Suppression of the press in Bangladesh. By Dr. Stephen Gill


Writers in Bangladesh have been threatened, imprisoned, attacked and killed for using their pens. Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is the latest link in that episode. On November 29 of 2003, he was arrested at the Zia International Airport in Dhaka on his way to address a symposium of the Hebrew Writers Association in Tel Aviv on the role of media in establishing peace. The intelligence sources claim to have found in his brief case the text of this speech and reports on the situation of human rights in Bangladesh.
He was denied bail several times. Due to pressure from Pen (USA), an association of writers to defend free expression, international press groups, some congressmen of the United States and friends abroad, he was released on bail on 30th of April in 2005, but his passport was not returned.
Mr. Choudhury publishes and edits Weekly Blitz, a comprehensive tabloid in English from Bangladesh. He is a columnist, author and political analyst, and well respected at home and abroad for his daring writings against radicals and corruption. As a concerned writer and journalist, he makes his citizens aware of the waves of Nazism, fascism and Stalinism in the shape of radicals who take away the joy in living. His pen advocates the ideology that nourishes equality, freedoms and secularism. The voice of Mr. Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury for freedom can be heard clearly, strongly and distinctively far and wide.
Mr. Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, however, continues his jihad against radicals, known to tarnish a religion of peace. To appreciate his courage, PEN (USA) has honoured him with the Freedom to Write Award in 2005, and the American Jewish Committee has selected him for the prestigious Moral Courage Award that he will receive on 2nd May, 2006 in Washington, D.C.
On February 26 in 2006, he received threats on his life from Majahudin Bangladesh (JMB) over the phone. He filed a complaint with the local police, but the government did not provide security to Mr. Shoaib Choudhury. The leader of the (JMB), Abdur Rahman, after coming from the Afghan war, established a militant group that had a powerful suicide squads. Abdur Rahman studied at Madina Islamic

University in Saudi Arabia and worked at the Saudi Embassy in Bangladesh from 1985
to 1989. He was responsible for a series of attacks , spreading a wave of fear. He was arrested in the early March of 2006. When he was asked to come out of the house where he was hiding, he told the enforcement officers of the Rapid Action Battalion (Rab) that he will prefer to be a martyr because jahadies do not surrender. He had arranged to blow up the house.
Shaikh Abdur Rahman represents the culture of violence that is obvious from the dialogue that took place between him and the Rab enforcement officers when he was surrounded for arrest. During interrogation he showed no sign of remorse for his ruthless actions, particularly for misleading the youth that killed innocent people, including the judges. Mr. Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury uses his pen to expose such dangers to society.
According to Reporters Without Borders more than a third of the population of the world live under the conditions where the press has no freedom either because those countries have no democratic setups or have serious problems with the democratic process. Several non-democratic governments suppress the freedom of the press to continue their own power. They use their police, military and intelligence services for suppression. The journalists who try to get out of the suffocating atmosphere to breathe in freedom are intimidated by the state through its agencies , such as the police. Such governments violate article 19 of the Declaration of Human Rights that clearly states that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinion without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.”
Obviously, it is not possible to obtain information and to distribute it among the citizens if the press is not free. Steps against writers, editors, and journalists are against the health of the nation and the government because control of the print and broadcast media leaves no room for public debates that contribute to the development of a sound and informed democracy. Media is the backbone of democracy because the media provides information to voters to make their decisions. Moreover, it is the media that also identifies problems and provides a platform for deliberations. They act also as watchdogs to find errors and corruption.
Where there is no freedom of the press, democracy cannot flourish. And where there is no democracy, there are riots, guerilla warfare and open persecution of minorities. Democracies do not commit genocides. Democracy is a way to live and let live. Democracies do not waste hard-earned foreign exchange to buy deadly weapons to arm themselves. Any blow to peace is the blow to everyone that stands for the progress of the country. Terrorism creates national problems as well as for distant countries, particularly for neighbours in several shapes.
Freedom is the child of the committed media that protects human rights and the rule of law. In order to keep democracy alive, it is important to keep the watchdog, media, alive and free. The areas of the world where the watchdog is alive and free are known also for progress, prosperity and freedoms. There is hardly any democracy that has no freedom of the press. Where there is no healthy democracy, there is hardly any prosperity. And where there is no prosperity, the best brains try to settle abroad where their skills and hard work are appreciated and rewarded. It is due to the importance for the survival of democracy that the press is often called the fourth branch of the government. The first branch of the government is the legislature; second is the executive; the third is the judiciary. This fourth branch or estate, called the press, acts as a watchdog also.
This fourth estate, the watchdog, needs the air of freedom to function properly. It needs the atmosphere of freedom of expression that has been guaranteed by the Declaration of Human Rights that are based on law of nature, such as the law of gravitation. When someone says that all are equal before their Creator that also means that all are equal before the law of the country. In other words, law should not discriminate one citizen from the other. To be equal before the law is the right of every citizen of the same country.
My friend Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed, an esteemed writer and associate professor at Stockholm University, wrote me in 2005 that anything is possible in Pakistan. He sent this email when a CD album of my songs that was produced in Pakistan was not permitted to go abroad, not even to the father of its poems. Today, after a few months, I can use the same words for Bangladesh which was East Pakistan before 1971. I can use the same words for Bangladesh on the basis that the press censorship is definitely one element that it has inherited from Pakistan. Arrest of the editor of an anti radical publication, and to take away his passport so that he may not be able to travel, and alleged charges prove that anything is possible also in Bangladesh.
Because of the repressive forces, this region has been dishonoured several times in the past. Rabindera Nath Tagore, poet laureate, called this region “golden” in one of his poems. He said “Always your sky and your wind play music in my heart.” The music that Tagore talks about went away when India was divided in 1947. Thousands of people, including children and women, were killed on both sides of the border and thousands of women were abducted and raped. People of East Bengal (now Bangladesh) suffered all this calmly, thinking that the nightingale of the music will come back. But it did not. For about twenty-four years this area was exploited by the other area.
This resulted in another bloodshed. The Pakistani army unleashed its terror on the sleeping, unarmed Bengalees on the night of the 25th of March in 1971 that marked a turning point in the history of this region. Within a few months three million Bengalees were killed and ten million escaped to the neighbouring country of India. Out of those atrocities perpetrated to this “golden Bengla”, Bangladesh was born. Citizens of this region envisaged that the nightingale of music that Tagore heard, they would be able to hear in their newly found freedom.
Citizens found a liberator in Sheikh Mujib, who envisaged a secular and multicultural Bangladesh. He wanted to structure the new country on the principals of coexistence. Before he could bring that nightingale back, he was murdered brutally with several members of his family on August 15 in 1975. After his murder, a new phase started.
This area has witnessed press censorship even before the independence of Bangladesh. During the dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a progressive Urdu poet, was imprisoned because of his alleged involvement in a plot to overthrow the government of Zia-ul-Haq through a military coup. He ran away from Pakistan to pass the rest of his life abroad as an exile. In March 2006, a prominent poet of Pakistan Munir Niazi said in an interview that in Pakistan, fiction, literature and poets have always been suppressed. Because of these suppressions, Pakistan has never breathed the oxygen of democracy in the real sense since its formation in 1947. Even Bangladesh did not breathe that oxygen when it was separated from Pakistan. Soon after the independence, the first president of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, banned all the newspapers, except two that belonged to the government.
One prominent recent case is of Taslima Nasreen, the author of Laja. She had to seek refuge abroad when radicals turned against her. Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is still suffering for his daring voice against radicals and corruptions. He is still involved actively with his jihad to bring peace through peaceful means in the peace-torn country of his birth, though he has been implicated in sedition charges.
Let us taste his concern in Weekly Blitz Online. He points out about the Zia International Airport on March 1, 2006 :

the Dhaka airport has become the number one smugglers` paradise taking gold and contraband items in and trafficking foreign currencies in millions of dollars out. Only some miracles can break the spreading malice to help restore normal working in the body and restart its rebuilding. But these are not in sight either.
In the same article he points out :

There are corruption and fraud in every front, in every place within the organization. Plundering and siphoning of resources are skyrocketing. Sabotage is a regular phenomenon. Secret deals and award of leasing contracts to political houses are the rule of business. Selling of overseas posting to lackeys are open secrets. In Biman (airline of Bangladesh) these have gone to such an extent that the organization has started disintegrating.

He keeps pinpointing the malady, and suggests also cures. The establishment,

instead of supporting him, has charged him with sedition. No award or appreciation would be enough to compensate the danger that he faces in his day-to-day life. In countries where life is not secure, foreign investors will not like to take risks. Even the national investors will take their money out and invest somewhere else where their capital is secure. There is also a brain drain in insecure nations. It costs a considerable amount of dollars to train a medical doctor. When that doctor establishes his practice somewhere else, those dollars also go out of the nation. When the culture of the gun prospers, the country is defamed abroad and democracy cripples. Under those circumstances the country would need the watchdog that is free. Mr. Shoaib Choudhury is doing the work of a watchdog under dangerous circumstances.
In his articles, Mr. Shoaib Choudhury has been pointing out some major barriers to the prosperity and security of the country. This he does in a country where writers have been disappearing for speaking out; poets have languished in jails; journalists have been attacked and charged with sedition in recent years. The Bangladesh Watchdog says in its 2005 report that “democracy and press in Bangladesh is partly free.” It notes official harassment of journalists and human rights advocates on regular basis.
The Paris-based World Association of Newspapers that is for the newspaper industry and defends and promotes press freedom says that "Bangladesh remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to be a journalist”. These remarks were used in a letter to Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia on 7 July in 2004 to protest against the continuous imprisonment of Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury. These remarks have come from an established and respectable global organization that represents 18,000 newspapers with membership that includes 72 national newspaper associations, individual newspaper executives in 102 countries, 13 news agencies and ten regional.
The peaceful jihad of Mr. Shoaib Choudhury is against the enemies of peace. He urges to create a favourable atmosphere for the growth of prosperity. He was arrested when he was going to present a paper at a press conference of writers in Tel Aviv. The topic of his presentation was peace through the media. If Dhaka does not have diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv that should not be the base for his arrest. Israel
has never been a threat to the security of Bangladesh. Some Islamic nations have already established their diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv and other nations are considering seriously to do so. After all, Bangladesh has everything to prosper. All that
this country needs is its own independent policies that are in its own interest. To follow a few nations that are not democratic themselves will not help Bangladesh in any way.
It is encouraging that the government of Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia has shown ability and interest in curbing the elements that endanger the security and economic life of the country. One of those encouraging steps is the arrest of Shaikh Abdur Rahman and his second in command Siddiqual Islam, also known as Banglabhai. It was a major achievement of the law enforcement officers. Both fugitives have been taken alive into custody. The Government of Begum Khaleda Zia has received appreciative comments from the foreign embassies in Bangladesh. Citizens as well as some nations abroad have heaved their sighs of relief. Both fugitives had prizes declared by the government for their arrest.
The statement of the State Minister for Home Affairs Mr. Lutfuzzaman Babar is also encouraging. There is some light of hope when he tells the journalists that his government’s hunt for radicals will not stop after those two big arrests. They may reveal the sources of their funds.
These arrests show that the enforcement agencies of Bangladesh , particularly the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), is capable of handling any situation in the country. These steps are encouraging also for minorities. The problems of the weaker sections of the society have to be tackled compassionately, rationally and with courage. Among those weaker elements are included women who help the country to earn foreign exchange through their hard work in textile factories and elsewhere. Other elements include the religious and ethnic minorities, particularly Christians and Hindus. A country in which weaker sections are not given proper protection, the majority cannot remain happy and be able to enjoy its secure position for a long time.
Achievement of the goal for prosperity is possible only when representatives of the press, such as Mr. Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, are free to evaluate the performance of the ruling party and to engage citizens in meaningful discussions. Bangladesh has potentials to prosper in every direction. The first step towards that direction is to free the press. Denial of freedom to the press is the denial of nourishment to the growth of prosperity and democracy that is also a furtive attempt to murder the conscious of a nation.

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