offer of dinner with Indian actors Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor was against BTRC regulations. On complaints from other mobile operators, BTRC just issued a letter to all operators to not flout rules, foregoing any punitive action against Airtel.

[ P.S. These news items were missing from main pages of main stream print and electronic media in Bangladesh. May be someone can find some mention of the above news in a one column 2 inch news on the 17th page. Both the news mentioned above deserved high value treatment and lack of such trreatment means the news was missing in Bangladesh media.]

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).

(more…)

Updated: Some redemption.

I am a fan of Zafar Iqbal the science-fiction writer. The columnist, not so much. After a long time, he once again wrote a column in the Prothom Alo. According to him, the two greatest problems facing our country are:

1. We don’t know the lyrics of our national anthem.

2. We don’t make our national flag according to the correct specifications.

Compared to Professor Iqbal, Sohrab Hasan is a paragon of reality-based discourse. He very aptly points out the plight of Bangladeshi blue-collar workers in Libya and the AL government’s slothful reaction to this problem. However, then he seeks to balance his attack by blaming the opposition BNP for not going to the Airport when the workers returned from Libya. Given that two months ago, our government did not allow BNP MPs to enter the Airport when Khaleda Zia departed for China, one has to wonder how Sohrab Hasan believes that the same government would have just allowed the BNP leaders to stroll into the airport without any hassle.

Hasan commits the added offense of minimizing the current controversy of the reprinting of the Constitution ( সরকারি ও বিরোধী দল বাহাসে লিপ্ত হয়েছে সংবিধান পুনর্মুদ্রণ, গণ-আদালতে বিচার এবং তত্ত্বাবধায়ক সরকার থাকা না-থাকা নিয়ে). Prothom Alo’s Mizanur Rahman Khan has been conducting a one-man war against the complete chaos regarding the new, phantom Constitution. His columns on this matter should be mandatory reading for anyone concerned with the fate of parliamentary democracy in Bangladesh.

But no amount of myopia can compete with that displayed by the government in its handling of Prof. Yunus. Sheikh Hasina is going to look back to the day when she decided to launch her vendetta against Prof. Yunus and rue it.

Total voter were 659, of which 623 members of Dhaka Press Club cast their votes to elect a new executive committee. This committee’s job is to manage Dhaka Press Club activities for the year. Candidates in the election were nations high voltage editors, journalist leaders. It is difficult to turn Bangladesh news television on without seeing their faces and their opinion – advise on every single issue in Bangladesh.

 

Like everything else in Bangladesh, this election was also contested on the basis of Awami League and BNP supporting panel. Although these TV personalities and editors regularly serve the politicians sermons with advices to improve their cultures, they themselves exposed their real face after the election. The panel that lost the election rejected the election, alleged vote counting irregularities and resorted to vandalism and violence.

For Gods sake, there was only 623 votes. How counting irregularity possible in such an election? The candidates know each single voter, it is not impossible to know 300 people who can vote or against.

 

It was shocking but not surprising to see iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury, Golam Sarwar’s  real faces. Their thinking was, ‘we are ruling party supporting panel and how dare BNP wallahs win this election defeating us. We did not have enough vote, so what we will grab the verdict by force.’. This sort of attitude clearly exposes the standard and integrity of journalism these folks resort to.

And this election exposes the standard of another ‘once respected’ profession which is Journalism.  Few days ago we talked about the standard of Dhaka University teachers and this election reminds us that University Teachers are not alone in this race towards infinite decline. God save this country.

 

 

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