Bangladesh Media: Caught in Censorship’s Crossfire?

By Hana Shams Ahmed

[An edited version of this article was published in the December 2012 issue of Forum magazine, The Daily Star]

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Wahid Adnan/DrikNEWS

Abstract

While media blackouts have been a common phenomenon in post-independence Bangladesh, and they have been seen more frequently during military regimes, it would be an error to think democratic periods grant full media freedom. However, we see that media ownership and new technology have had a larger impact on the media landscape than censorship. Newer digital media platforms have increasingly played a part in overcoming censorship where the mainstream media has failed. Although economic limitations play a part here, bloggers have started to fill a void left by the mainstream media. This paper discusses how the state has used various means to suppress media freedom, leading to violations of the rights of journalists, of rights of the people to have a free media, of rights of minority communities to be represented in the media and also the use of religion by the state to suppress free cultural/political movements.

The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future. Sometimes the image you see in that mirror is not a pleasant one. But while you may grumble in the privacy of your armchair, the journalists who hold the mirror up to you do so publicly and at great risk to themselves. That is our calling, and we do not shirk it.

– Lasantha Wickrematunge, Editor of The Sunday Leader, Sri Lanka, from the editorial titled ‘And Then They Came For Me’, published the week he was shot dead by an unidentified assassin.

Introduction

Censorship in one form or another exists in the everyday life of a Bangladeshi citizen. Censorship exists in families, within societies and imposed by the state. Censorship in its most basic is withholding information, either in its full or certain components. Whatever may be given as a reason for censorship, whether to protect oneself or to protect the receiver(s) from perceived harm, the result is that a certain aspect of an issue is presented in distorted form. The Government of Bangladesh has imposed some form of censorship on the press since its birth in 1971, whether to uphold its image or cover its tracks. In Bangladesh’s political climate this censorship has been fairly easy to maintain. During dictatorships, the government strictly imposed censorship on the press and used the media as a mouthpiece to propagate government-manufactured propaganda. But there have been direct or indirect media intimidation during democracies and as most of the media have clear political leanings, it has sometimes been difficult to differentiate opinions from facts in news disseminated by the media during this time.

In its Press Freedom Index 2010, Reporters without Borders rated Bangladesh 126 out of a total of 178 countries. Reading through the entry and the accompanying map of ‘Freedom of the press worldwide in 2011’, the report states that Bangladesh is a country that has “noticeable problems”. This can be considered quite an understatement, yet still encapsulates several issues concerning the media.

From the Pakistan period up to current day, media in Bangladesh have played a very significant role in mobilising national movements and raising political consciousness. During the war of independence, the fall of the Ershad dictatorship, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Awami League’s (AL) alternating tenure in government and during the most recent military-led caretaker government (CTG), all periods have faced significant influence by the media in different ways (the 1970s period is a noticeable interregnum, where media was least vocal, especially post-1975). But this is not to say the media is free from pressures or attempts to silence it. On the contrary, the Bangladesh media has always been subject to intense scrutiny from government and other entities. Moreover, it is heavily influenced by its own political leanings, and in the last decade, the development of corporate ownership has played a big role in its treatment of news.

Journalists at all times have had to work within active state intimidation, legal action as well as tacitly understood forms of self-censorship. After gaining independence in 1971 the media has faced varying degrees of restriction, from both civilian and military regimes, successive governments of AL and the BNP, caretaker government, which held power in 2007/2008. During the tenure of all governments there have been allegations of murder, torture and intimidation of journalists by party loyalists in one form or the other that have shaped society’s view of the media as well as the media’s own perception of itself.

The national framework

Part 3, Article 39 of the constitution of Bangladesh ensures citizens’ freedom of thought and conscience, and of speech. It further adds, “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, the right of every citizen of freedom of speech and expression; and freedom of the press, are guaranteed.”

The constitution of Bangladesh supports freedom of expression and thought but many of the laws related to the press, some of which have been there since colonial times, along with the political culture of the country, prevents a non-partisan media from functioning even in democratic times.

Encarta Encyclopaedia defines censorship as, “Supervision and control of the information and ideas circulated within a society. In modern times, censorship refers to the examination of media including books, periodicals, plays, motion pictures, and television and radio programs for the purpose of altering or suppressing parts thought to be offensive. The offensive material may be considered immoral or obscene, heretical or blasphemous, seditious or treasonable, or injurious to the national security.”

Historically media laws from the times of the East India Company have been enacted to curtail freedom of expression of people and limit people’s personal privacy. These along with several newer ones include the Printing Presses and Publication Act (PPPA) 1973, the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898, the Official Secrets Act of 1923, the Special Powers Act of 1974, the Newsprint Control Order of 1974, the Post Office Act of 1869, the Dramatic Performance Act of 1876, the Contempt of Court Act of 1926, the Foreign Relations Act of 1932, the Censorship of Film Act of 1963, the Special Powers Act 1974 (Hoque, A.N.M.G., ‘Mass Media Laws and Regulations in Bangladesh’, Asian Mass Communication Research and Information Centre) and more recently the Telecommunications Act 2001.

The Penal Code of 1860 (Act No. XLV of 1860) lays down punishment for offences which endanger the national security, the public peace and the public morale through words or writing. Offences include promoting enmity between classes or inciting students to take part in violent political activity, expressions which hurt religious feelings of the citizens of Bangladesh, obscene publications or are prejudicial to the interests of the security of the country or hurts friendly relations of Bangladesh with foreign states. Punishment for the violation of the law is a maximum imprisonment for seven years, or a substantial fine or both.

The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898 gives power to the government to penalize and ban newspapers which contain ‘seditious’ matters that “promote feelings of hatred between classes or outrage the religious feelings of hatred between classes or outrage the religious feelings of the citizens, and to issue search warrants for seizing them.[1]

Official Secrets Act, 1923 makes it an offence for a person to act against the safety or interest of the state. It is also an offence for the media publish anything that would “affect the integrity and sovereignty of the state and its allies”.

The Printing Presses and Publication Act (PPPA) 1973 outlines the system in which printing presses, newspapers, documents and books should be registered and published with proper authentication and authorization.

The Special Powers Act of 1974 has been used by governments to hinder freedom of the press and has been abused by governments against suspected political opponents. The Newsprint Control Order of 1974 was used by the government to exercise control over the production and usage of newsprint.

The Press Council Act of 1974 was enacted to preserve the freedom of the press but at the same time build a code of conduct for the media to follow in order that journalists maintain professionalism in their reporting. In March 2009 the Right to Information Act was passed in the Bangladesh parliament. Theoretically it enables all citizens of the country to access information held by any public authority. A three-member Information Commission body now functions as a cell to respond to complaints by members of the public if anyone in the government fails to give any required information.

After independence there were high expectations from the government of liberalising the press as limitations on the media is believed to curtail a true democratic system. Although ‘democracy’ formed one of the four pillars of the first 1972 constitution of the country, in practice Bangladesh’s political history is littered with power play, political hooliganism, assassinations and attempted assassinations, using of religion to win political advantage, encouragement of Islamic militancy, coups and counter coups, dictatorships, and an overall political environment that runs contrary to all the four pillars of the constitution. And black laws that were established during colonial times pervaded after independence and more limitations were added. The latest addition to attempted censorship is enshrined within the 15th amendment of the constitution itself.

The 15th amendment of the Constitution of Bangladesh was passed in June 2011 amidst opposition from political parties, non-government organizations and human rights activists. Among other things, the amendment makes it seditious to say anything against the constitution[2]. This seems to contradict Article 39 of the constitution, which guarantees freedom of thought and conscience.  Also it is not clear exactly what words and actions would be tantamount to ‘sedition’, thereby effectively putting a further layer of censorship on the media.

According to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Dictatorship and censorship

Bangladesh’s birth in 1971 happened amidst widespread media blackout through the West Pakistani government’s control of the national media. The propaganda worked as a powerful tool to help them gain support from countries like the United States to stand in the way of independence of Bangladesh. In spite of this, alternate media channels like Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra (a radio station established by the liberation forces) bypassed the censorship by broadcasting clandestinely from inside India. Some brave local and international journalists worked their way outside the system, and West Pakistan’s media propaganda failed to stop the independence of Bangladesh.

Later, during the tenure of military dictator General Ershad (1983-1990) state-run television, BTV, and radio station, Bangladesh Betar, became important tools for government propaganda. The state-run media painted pictures of a gracious, thoughtful and people-friendly leader who was working hard to eradicate poverty and eliminate corruption. Songs and poems began to flood the TV stations with footage of Ershad’s visits to villages where he would break down into tears upon hugging poor children in torn clothes. He termed the street children potho-koli (street flower) to heighten his jono dorodi (sympathetic towards people) image. The sympathetic, patriarchal leader media image was not new of course.  Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who is regarded as the ‘founding father of Bangladesh’ by Awami League and General Ziaur Rahman, who came to power in a bloodless coup d’état, also followed similar media strategies to attain political goals.

During Ershad’s rule, one magazine that made a particular dent in state controlled reporting was the Jai Jai Din newspaper (Days go by), and its editor Shafiq Rehman. Rehman used to write a satirical column every Wednesday to protest against the military government. Jai Jai Din was twice banned by the Ershad government.

Georgy Egorov, Sergei Guriev, and Konstantin Sonin argued in ‘Media Freedom in Dictatorships’ (2009) that “… a negative media report not only makes individual citizens aware of the dictator’s incompetence, it makes the dictator’s incompetence common knowledge, which is critical for a successful revolution.” In late November 1990, journalists and newspaper owners joined the movement to topple Ershad’s government. From 29 November 1990 newspaper and magazine publishers stopped all press to revolt against his dictatorship. It was one of the boldest statements by the media to bring about a political change. A week prior to this, newspapers started keeping one of their columns on the front page blank to protest media censorship. The government fell on 6 December 1990.

Ershad’s fall initiated new possibilities for a free media. Unfortunately, while the media continues to play an important role in raising public awareness and forming public opinions and even with the existence of a number of private TV stations, newspapers and private FM radio stations, censorship continues to exist in a milieu of forms in the Bangladesh media.

Journalists under the Emergency Powers Ordinance 2007

On 11 January 2007, amidst a political chaos over elections, a military-backed ‘caretaker government’ took over and declared a ‘state of emergency’ in the country under Article 141A (1) of the Constitution[3]. Under the Emergency Power Rules (Emergency Powers Ordinance 2007) political activity, processions, meetings, assemblies, demonstrations, industrial actions, and trade union activities were prohibited. Under a state of emergency the does not get restricted by the constitutional provisions for freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom of thought, conscience and speech, freedom of occupation and rights to property (Correspondent (2007), ‘Restricted Rights’, The Daily Star, 12 January). Amongst the half a million people who were arrested, there were wide allegations of torture and extra-judicial killings[4]. At first many of the media heads resisted this attempted media blackout but under constant pressure and intimidation they too began to abide by the ‘limitations’ set on them. On 11 January 2007, after the President of the caretaker government Iajuddin Ahmed declared a State of Emergency with the backing of the military[5].

Tasneem Khalil, a journalist of The Daily Star was arrested from his home after midnight on May 11, 2007 by men of the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI)[6] under the State of Emergency. Khalil had spoken out against the military-backed caretaker government’s restrictions on media freedom and control and arbitrary arrest and detention. His reports on sponsorship and patronage of Jihadist outfits by the DGFI and the National Security Intelligence (NSI)[7] made him an instant target for the joint forces (Khalil, T., 2008, ‘Enemy of the State: Surviving torture in Bangladesh,’ The New York Times, 2 March). He also regularly reported on human rights issues for The Daily Star including persecution of minorities and extrajudicial killings by RAB. Apart from working for The Daily Star he also worked closely with the Human Rights Watch and was a stringer for CNN. Tasneem Khalil was severely tortured for his work as a journalist in DGFI custody (Human Rights Watch, 2008, ‘The Torture of Tasneem Khalil: How the Bangladesh Military Abuses Its Power under the State of Emergency’, February). Human Rights Watch published his story “The Torture of Tasneem Khalil: How the Bangladesh Military Abuses Its Power under the State of Emergency” in February 2008.

During the State of Emergency the Press Information Department issued warning notices to CSB and Ekushey TV saying that they had broadcast ‘provocative news’ under the Emergency Rules set by the caretaker government. This was immediately after an incident at the DhakaUniversity where students protested against the illegal occupation of a University area, which led to a scuffle between the police and students. The fact that the University students attacked the members of the armed forces was reported widely by the media. This media for the first time brought to the attention of the national and international media how deeply distrustful the common people were of the military government.

Media censorship during democracy

Throughout the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s rule journalists suffered from intimidation, arbitrary arrest and torture. Foreign journalists were denied visa and deported. Two UK Channel 4 journalists along with their two Bangladeshi counterparts were arrested for doing a story on militant Islam. There was a surge in Islamic militancy during Khaleda Zia’s reign, accompanied by attacks on religious minorities and severe intimidation and attacks on the press.

In 1994 an arrest warrant was issued against writer and poet, Taslima Nasreen by the government led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Her book, Lajja (Shame), where she wrote about a Hindu family being persecuted by Muslims, had inflamed Muslim fanatics.

The BNP government after coming into power in 2001 shut down Ekushey Television, the country’s first private terrestrial television channel in 2002.  A case was filed against Simon Dring, Managing Director of the station, and three other executives, accusing them of fraud. The BNP also accused ETV of being ‘biased’ against them (Hossain, M., 2002, ‘Bangladesh tells TV chief to leave’, 1 October). It may be worth mentioning that ETV received its licence to broadcast in April 2000 when the Awami league government was in power and quickly became very popular for its in-depth and insightful news and reports, a refreshing option from the monotonous government-mouthpiece reporting from the state-run TV channel BTV.

AL’s election manifesto of 2008 which won them a landslide victory promised to ensure freedom of the press. Section 19.1 of the manifesto stated, “The freedom of all types of mass media and [free] flow of information will be ensured. Initiatives will be taken for community radio services, besides national radio network.” Section 19.2 further said, “Investigation and trial of assassination of journalists will be made expeditiously and the real criminals will be given exemplary punishment. Persecution and intimidation of journalists will be stopped. All false cases against them will be withdrawn.”

On April 27, 2010 Channel 1, a private TV station whose owners were closely affiliated with opposition leaders was shut down. The channel, which housed 400 employees, was told by Bangladesh Telecommunications and Regulatory Commission (BTRC) that there were “irregularities” in regard to the ownership of its broadcast equipment. According to BTRC, Channel 1 had sold off its broadcasting equipment and was using machinery owned by another company.  The Bangladesh Telecommunications Act, 2001 states that the licensees must own the equipment it uses.  Channel 1 stated that the equipment was imported and owned by Channel 1 but Prime Bank, which had financed the deal, put the equipment up for auction when Channel 1 defaulted on loan payments. During the caretaker government’s rule six of Channel 1’s directors were arrested on corruption charges.  Many industry experts later commented that the Telecommunications Act 2001 had draconian rules which can be easily abused to control speech. Asif Nazrul, professor of law at Dhaka University criticized the Telecommunications Act 2001 saying it is a law that is “inconsistent with the principles of free speech, and allows BTRC to be the judge, jury and executioner” (Al-mahmood, S.Z., 2010, ‘The Velvet Muzzle’, The Star magazine, The Daily Star, 7 May).

Despite lofty expectations, the policy to control the media to serve the interest of party politics continues. On 20 May 2010 the High Court upheld a government ordered and directed the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (BTRC) to shut down the test transmission of Jamuna Television saying that the channel’s No Objection Certificate (NOC) expired in 2007 before the station went on air (Correspondent, 2010, ‘HC Ruling: Jamuna TV shutdown order valid’, The Daily Star, 21 May).

The government also attempted to shut down of the Bangla language daily newspaper Amar Desh, which is known to be supportive of the opposition BNP. On 2 June 2010 Mahmudur Rahman, the acting Editor of Amar Desh, was arrested and a case was filed accusing over 100 journalists and other office staff  of beating a Sub Inspector of police and obstruction of justice. Earlier on June 1, 2010 the publisher of the newspaper, Md. Hashmat Ali, was allegedly detained by the members of the National Security Intelligence (NSI). Several cases were filed against Mahmudur Rahman and he was allegedly severely tortured while in custody. This followed the publishing of a report in the newspaper on 21 April 2010 under the headline Chamber Judge Manei Sarkarer Pokkhe Stay (‘Chamber Bench’ only means a stay order in favour of the Government) where the role of the Attorney General’s Office was criticized; a notice of Contempt of Court was brought against Amar Desh by two lawyers of the Supreme Court. The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, on August 20, 2010, passed a verdict and sentenced Mahmudur Rahman, to six months in prison and fined him BDT 100,000 (Odhikar Human Rights Report 2010[8]).

Attacks, injuries and threats to journalists continued throughout 2009 and 2010. YouTube, the website that aired Shiekh Hasina’s meeting with army personnel after the BDR mutiny in February 2009 was promptly blocked. It was blocked once again in the country in September 2012 when the trailer of the film, ‘Innocence of Muslims’, went viral, leading to worldwide protests by Muslims and killing of American ambassador to Libya. The talk show host of ‘Point of Order’, Kazi Jesin received death threats and warned to stop airing her shows on human rights and constitutional rights. Many journalists, who wrote against local party political leaders, also received threats political leaders. The government also drafted guidelines to ‘control’ talk shows. According to a report by Odhikar, “the guidelines state that a negative impact had been created on the socio-economic condition of the country due to unplanned and uncontrolled talk show presentations. All the TV channels have to give undertakings following the guidelines on talk shows and to maintain a regular communication with the authority before conducting any talk show.” Police also harassed members of a cultural activist group Lamppost when they tried to protest the construction of the Tipaimukh Dam.

The New Media and Censorship

The advent of the internet-based media, and affordable recording devices such as mobile phones has brought about a revolution in information dissemination in Bangladesh. The speed of news breaking has accelerated. Old media are faced with new challenges from citizen journalism through mobile phones and desk technologies. Tools and institutions of censorship still exist, but are facing a media landscape that is increasingly dispersed, democratized, at the grassroots and therefore harder to censor.

In the 1980s, Bangladesh Television ran for only a few hours each day, but had a captive audience due to very few other media alternatives. Cartoons, drama serials with rigid acting styles, western TV serials twice a week, singers lip syncing in front of garish artificial village backdrops, a Hollywood movie of the week and the government press releases read out in the form of the nightly news. During the Ershad government, at one point there was even an organised movement against the state-dictated newsroom policy.

Much has happened in global and local media in the last twenty years, including the end of state monopoly of television, the arrival of massive private investments in this sector, and the rise of large corporations that are major sources of revenue for all media (especially print and television). Ever since the opening up of Bangladesh airwaves to satellite television, there has been a major ripple effect in all aspects of the media industry. This has meant that the simple command-obey censorship structures of the 1980s are also facing challenge and change.

Apart from BDNews24.com, which is the only web-based news disseminator in Bangladesh, a number of blogs, both English and Bangla exist, which have a regular following and help support an atmosphere of dissent because there is scope in the alternative media to air alternative views, allow debates and discussions on the Bangla blogs than in the mainstream media.

Despite the AL-led government’s auspicious declaration of creating a ‘Digital Bangladesh’ in its 2008 Election manifesto, it proved that it really as ill prepared to handle the consequences of access to the information highway as any other conservative government.

Only two months after it won a landslide victory in the 2008 Elections, the Awami League-led government was faced with crisis. Mutineers from the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), renamed Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) after the mutiny, killed more than 74 people, most of them top army officers inside the Pilkhana BDR Headquarters in Dhaka. A 40-minute audio clip from a three-hour meeting of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina with army officers was leaked and shared over video-sharing website YouTube. YouTube was immediately blocked to stop the spread of the audio which marred the image of the newly-formed Sheikh Hasina-led government (‘Bangladesh imposes YouTube block’, BBC News).

On 30 May 2010, the social networking site Facebook was suddenly made inaccessible to Bangladesh users. This followed a Pakistan court’s decision to slap a ban on Facebook following a petition, filed by a lawyers’ group called the Islamic Lawyers’ Movement, against a competition featuring caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, which the group labelled as ‘blasphemous’.

However, many observers argued that in regard to Bangladesh, the site was blocked following satiric images of political leaders, drawn by Facebook users and widely circulated.  The caricatures included the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, her father former Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and leader of the opposition Khaleda Zia. However, the two incidents coincided and it was never quite clear whether it was one of the two incidents or both which caused the ban.

State and Political Pressure

State censorship has two underlying theories — one is that democracy is not a homogenous concept and every state develops its own form of democracy and uses the concept as a selling point to give everyone a false sense of security and the government is actually intimidated by collective power of what Chomsky terms the ‘bewildered herd’ (Chomsky, N., 2002, ‘Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda’, 2nd Edition). The second is the view that democracy can only work if there is a process of accountability, continuous provocation and regular public conversation between citizens and the State (Chomsky, 2002).

In earlier times, state censorship could simply impose control by dictating to the one state TV channel, and a handful of newspapers. Governments abused BTV’s lack of autonomy to its own benefit. This scenario changed somewhat after private TV channels became viable alternatives in the late 1990s. So while those living in the urban areas having access to private channels and internet can now get multiple viewpoints, those living in the rural areas are still often limited to the news they can get from terrestrial television.

During the two years of “caretaker government”, press controls were increased dramatically. Around 40 journalists were arrested on various charges in 2007 (the first year of the caretaker government) alone.

Of course, it should be pointed out that incidents of intimidation against journalists were also seen under elected governments, e.g., the case of Tipu Sultan, Priscilla Raj and the Channel 4 (UK) team, Reporters without Borders correspondent Saleem Samad, journalist and filmmaker Shahriar Kabir (Reporters Without Borders, 2003) and Alamgir Swapan, staff reporter of the Bangla daily newspaper Janakantha (Correspondent, 2005, ‘IFJ condemns attack on journos’, The Daily Star, 20 July). In 2004, the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) put Bangladesh at the top of their list of most dangerous places for journalists to work. The report stated that since 1997, at least seven journalists in Bangladesh were killed in reprisal for their work and “physical assaults and intimidation are almost commonplace, particularly in rural areas, where journalists are threatened, beaten severely and even murdered just for reporting the news (CPJ, 2004).”

In Bangladesh, many journalists have lost their lives or received threats from politicians and businessmen, seeking to suppress their findings. Censorship of politically sensitive films that portray events from contemporary news have also been banned, as in the case of Cannes award winning film Matir Moina (Catherine & Tareque Masud) and the documentary Tears of Karnafuli (Tanvir Mokammel). In February 2009, the censor board refused to release international award winning filmmaker Enamul Nirjhor’s Nomuna. Ironically, the key plot element of this film is the death of a television journalist’s young son.

The newly elected government has made some positive signs in 2009 by promising to make BTV and Bangladesh Betar autonomous, but already there are signs that these promises may not be kept. The temptation to manipulate political news coverage appears to remain strong, and that is why no elected government has fulfilled the autonomy pledge.

While newspapers and private TV channels everywhere reported the 2009’s upazila (sub-district) elections that there was widespread rigging and manipulation, this news failed to reach those people who do not have access to such media. For a free press to function, the government has to loosen its control over BTV. The media, BTV in particular, has a very important role in the nation-building process. Once certain news and dissident views are suppressed, it dampens the imagination, discourages debate and gives rise to an environment of mistrust and obscurantism. In other words the absence of information equals to the presence of lies.

Censorship and Bangladesh’s International Image

In recent times the government has forcibly closed down Drik Gallery[9] twice for showcasing what they felt were ‘controversial’ exhibitions.

In November 2009 Students for a Free Tibet organized an exhibition titled ‘Into Exile: Tibet 1949-2009’ which was an exhibition of photos of Tibetans who had fled from the Chinese government and gone into exile. The Chinese government had allegedly contacted the Director of Drik, Shahidul Alam, first to try to come a ‘mutual understanding’ so that Alam would take down the exhibition himself. When Alam refused, the Chinese government contacted the Bangladesh government, which sent police to the gallery and stopped the public from entering the premises on the day of the opening of the exhibition. The police told Alam that the gallery needed ‘permission’ to showcase the exhibition but when they were asked to provide documents to support their statements, they were unable to do so. China is currently Bangladesh’s biggest trade partner and has also over the years given economic assistance to Bangladesh during natural disasters (Salahuddin, K.M.R., 2010, ‘China-Bangladesh relations: Friendship with mutual cooperation’, China.org.cn, 8 October).

Another photo exhibition by Shahidul Alam, titled ‘Crossfire’, a euphemism coined by the government to refer to extra-judicial killings by members of the law enforcement officers, especially the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) was also pulled down by the government on the day of the opening on 22 March, 2010. It was said to have caused ‘unrest in the country’ and the allegations from the government side was that the exhibition was being carried out ‘without permission from the government’ (Correspondent, 2010, ‘Drik challenges “Crossfire” exhibition closure’, BDNews24, 30 March). Alam said that exhibitions had been held in Drik since 1993 without requiring prior permission and later filed a petition with the High Court., which upheld the appeal.

The ‘Blind Spot’ that is the Chittagong Hill Tracts

Jatindra Lal Tripura, Treasury bench lawmaker and chairperson of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Task Force on Returnee Refugees and Internally Displaced People stated at an inauguration of a workshop for journalists working in the Chittagong Hill Tracts are intimidated by the local administration on a regular basis (Correspondent, 2011, ‘CHT journalists face pressure from various quarters’, New Age, 6 April).

Journalists of the area are regularly called by the military commanders in their area for cha nasta (tea and snacks). This is a method of intimidation used by the military/intelligence to control the news and see that it does not go against the interest of the military and other vested interest groups.

In January 2011 a special ministerial meeting was held with several ministers and heads of the military and intelligence from the CHT. Speakers noted that there has been a renewed interest in CHT by ‘foreign journalists’ and ‘foreign funded NGOs’. They suggested that these groups had an ‘agenda’ and CHT should be protected from ‘becoming another East Timor or Southern Sudan’. The group also noted that because of the Internet, information from the CHT was more easily accessible to foreign journalists and this was cause for worry for the government.

New Media and Citizen Journalism – New Opportunities for press freedom

Johann P. Fritz, the Director of International Press Institute of Vienna argues, ‘The new communication technologies provide the much-needed oxygen for the democratization process. Conversely, democracy provides the environment for basic press freedom’ (Fritz, J.P., ‘New Media in New Democracies: Oxygen for Democracy’). The new ‘citizen journalists’ are everywhere with their high-resolution mobile phone and digital cameras. In recent years, websites like Facebook, Hi5, LinkedIn have all become popular as part of the social networking web phenomenon. These tools allow users to stay connected, share photos, posts, links and ideas and publicise their work to a global audience.

A confrontation at the Baitul Mukarram mosque[10] over a controversy over appointment of a khatib[11] was spread through the Internet before the news media could get it out into the public either through the newspapers or TV. Protests were made when the new khatib was elected for the mosque at the beginning of 2009. The scene however turned violent when protestors began throwing shoes at the new khatib inside the mosque during a Friday prayer and the khatib’s supporters retaliated by throwing shoes at them. The shoe-throwing between the two groups was caught on mobile phone cameras initially and the news was spread through the blogs at lightning speed before it reached the people through the mainstream media.

Given all the possibilities of new platforms, the Bangladeshi government has also tried to monitor and censor these tools in various ways. However, in the area of new media, censorship efforts have been far less effective than in the case of newspapers or television. The state’s nervous and unsure relationship with technology is exhibited by the fact that until 2008 the governments kept the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) out of mobile phone network, citing ‘security concerns’. Ever since an insurgency by indigenous people in the CHT, the government continued to consider the area as a ‘security threat’.

In the 2008 national elections, an argument was proffered that mobile networks would be turned off all over the country on the day of the election. However, this decision was reversed precisely to allow citizen journalism using mobiles to record and report vote rigging and create a more transparent environment for voting. As writer Naeem Mohaiemen pointed out, “There are many grassroots Bengali activists who now use media and technology to monitor and review the political process. The mobile is the building block and basic DNA for that movement” (Mohaiemen, N., 2008, ‘Election 2008: Don’t turn my mobile off’, 26 December).

Another incident that was broken to the entire world simply through mobile phones and blog posts was a mutiny of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) in February 2009. Before any television news camera got to the scene of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) Headquarters in Pilkhana where army officers were held hostage, the mobile phones and digital cameras were already there chronicling every moment of a historic scene of confrontation and uploading it to various discussion blogs. Later, on May 29 when the National Probe Report was made public the hammer sharply fell on the media. It accused the media of playing a negative role in the progression of the events saying that by showing live telecasts of the event it “gave preference to the commercial aspects of the situation over the national security” and that the “media’s uncontrolled, irresponsible and biased transmission, and the easy availability of contact over mobile phones caused tension in BDR units outside Dhaka” (Correspondent, 2009, ‘A summary of the national probe report on the BDR mutiny’, The Daily Star, 29 May). In the Probe Committee’s report it recommended that the government should formulate a ‘Code of Conduct’ for the media specifying their role in consolidating national security.

Corporate Sponsorship & Free Speech Hazard

Afsan Chowdhury refers to the 1980s as the decade which gave rise of the ‘Owner-Editor class’, which was a new phenomenon that ensured control and prestige through editorship, first of a newspaper and subsequently of a television station (Chowdhury, A., 2003, ‘Media in Times of Crisis: National and International Issues’, Shraban Prokashoni).

BTV is a nationalised body and as such tends to work as a mouthpiece for the government in power. In the 1980s the whole media industry worked as a government organ with very little scope for autonomy. Despite that, investigative journalism by the media has revealed a lot of corruption, especially in business and government. In the 1980s, when all banks were government owned, the media exposed how bank directors were taking illegal loans under false names. 134 bank directors were found to be involved of which fifty-seven were removed from their posts, nineteen went to court and overturned their removal orders and fifty-eight regularised their loans and were allowed to continue as directors.

Many newspapers and TV stations are owned by individuals and parties with unambiguous political affiliations. While in the past 80 percent of advertisements consisted of government tender notices and related matters, today most leading newspapers derive 70 to 90 percent of their advertising revenues from the private sector. This means corporate businesses do have a considerable influence over the content or lack of content about certain issues. A study by UNDP talked about corporate pressure on both the print and electronic media from the telecom industry who provide for the largest chunk of advertising revenue for the media industry (Saleh, A. and Chowdhury, M., ‘Influence of Media in Bangladeshi Politics’, UNDP Bangladesh). Journalists in the survey talked about how negative stories about the telecom industry are hardly ever called for. It is difficult to dissociate the corporate hand from the media in the form of democracy that we have.

Way Forward

Bangladesh is by far the world’s most violent country for journalists, remarked Reporters Sans Frontières Report on 2002. For Bangladeshi journalists, covering crime and corruption can be as dangerous as reporting in a war zone. Journalists regularly endure vicious attacks, intimidation and repression and since 1998, five Bangladeshi journalists have been killed in reprisal for journalistic work (Samad, S., 2003, ‘Threats and intimidation for secular and independent press in Bangladesh’, World Press Freedom Day, 3 May).

The media in Bangladesh has played a very important role in the democratization process of the country. It has managed to create public awareness regarding corruption, human rights violations and international relations. At the same time market censorship, political affiliations and various forms of self-censorship to protect the interest of the media and the editor-owner is prevalent.

With blogs and other social media people have started becoming more involved with breaking and disseminating news, forming opinions and having discussions with similar and dissimilar political views and although the present Awami League-led government has promised to be very liberal about the information superhighway, it has worked in the exact opposite way when certain information or opinion that the government has considered ‘sensitive’ became exposed over these alternative media spaces.

Despite having freedom of expression guaranteed in the constitution, the laws of the country did create a ‘loophole’ to censor media using ‘security’ as a rationale. The political culture of the country encourages violence against anyone who demands transparency and accountability and stands in the way of those in positions of power. And so despite high expectations at the fall of the autocratic regime it is clear that a democratic form of governance in the country has not really created a free media. Within the different media organizations, much censorship has occurred due to editorial positions influenced by political leaning and favouritism to corporate powers. The new media platforms have been able to cater to people’s need for fair and unbiased news coverage in some cases where traditional media has failed, but that platform is still a privilege of the few. Until the media truly believes that the media is there to serve the people over and above all other interests, it will not be able to serve its purpose, to fulfil the people’s right to know.


[1] Internews research.

[2] Article 7A of the Constitution (section 7 of the Constitution (Fifteenth Amendment) Act, 2011) states: “(1) If any person, by show of force or use of force or by any other un-constitutional means (a) abrogates, repeals or suspends or attempts or conspires to abrogate, repeal or suspend this Constitution or any of its article; or (b) subverts or attempts or conspires to subvert the confidence, belief or reliance of the citizens to this Constitution or any of its article, his such act shall be sedition and such person shall be guilty of sedition.” Article 7A further states: “(2) If any person (a) abets or instigates any act mentioned in clause (1); or (b) approves, condones, supports or ratifies such act, his such act shall also be the same offence.”

[3] 141A. Proclamation of Emergency

(1) If the President is satisfied that a grave emergency exists in which the security or economic

life of Bangladesh, or any part thereof, is threatened by war or external aggression or

internal disturbance, he may issue a Proclamation of Emergency:

Provided that such Proclamation shall require for its validity the prior counter signature of

the Prime Minister.

[4] Amongst those who were arrested during the state of emergency were the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and leader of the opposition Khaleda Zia who were arrested on charges of corruption.  Many of those who were arrested alleged torture by the military while in detention. Khaleda Zia’s son Tareque Zia was among these who alleged torture.  According to a report by human rights group Odhikar compiled after 18 months of the declaration of emergency, the total number of extrajudicial killings, including death by torture and custodial deaths, stood at 246. Many of these killings were carried out by Special Forces, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) which is known for ‘crossfire’ killings, a blanket term used to mislead people into thinking that the killing occurred during a gunfight. No RAB member has ever been prosecuted for such killings. During the state of emergency a lot of people died during custody and the authorities, despite there being overwhelming evidence of torture, attributed the deaths on ‘heart attacks’ and other reasons.

[5] The Constitution of Bangladesh contains provisions for declaration of State of Emergency if it is believed that the national security is under threat. This was the third time that emergency was declared in Bangladesh since its independence in 1971. The military was widely known to have been the shadow government behind the caretaker government. More about this can be found in “Emergency Powers and Caretaker Government in Bangladesh”, A.K.M. Masudul Haque, Journal of the Australasian Law Teachers Association.

[6] The DGFI is the main military intelligence agency of Bangladesh. There are many allegations of intimidation and torture on journalists and political activists by the DGFI.

[7] The NSI is also a military intelligence agency in Bangladesh.

[8] Odhikar is a human rights pressure group based in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

[9] Drik gallery is a very popular art gallery in Dhaka, Bangladesh and regularly hosts national and international photo exhibitions.  The gallery regularly exhibits political art exhibitions and also provides a platform for discussions on freedom of the press.

[10] Baitul Mukarram mosque is the national mosque of Bangladesh located in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.

[11] Khatib is an Arabic term which refers to a person who delivers the sermon during a Friday prayer or Eid.

One Response to Bangladesh Media: Caught in Censorship’s Crossfire?

  1. garcinia morella

    Bangladesh Media: Caught in Censorship’s Crossfire? | Hana Shams Ahmed

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