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Media under assault in Bangladesh..

While opposition political parties criticized the present government alleging that the government was gagging the media by closing BNP-leaning Bengali-language newspaper Amar Desh and blocking social networking website Facebook, 



Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina reaffirmed her administration's commitment towards freedom of expression.It may be mentioned here that, Bangladesh government blocked the popular social networking site Facebook last week for indefinite period at the pressure of Islamist groups, which were angry on Facebook for posting cartoons of the Prophet of Islam. 

On Wednesday evening, the government cancelled the publication license of vernacular daily Amar Desh, which was established during BNP's rule during 2001-2006 by one of the most influential political secretaries of the then Prime Minister. The same person also managed to obtain broadcast license from the government in launching two private television channels named NTV and RTV. There had been tremendous criticism by anti BNP quarters, when the party was continuing to issue broadcast licenses to many of its influential leaders and activists.

When military controlled interim government seized power in 2007 [January 11], the owners of this media conglomerate were arrested on various charges including corruption charges. Later, the vernacular daily was forced to be sold to one of the former ministers of the BNP government, when the newspaper was virtually facing bankruptcy with journalists not being paid for months.

Since Awami League led government came in power in 2008, this vernacular daily turned into the major platform of political opponents thus causing tremendous increase in its popularity and circulation in months. This newspaper was continuing to publish critical articles, news and commentaries on various irregularities of the government, including some high-profile corruption. Both the ruling party, its activists as well as the government was lodging series of cases against the acting editor of this newspaper Mahmudur Rahman and other members of this vernacular daily, with the goal of suffocating their voice. 

Being failed in suffocating the voice of this newspaper, the government used National Security Intelligence [an intelligence agency mainly assigned to ensure internal security of the country] in picking up one of the former owners of this newspaper from his residence without any allegation. Later, this owner was forced to sign into several documents, alleging that the new owner and editor of the newspaper violated several contractual obligations with him. 

On the basis of this document, extracted by the intelligence agency, the administration quickly acted in cancelling the publication license of the newspaper during very late hours of the day and police rushed into its office thus locking the printing press and arresting the editor, resulting total closure of this popular vernacular daily.

Several international organizations, including Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders etc have criticized such undemocratic attitude of the ruling government in Bangladesh and for continuous repression of press.

At such dramatic and forceful closure of a newspaper, there is a severe concern amongst the members of media in Bangladesh. Many are considering such situation with any authoritarian state or regime.
"This government has left clear signal to all that it will not tolerate any criticism by the press. Minimum criticism of the government may even cause in closure of any newspaper or television channel in the country, which surely is a very adverse situation for freedom of expression", said one of the leaders of journalist community in Dhaka.
"Awami League does not believe in freedom of press. It is their tradition of suffocating media and this time too, there is no change in such attitude of this party", said a journalist of the closed vernacular daily.

Hundreds of journalists and employees of this vernacular daily have become suddenly unemployed at such closure. Their appeal to the government is stopping such repression and re-opening the newspaper seems to have gone in vein.
Meanwhile, a highly placed source with Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory 

Commission told reporters that the ban on Facebook may be withdrawn only after the authorities removed the objectionable contents.
"They have taken off two [Fan Pages] with anti-Islam contents and one individual account. Another is being wiped off," BTRC chairman Zia Ahmed told reporters.
The BTRC chief said the social networking site had promised to work together with the Bangladesh regulators and deal with "troubling content" in the future.
"I look forward to learning more about your local standards and working together to promote safe use of Facebook in Bangladesh," Joe Sullivan, Facebook's chief security officer, was quoted by Ahmed as saying.
More than 400 million people worldwide use California-based Facebook, of which Bangladesh accounts for over 876,020 users, mostly youth.

Hundreds of Dhaka University students took to the campus streets May 30 to protest the government temporarily shutting down the website. They called the decision a contradiction to the government's 'Digital Bangladesh' vision and "interference with the right of expression".
The students also said such a step would embolden radical Islamists who are demanding a complete ban on Facebook on charges of "blasphemous contents".
Bangladeshi Islamist leaders were seen extremely delighted at government's decision in blocking Facebook.

Repression or assault on media in Bangladesh is nothing new. During past BNP-Islamist coalition government, a senior photo journalist was physically assaulted at Chittagong Stadium by a police officer at a stadium during an international cricket tournament. The culprit police officer was not punished by the previous government for such heinous act. Series of sedition charges were also brought against several newsmen during the same government, while sedition, treason and blasphemy charges were brought against me for publishing investigative articles on training of Jihadists inside madrassas in the country. The current government, which proclaims to be upholding secularist ideology, is still continuing trial into this case against me, just for appeasing the Islamists and religious fanatics in Bangladesh. The latest attempt by the government in blocking social networking site, Facebook evidently shows its softer attitude towards Islamists.

Bangladeshi media is possibly crossing one of the worst ever situations since the present government came in power in 2008. Virtual reign of terror has been established in the entire sector while assault and repression of journalists have become a common phenomenon in the country.

Bangladesh is not any isolated or authoritarian country. Government are committed in upholding democracy and freedom of expression. But, when the elected representatives or governments behave like military junta, it would surely open window of fear about the very democracy in the country. Wish the present government would at least realize such realities.

Source: BLITZ
by Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
June 4, 2010

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