Media under siege in Bangladesh

As well as the problem of violence and intimidation, some media practitioners stand accused of bias
Media under siege in Bangladesh

Bangladeshi secular activists hold placards during a protest against the the Digital Security Act 2018 in Dhaka on Feb. 2. The new law means a journalist could be convicted of espionage for entering a government office and gathering information secretly using an electronic device, an offence that would carry a 14-year jail sentence. (Photo by Rehman Asad/AFP)

Intimidation of journalists in Bangladesh, along with media bias and outside pressures, loom large ahead of a national election due at the end of this year.

Bangladeshi Islamic militants have since 2013 murdered 10 people for expressing views on religion or society. They have included bloggers, writers, academics and journalists considered to be atheists or anti-Muslim.

An email sent to several broadcast media outlets warned them to stop employing female journalists.

And, two years ago, an international news agency had to relocate its Bangladesh bureau to a safer location. The bureau now has a bullet-proof door and security is provided by armed guards.

On June 11, four unidentified attackers shot dead atheist blogger Shahjahan Bachchu, a communist who had been on a militant hit-list since 2013.

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He was gunned down in an attack by four men on two motorcycles at a village tea shop near capital Dhaka despite regularly changing hideouts in the face of the threat to his life.

Earlier this year, Dr. Muhammad Zafar Iqbal, a physicist and writer, only narrowly survived being stabbed at a university campus by a former Islamic seminary student who was in turn beaten by onlookers.

The media, as well as suffering militant attacks, has increasingly been subjected to government censorship through laws covering communications technology, including so-called digital security.

TV stations and online portals have been shut down and dozens of journalists have faced criminal charges.

Political parties, businessmen, civil society groups and others also use these communications laws to stifle critical media despite purported protection under the nation's 2009 Right to Information Act.

However, the media in Bangladesh can be its own worst enemy. 

 

The enemy within

Bangladesh has more than 200 media houses, including 50 private TV channels and myriad online news portals, many of which have made a positive contribution to national development since the 1970s.

However, elements of the media have had a negative impact, not least by fomenting political strife and social unrest.  

And both the ruling Awami League and its arch-rival Bangladesh Nationalist Party have links to powerful business identities who own media outlets.

These two parties have rotated in and out of power since the 1990s and their respective media buddies can pursue political agendas at the expense of objective journalism, perpetuating a blood feud between the main political camps.

And commercial interests can use media they control against business competitors.

Media ownership is too often seen as a new status symbol for rich Bengali men rather than as an altruistic commitment to media freedom and the advancement of democracy.

In one case, a newspaper owner was also the editor, even though such positions are supposed to be reserved for journalists with at least 12 years' experience.

Back in 2010 and 2011, media bias was apparent when many believed the Awami League government was behind a campaign to discredit Dr. Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize laureate and economist.

He was accused of diverting funds from the Grameen Bank, which he founded. The allegations, an apparent attempt to thwart his political ambitions, were backed by media outlets that called him a "loan shark" and a "blood sucker."

The allegations were later discredited, but in 2011 there was a new media-generated controversy over whether he had violated the bank's mandatory retirement age of 60.

The brutal murders of journalist couple Sagar Sarowar and Meherun Runi, at their residence in Dhaka in 2012, sparked protests by media practitioners.

But the outrage was short-lived and one senior journalist critical of the killings was appointed to a top government advisory post.

The murders, these days receiving scant media attention, have gone unpunished.

And since 2016, Mahfuz Anam, editor of The Daily Star English newspaper, has received little mainstream media support in relation to sedition and defamation charges against him. 

Even some groups representing journalists can be politically biased.

As Bangladesh heads to its national parliamentary election, there are grave fears of increased political pressure on leading media outlets.

And the scenario is made bleaker by the prospect of the media itself becoming further polarized in the lead-up to voting.

The election is due to be held between the end of October and the end of December.

Rock Ronald Rozario is a journalist, writer and bureau chief for ucanews.com based in Bangladeshi capital Dhaka.

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