Archive for the ‘Media Censorship’ Category

Against surveillance: more on the national ID card

October 13, 2008

Dy Shahidul Alam and Rahnuma Ahmed, NewAge, October 13, 2008

 Rahnuma Ahmed writes

My last column had ended with these words: ‘The current regime’s voter registration list has, in all probability, lessened the likelihood of fraudulent votes. But it also has, in all likelihood, laid the groundwork for installing a new regime of surveillance, one that will be deployed against the citizens of Bangladesh’ (‘National ID Cards: In the Interest of Surveillance?’; New Age, September 29).

Little did I know when I wrote it that Bangladeshi bloggers had intensely debated the pros and cons of national ID cards four weeks earlier (see The discussion in had been generated by Ashiq’s Amra O Pari post, eulogising the electronic registration of voters, a feat that was termed a ‘silent revolution’. Ashiq wrote, at first, no organisation had expressed its willingness to complete the task within the period stipulated by the government, not even foreign companies. Sky-high figures had been quoted. But fortunately, the Bangladesh army had submitted its own proposal to the government, just like any other organisation. Its budget was also the lowest.

A person who writes under the name of Incidental Blogger had raised these questions:
   The Bangladesh army’s budget was the lowest – what is your source of information? Do you know who were the second and third bidders? Do you know why the latter failed to secure the contract?
   Who was in charge of the selection process? Who were the committee members? Could you tell us how much freedom they had in reaching their decision, and your source of information? Was any internationally-recognised independent evaluator assigned?
   What were the criteria for selection?

Chor, another blogger, commented further down, the national ID card project is the task of the Election Commission. Of course, the EC can request the help of the army, this is not the problem. The problem is when public money is used to charge the public for services rendered.
   Incidental Blogger further wrote, the ID card issue is linked to the issue of individual freedom, privacy, etc, this is why western governments are finding it difficult to get their own electorates to agree. Not mincing words, he wrote, does the caretaker government in Bangladesh have the right to make a decision on something as fundamental as the national ID card, something that is a matter of state policy? Did it not happen very conveniently, almost too easily? Are you sure this information will not be shared with western intelligence agencies? He went on, you may look at it positively, but I look at it as the first step in Bangladesh turning into a fascist state. 

I read and re-read the blog. It is good to know that my fears are shared by others. 

While researching for my previous article, I had surfed the internet for information, and learnt that the voter roll project in Bangladesh was a ‘co-operative venture’ between BIO-Key in the US, TigerIT in Bangladesh (their ‘systems integrator on the ground’), and the Bangladesh army. 

I had asked Shahidul when he came home whether he knew of TigerIT Bangladesh. No, never heard of them, he said. Hmmm, I said, their webpage says, the cofounder and chairman is Ziaur Rahman, it lists a Joseph Fuisz, as the cofounder. And guess what, a Daily Star Weekend magazine article on Info-Tech says, `TigerIT Bangladesh Limited is an offshore technology campus of TigerIT, USA, with its corporate headquarters located in Northern Virginia’ (March 2, 2007), but this is not mentioned in their website. 

Shahidul became curious. Read what happened next, in his words.

Shahidul Alam writes

 I knew about Tigers. There were the Bengal Tigers, our cricket team, even Tiger Beer. TigerIT was new. Having initiated DrikTap, the pioneering email network in Bangladesh in the early nineties, I thought I knew about the IT scene in the country. So when Rahnuma told me about this ‘cutting edge’ Bangladeshi company, I asked around amongst IT savvy peers. No one had heard of TigerIT. A quick search of the ‘who is’ database revealed that the domain had only been registered on 21st August 2007. So when on the 1st May 2007, the chief election commissioner had said the ‘countdown of the 18-month timeframe starts from today,’ the domain did not even exist! 

A quick search on Joseph Fuisz, the cofounder of the company, revealed that he was based in Washington DC. Since I was scheduled to give a presentation at the National Geographic in DC, I dropped Mr Fuisz a line asking if I could interview him. The ‘out of office’ response was followed by a mail saying he was away on a family holiday in Miami. It just so turned out, that I was presenting at Miami University on 30th September. I suggested we meet in Miami and provided my itinerary. Upon arrival at Miami, I received the following mail, ‘Unfortunately, I have been tied up in meetings all day today. Thus, I am sorry that it does not appear I will get to see you in Miami.’ This was the man who was away on a family holiday for a week. I offered to meet papa Fuisz (Richard C Fuisz, MD), in Washington DC. I should have anticipated the response: ‘I am so sorry — your prior email did not come through (I just found it) and so I did not forward it to my Dad’s assistant. I think it is too late to schedule now. Please accept my apologies. I will email you some things about Tiger and hope to meet in you Bangladesh some day – very best, Joe Fuisz.’ 

I’ve had no further correspondence from Fuisz.

Rahnuma Ahmed writes

If you had met him, what would you have wanted to know, I ask Shahidul. His list of questions was ready: 

(1) What were the factors leading to a newly formed company, TigerIT BD, being able to obtain such a prestigious and lucrative contract? 

(2) What are the implications of having a biometric database for Bangladesh? Who might benefit from this data, nationally and internationally? 

(3) Does your company TigerIT (the parent company of TigerIT BD) have any previous experience of working in Bangladesh or the region? 

(4) Why did you choose to work with relatively inexperienced people in Bangladesh and set up a new company rather than teaming up with existing IT companies with a track record? 

(5) Who are the main clients of your company TigerIT (the parent company)? 

(6) What is your equity in TigerIT BD?
   He grinned and added, but of course, I sent him a very general note saying we were fascinated by the news of what they had done and wanted to do a feature on the company for DrikNews.

So, why are western citizens concerned? As Peter Boyle asks, what’s the fuss behind another little piece of plastic? What is dangerous is not the card itself, he says, but ‘the mother of all databases that is behind a compulsory national ID card system.’ Chris Puplick, a former Liberal Senator who was a member of the joint select committee on the Australia Card, speaking of his ‘fear’ of national ID card systems wrote, ‘Should 20 million Australians have their liberties trashed so that we might – I repeat might – detect the two or three mad jihadists in our midst? Will files now be created on the basis that people belong to a certain religion, attend particular places of worship or hold specific political opinions?’

Does the national ID card system help to combat terrorism? Privacy International (PI), a global human rights group, in a 2004 study on the relationship between national ID cards and the prevention of terrorism was unable to ‘uncover any instance where the presence of an identity card system’ was a significant deterrent to terrorist activity. I remember coming across a blog comment somewhere: ‘Want to be rid of terrorism? Pull troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq.’ Another blogger had said, ‘Governments quite often frighten me more than terrorists.’

Some Bangladeshis – still carried away by the present military-backed caretaker government’s drive against corruption – may think that it will help clean up corruption. As a blogger had commented in drishtipat: ‘Like driver’s license renewal or getting cars inspection every year, the national ID card… will have huge impact on and spectacular change in the society.’ Those pro-ID cards probably don’t know that computer disks containing detailed personal information on 25 million individuals, and 7.25 million families in Britain, went missing last year. Personal information included names, addresses, national insurance numbers, and data on almost every child under 16. According to experts, the information ‘could allow crimes beyond identity theft,’ since some people use a child’s name or part of their address as password on their bank account. In other words, a combination of these details could allow criminals to break their code. Another critic says, if a government or criminal wanted to frame someone, amending, erasing, or adding to the details on one’s medical records, employment history, could be easily done, since all information would be stored on a single device.

Khushi Kabir had left a comment on my column at Shahidul’s blog, speaking of her own disturbing experiences: ‘What was also worrying was the religious and other profiling done, albeit arbitrarily in majority of cases, despite that this information was not asked for in the form filled up prior to getting photographed or finger printed. My big teep must have confused them, so they asked for my religion, which I did not find necessary to provide them, or any other information that was not on the form. Others were not asked but religion was put on the basis of their “assumption”. When challenged as to why they needed my religion or to keep it blank they stated that they were required by the “authorities” to profile it. Shireen Huq had a similar experience. They informed her there was only space for four religions in the database, i.e. Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian. No scope for others. This kind of information can be potentially frightening.’

Of course yes, Khushi. As Jim Fussell of Prevent Genocide International points out, ethnic classification on ID cards in Rwanda, instituted by the Belgian colonial government and retained after independence, spelled a death sentence for Tutsis at any roadblock. No other factor, says Fussell, was more significant in facilitating the speed and magnitude of the 100 days of mass killing in Rwanda that left 800,000 dead. 

The near-deafening silence of Bangladeshi human rights organisations and activists on the national ID card issue is remarkable. I wonder why? Are their campaigns waged against ‘locals’ only – the neighbourhood bully, the local rapist, the village acid-thrower? Do they shy away when human rights violations are caused by ‘big’ actors? Does speaking out against Big Brother’s ‘war on terror’ fall outside the prescribed terms of reference? 

Do not misunderstand me, fighting against local power structures has not always been easy or convenient, as their own records of struggle show. But it is a global world, and we should learn from the African feminist who had said, I am oppressed not only by my patriarchal village headman, but equally so by the IMF and the World Bank. And I add, by western regimes who are waging terrorist wars against the world’s peoples.


Govt forms body to check ‘negative’ price increase news

August 30, 2008

Asif Showkat, NewAge, August 30, 2008

The government has formed a media committee to see how ‘negative news’ on commodity prices can be thwarted as reports on price hike have been seen as factors that fuel market volatility.

Experts, however, see it as a tool for controlling the media and feel that there is no use of such a committee. ‘The print and electronic media are not giving the real reports on declines in prices of essential goods, so consumers are being deprived of positive outcome of price fall,’ said an information ministry official.

The ministry will take initiatives to ensure that the media play a ‘positive’ role in letting people know when prices fall as they do in case of soaring prices, said the official.

The eight-member media committee, headed by a joint secretary of the information ministry, had its first meeting on August 23 and analysed the media reports on the local commodity market.
 Most of the members agreed that the media, both print and electronic, reported elaborately when prices of some items had gone up, but they were often reluctant to even have a mention in their reports when prices declined, the information ministry official said.

The director general of Bangladesh Betar, the principal information officer and the chief editor of the state-run Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha are members of the media committee, which will hold its next meeting on Monday at the information ministry.

Regulatory Reforms Commission chairman Akbar Ali Khan has said there is no necessity to control the media reports on price hike of essentials. Rather, the government should allow the media to publish real news on price hike of essentials across the country so that necessary interventions can be planned and made on time.

‘The government has taken certain programmes in the budget to keep prices of essentials in check. If the programmes, like official import and procurement of food, are implemented properly, prices of essentials will be automatically stable in the market,’ Akbar, a former finance secretary, told New Age.

AAMS Arefin Siddiqui, professor of journalism at Dhaka University, rejected the contention that media reports on price hike have negative impact on the market.

‘Our media reflect the real picture of commodity price situations across the country,’ he said to New Age, adding that the interim government might want to control the media in the name of checking ‘negative report’ by forming a media committee.

In its first meeting, the committee found that the country’s major newspapers were downplaying or ignoring the news of significant reduction in prices of many items.

It suggested that the state-run Bangladesh Television could easily show sales of commodities at the BDR fair price shops and open market sale outlets of Trading Corporation of Bangladesh and the food ministry.

Newspapers should publish price chart of essentials so that the people can know the real prices of goods and bargain with the traders effectively. Private televisions and radio channels can air programmes like Bazarer Bag [shopping programme], a reality show run by BTV, to update the viewers on market prices, the committee said.

It entrusted the Press Information Department with making official price charts available to all newspapers routinely, sources close to the committee said.

Govt set to monitor phone calls despite writ pending with High Court

August 29, 2008

Taib Ahmed, NewAge, August 27, 2008. 

The government is going to monitor and coordinate tapping of telephone calls through a national monitoring centre, comprising officials of intelligence agencies, under the home ministry while a writ petition challenging telephone tapping has been pending with the High Court for 27 months.

According to sources in the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, a national monitoring centre will be set up under the home ministry to coordinate the tapping of phone calls and monitor call activities.

The centre will be run by a committee with representatives of the commission, Rapid Action Battalion, the police and two intelligence agencies.

The commission chairman, Manzurul Alam, however, told New Age on Monday the committee would have no representation of the commission.

Asked about telephone tapping, Manzurul said, ‘The national monitoring centre, which will work under the home ministry, will monitor call activities, if felt required.

He also said a brigadier general of the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence will head the centre.

The national monitoring centre will record calls with the set-up provided by telephony companies, and interconnection exchange and international gateway operators, said sources in the commission and the operators.

Three private international gateways, six interconnection exchanges and one international internet gateway recently started operation under the commission’s international long distance telecommunications system policy.

According to the policy, interconnection exchanges and international gateways, access network service providers (mobile operators), and internet telephony and VSAT hub operators will provide the commission with necessary connections, equipment, instruments and software for online and off-line monitoring.

‘The operators will provide access for the law enforcement agency for “lawful interception” as per the Bangladesh Telecommunications Act 2001 including necessary equipment and software,’ the policy said.

Telephony operators will also provide call details record or any other monitoring facilities of voice and data calls, or both, for online and off-line monitoring by the commission, the policy said, adding the commission would set up a monitoring centre at the submarine cable landing stations, if required.

‘Monitoring facilities will be established by respective operators for voice and data communications using international private leased circuit. IPLC monitoring facilities should also be extended to the commission and the law enforcement agency for online and off-line monitoring including necessary equipment and software by respective operators,’ said the policy.

Sources in the commission and the international gateway and interconnection exchange operators said the process was on to set up teletapping equipment which might go into operation by December.

‘We have held a series of meetings with an intelligence agency, with representation in the national monitoring centre, at its headquarters regarding teletapping,’ a senior technology officer of interconnection exchange operator M&H Telecom, which recently started operation, told New Age.

He, however, said the national monitoring centre was yet to get into its full shape.

Asked exactly how and to what extent call activities would be recorded by the national monitoring centre, he said, ‘The equipment of the national monitoring centre, to be set up at the headquarters of an intelligence agency, will have connectivity with each of the telecom, mobile, interconnection exchange and international gateway operators.’

A senior technology officer of an international gateway operator said, ‘The process of procuring the tapping equipment is now in the final stages and they will be set up at the headquarters of an intelligence agency.’

It has now been easier to record voice calls with the commissioning of six private telephony operators which will handle especially overseas calls as the country did not have such technology earlier, he said.

‘Law enforcement agencies will tap voice calls only when the authorities concerned will allow them to,’ he said.

Although the government has finalised the teletapping process, it is yet to submit its reply to two rules issued by the High Court asking it to explain the legality of the provisions for telephone tapping.

‘No reply to the rules has yet been filed with the court,’ a law officer in the attorney general’s office told New Age on Tuesday.

‘If the case is enlisted for hearing, we will submit the reply to the rules to the court,’ said the state attorney.

A High Court bench of Justice M Awlad Ali and Justice Zinat Ara on May 18, 2006 issued the rule on the government to explain why the Telecommunications (Amendment) Act 2006, made on February 16, 2006 making provisions for telephone tapping, should not be declared unconstitutional.

The government and the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission were also asked to explain the legality of the action taken by the commission in issuing the guidelines on March 16, 2006 tagging new conditions to licence of telephone operators under the amended law.

The court passed the order after hearing a writ petition filed by the New Age editor, Nurul Kabir, and the treasurer of the human rights coalition Odhikar, Tasneem Siddiqui.

Direct democracy: challenges for Bangladesh

November 17, 2007

NewAge, November

Bangladesh is at a critical crossroads in its democratic journey. Top-down reforms imposed, without the participation of the people or their elected representatives, by a military-backed government, which intimidates those it deems to be contrary to the national interest and has scant respect for the due process of law, are unlikely to deliver an improved democracy, writes Adilur Rahman Khan*

EVER since a military-backed government came to power in Bangladesh, on January 11, 2007, the authority of the constitution has faced a number of challenges. The extent to which the current regime is able to identify those challenges and how it responds to them will dictate the course of democracy in Bangladesh.

In an attempt to ensure that parliamentary elections are held free, fair and without undue influence from the incumbent party-political power, Bangladesh, which returned to democracy in 1991, has a system for transition of power from an elected party-political government to a non-party-political, independent, caretaker government shortly before the elections are due to be held. According to article 123(3) of the constitution, ‘A general election of members of Parliament shall be held within ninety days after Parliament is dissolved, whether by reason of the expiration of its term or otherwise than by reason of such expiration.’ The last elected regime, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, handed over power to a caretaker government on October 28, 2006. For the first time, the caretaker government was headed by the president, Iajuddin Ahmed (who was president during the BNP-led regime), as the two major political parties, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Bangladesh Awami League, were unable to reach a consensus on the appointment of a former chief justice as head of the caretaker government.

However, the Awami League soon alleged that the Iajuddin-led administration was neither neutral nor entirely independent of the influence of the BNP-led alliance, and that it would not facilitate fair elections. Subsequently, the party announced that it would boycott the polls, scheduled to take place on January 22, 2007. The AL and BNP supporters launched a series of confrontational street protests, which became increasingly violent, prompting the army to step in, seemingly with the support of some development partners and a section of ‘civil society.’ A new ‘caretaker’ government, backed by the army, took over on January 11. Iajuddin was removed from the position of head of the caretaker government but retained as the head of state and an indefinite state of emergency was declared, suspending fundamental rights and freedoms – including the right to move the Supreme Court to enforce human rights.

The government declared that it had multiple mandates granted to it by popular support, including the holding of parliamentary elections – not within the 90 days dictated by the constitution but after completing a fresh voters’ roll. The head of the government, former Bangladesh Bank governor Fakhruddin Ahmed, announced that the administration planned to prepare a new electoral roll to put the possibility of any controversy over vote rigging to rest. In addition, it announced that free and fair elections would not be possible until rampant corruption was tackled. The principle targets in the drive against corruption would be politicians and party activists suspected of illegal activities and their businessmen cohorts. The institutions that would tackle corruption such as the Election Commission, the Anti-Corruption Commission and the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission were reorganised and retired or in-service army officers were installed to run those.

The current situation
Several months into the tenure of the Fakhruddin-led government, the Election Commission unveiled a roadmap for elections, which are supposed to take place before December 2008. There are serious obstacles in place. While launching its so-called anti-corruption drive, the government said democracy would not be possible while there was corruption within the political parties. Along with many senior staff, the top leaders of the BNP and the Awami League were accused of corruption and arrested; they remain in detention awaiting trial. Despite their detention, both remain extremely popular among the people. With a view to eliminating the influence of political leaders who were mired in a culture of corruption, the government has undertaken a series of reforms, both overt and covert, to minimise the influence of the political parties’ ruling cliques.

With plans to create a entirely new voter list in a predominately rural country of 150 million people; arrest, try and punish corruption suspects; begin institutional reforms – including reforms in the political parties and the separation of the judiciary from the executive; improve law and order through an anti-crime drive; and hold local and national elections all before the end of 2008, the government has a long way to go in very little time.

Trials of corruption suspects have not met international standards guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the administration has been accused of selectively choosing which corruption suspects to bring to trial based, not on the strength of evidence or severity of alleged crime, but on political expediency. This has created uncertainly among businesspeople, which, in turn, has led to a severe downturn in the economy. During the ten months or so that the government has been in power, extrajudicial killings by law enforcement agencies – common under the elected regimes – has continued; 162 people have reportedly been extra-judicially killed during the state of emergency. Furthermore, human rights defenders – including Odhikar’s acting director – have been intimidated by the intelligence agencies of the state. Torture of people detained on police remand continues.

The print and electronic media in Bangladesh, which has a reputation of freedom and impartiality, has been under significant pressure from the state to refrain from reporting news or comments critical of the government. Journalists report being regularly ‘reminded’, usually by telephone calls, that if they publish news critical of the government they may face negative consequences. This has reportedly led to a significant level of self-censorship by the media – a restriction on the freedom of expression. During the nationwide curfew in August 2007, journalists were assaulted, beaten up and injured by the security forces. Additionally, the government declared that it had the power to ban or attach conditions on broadcasting so-called ‘provocative news,’ documentaries, talk-shows and discussions critical of the government under powers given to it by article 5 of the Emergency Powers Rules 2007.

The government has also used the Emergency Powers Rules 2007 to quell protests by jute mill workers who have recently been made redundant and farmers who have demanded the distribution of fertiliser.

Under pressure to deliver results, supposedly independent agencies, such as the Election Commission, have taken decisions that are seen to be based more on conforming to the plans of the regime rather than adhering strictly to the due process of the law.

All the while, the state of emergency has outlawed public protest. Nevertheless, there have been sporadic demonstrations. In August, a seemingly small altercation between a student and a soldier on the campus of Dhaka University led to a rally and calls for an apology from the army and the government and for the army’s temporary camp to be removed from the university campus. The army quickly dismantled the camp and an apology was issued, but the students did not stop there. Rather, they began to demand the withdrawal of the state of emergency and for early elections. The demonstration spread to other university campuses throughout the country. Other groups, disaffected with the government’s policies – street hawkers and factory workers – joined the protests. The government responded with repression. Following three days of protest, it declared an indefinite, nationwide curfew. The media, already under pressure not to be critical of the authorities, was explicitly told not to broadcast ‘anti-government’ news. Television news channels were taken off the air, mobile phone signals were cut and, at the same time, it was not possible to access the internet. The authorities filed cases against 82,000 unnamed protesters. Students and university teachers were arrested and charged with breaching provisions of the Emergency Powers Rules 2007. Some remain in detention having been arrested, without warrants, from their homes in mid-night raids.

In such an environment concerns have been growing about who is controlling the levers of power within the administration. There are increasing reports of the military intelligence agency playing a progressively more influential role in decision making and policy implementation.

The one national institution that the military-government has not attempted to reform, an institution critical to good democracy, is the parliament – which has remained suspended since October 2006. Rather than investing time and resources to strengthen the parliament and parliamentarians, so that the representatives of the people can work towards a corruption-free society in the long term, the government has converted buildings within the parliamentary compound into sub-jails to hold high-profile, political corruption suspects.

The role of holding the government to account during this difficult time may then have been legitimately expected to fall to journalists. However, as mentioned, the government has tightened restrictions on news and journalists work in a climate of fear – constantly walking the tightrope between professional reporting and facing the wrath of the authorities. Intimidating telephone calls from intelligence agencies especially after controversial events mean that self-censorship is rife.

Civil society has divided into two broad camps. One group typically composed of people working in development organisations and backed by much of the international community, support this regime as they feel that, despite its faults, the military-backed government will deliver on promises to hold an election and ultimately bring good results for the country. The other group includes people from the human rights movement, academics and some journalists. They feel that the present government has gone beyond its constitutional mandate and is acting illegally – suppressing the fundamental rights of the people, pressurising the judiciary and controlling the media.

The risk remains that the government will not be able to deliver on its promises. In tackling corruption by punishing a small number of high-profile political suspects, the work to eradicate corrupt practices in Bangladesh may prove unsustainable in the medium and long term. The government has often approached institutional improvements by replacing the head of some organisations and branding that as ‘reforms.’ At times, such as in the case of reforms in the Dhaka City Corporation, this has been imposed by sending in soldiers. Short of arresting local government chairmen and mayors suspected of corruption, the administration has not invested in improvements at the local democratic level. As changes have been enforced by a military-backed government without engaging people in debate, discussion or decision making, it seems likely that the reforms are bound to fail when the state of emergency is removed.

Lifting the state of emergency itself will, therefore, prove to be a significant challenge to this regime. It will depend on two keys things: holding free, fair, participatory elections and ensuring that the elected government that follows will affirm the decisions of the current regime. The first of these is under threat on two fronts.

Preparing a new voter roll is a massive task that may not be achievable within the timeframe that the government has set for itself; without the new voter list credible elections are unlikely. Secondly, if the political parties believe they are not being genuinely represented in the elections – either because their leadership is in jail or because the Election Commission has been negotiating with a party faction that does not speak for the mainstream – they may choose to boycott elections, returning the country to a position similar to the one that the army stepped in to manage in January 2007.

As for affirming decisions taken by the government, especially decisions taken under emergency powers legislation, the ruling administration has a vested interest to ensure a group sympathetic to their actions takes over the reigns of power. The environment is, therefore, ripe for democratic rights to be further undermined.

Bangladesh is at a critical crossroads in its democratic journey. Top-down reforms imposed, without the participation of the people or their elected representatives, by a government, which uses fear to intimidate those it deems to be contrary to the national interest and has scant respect for the due process of law, are unlikely to deliver an improved democracy.

The government should lift the state of emergency and begin engaging the people in the changes that will be required to move beyond a political system characterised by corruption. The Election Commission should seek permission from the Supreme Court to hold elections after ninety days under article 106 of the constitution of Bangladesh, to hold parliamentary elections for the restoration of democracy in Bangladesh.

*Adilur Rahman Khan is secretary of the human rights coalition Odhikar.

Govt guidelines on talk-shows must go

September 21, 2007

Editorial, NewAge, September 21, 2007

The decision of Fakhruddin Ahmed’s administration to lift the ban on televised talk shows comes accompanied by a series of ‘guidelines’ that have been provided to the broadcast media in plain paper and which the information secretary has described as ‘informal.’ The government’s guidelines specify the maximum number of talk shows a channel can broadcast in a given week, and even what sections of society can be invited, and stipulates that talk shows cannot have interactive discussions through live phone-in or messaging services. The guidelines warn against ‘statements that can create resentment towards the legitimate government of Bangladesh’ etc.

At the very outset, we would like to point out that these guidelines contradict the very spirit and content of chief adviser Fakhruddin Ahmed’s recent claims to the BBC that the media is operating freely in Bangladesh without any government intervention. More importantly, it becomes a significant symbol of the curb on the freedom of expression that the state of emergency is forcing on public views and opinions, once again contradicting Fakhruddin’s claim that the emergency is not affecting the general public in their day-to-day lives. Prohibiting dissenting views and opinions with vague and sweeping criteria such as those prescribed by the government allows for arbitrary actions against the media and creates an environment of fear and intimidation that will no doubt hinder their mission in representing the differing points of view that make up a democratic polity. Governments across the civilised world recognise that the media plays an important intermediary role in keeping the channels of communication open between the rulers and the ruled. Only a government that refuses to recognise the sovereignty of the people would want to isolate itself from public criticism.

Bangladesh had one of the most free and vibrant media environments in South Asia for the past decade and a half. The freedoms that the media enjoyed were no gift from any government; they were the fruit of a long nine-year struggle against dictatorial regimes that saw democratic process restored in Bangladesh in 1991 through a mass uprising. Since the military-driven interim government assumed office in January this year, the media has time and again been straitjacketed with guidelines and advisories, not to mention the intimidation of journalists by the different government agencies. This government’s legitimacy, in the eyes of ordinary Bangladeshis, lies in its promise to ensure greater transparency, accountability and democratisation in the country. It is absurd that the public must now accept that this mission requires the government to impose draconian guidelines to curb press freedoms.

We, therefore, suggest that the government immediately withdraw its ‘guidelines’ that are bound to obstruct airing of different social, political and economic views necessary for the people at large to form their informed opinion on matters of national interests.

Bangladesh govt tags conditions to airing talk shows

September 20, 2007

NewAge, September 20, 2007

Some private television channels have resumed airing talk shows after a gap of about a month. The airing of such talk shows had been suspended at a government instruction since August 22 when curfew was ordered of six divisional headquarters. The channels are, however, conducting the shows in accordance with certain ‘conditions’ set by the government.
Others are still hesitant to host such shows.

The information adviser, Mainul Hosein, on Monday called the top officials of the channels to his secretariat office and handed in the guideline printed on plain paper. ‘Mainul Hosein called us to his office and handed in a written guideline for hosting talk shows,’ Channel i director Shykh Seraj told New Age on Wednesday. ‘The guideline was not printed on letterhead. It was a plain sheet of paper and not signed,’ he said.

The informal guideline includes nine conditions:
‘The unplanned and uncontrolled airing of talk shows on different television channels has created an adverse impact on the socio-economic condition of the country… The airing of talk shows can again be allowed now only if the “conditions” mentioned below are adhered to.
‘A. Each channel can air the highest of 2 to 3 talk shows a week. It is better to air a single talk show in a day.
‘B. Talk shows will need to be “edited.” No talk shows can be aired live.
‘C. Talk shows cannot have interactive discussions or live SMS or phone-in.
‘D. Inviting the same guest repeatedly is to be discouraged.
‘E. Enough care should be taken in the selection of guests for talk shows. Noted thinkers, intellectuals, academics, and businessmen can be invited. Panels of guests should comprise people of various ideals.
‘F. Emphasis should be given on constructive criticism and giving realistic and specific suggestions.
‘G. Development, constructive, cultural, economic, social, religious and educational issues should be emphasised in talk shows. But any discussion harmful to cultural, economic, social and religious values should be avoided.
‘H. Any kinds of instigating, blind and biased opinions, and statements that can create resentment towards the legitimate government of Bangladesh should also be avoided.
‘I. Leading questions that can steer discussants towards a prefixed objective should be avoided. Guests should be given more time to speak by keeping the atmosphere congenial.’

Asked if the guideline has been officially imposed, the information secretary, Didarul Anwar, told New Age on Wednesday, ‘It is an informal guideline.’ The NTV chief news editor, Khairul Anwar, said he had received a copy of the guideline.

The Channel 1 chief news editor, Nazmul Ashraf, said, ‘We have been told that it is an unofficial guideline and we are to follow it.’

The Bangla Vision executive director, Aminur Rashid, said, ‘We are yet to make any decision on resuming talk shows…. We are assessing to what extent we can follow the guideline.’

The top official of another television channel said, ‘They [the government] have tagged some conditions to resuming talk shows. But they are not shouldering any responsibility.’

Human Rights Watch: Partial Lifting of Ban on Politics Falls Far Short

September 13, 2007

Authorities Should Lift Emergency Rules Undermining Basic Rights

(New York, September 12, 2007) – The Bangladeshi caretaker government’s decision to partially lift the ban on political activities is not nearly enough to address widespread restrictions on basic freedoms and rampant human rights abuses in the country, Human Rights Watch said today.

The government imposed a total ban on politics on March 8, two months after it imposed a state of emergency. On September 10, the head of the government, Fakhruddin Ahmed, said that the authorities were lifting restrictions on “indoor” politics in the capital Dhaka “to create an environment conducive to talks with political parties.”

“The idea that politics is banned in a democracy is bizarre. If the Bangladeshi authorities are serious about restoring democracy, they must fully end the ban on political activities,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Politics is not a sport that can be played only in an indoor arena.”

The move was aimed at facilitating discussions between political parties and the Election Commission, which is revising the country’s election rules. The Election Commission, led by ATM Shamsul Huda, has been assigned the responsibility to institute electoral reforms. However, the commission said that these reforms would not be possible without consultations with the political parties. The government announced the partial lifting of the ban before the commission begins discussions with political parties, scheduled for September 12.

However, the partial lifting of the ban will only allow a political party to meet to discuss internal party reforms in the context of the Election Commission’s proposals for electoral reform. Parties will still be required to inform the Dhaka Metropolitan Police in advance about all meetings. A maximum of 50 party members will be allowed to attend each meeting. The ban on all other political meetings will remain in force in the rest of the country. Under the Emergency Powers Rules of 2007, those who violate the restrictions face prison terms of two to five years as well as fines.

Human Rights Watch expressed concerns about emergency rules that undermine basic due process rights. While certain restrictions on some rights during properly declared states of national emergency are permitted under international law, the measures under the government’s emergency law have not been limited to “the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.”

Under Bangladesh’s current state of emergency, the government has restricted political and trade union activities and prohibited the media from publishing anything that can be considered “provocative.” Tens of thousands of people – and perhaps as many as 200,000, according to some reports – have been arrested under the state of emergency without proper judicial oversight. A large number of offenses have been made “non-bailable,” meaning that many detainees face indefinite detention without trial. The courts have frequently been sidelined from ensuring due process of law. Many detainees are being held in unofficial places of detention.

Bangladesh’s emergency laws have created an atmosphere ripe for torture and mistreatment, which has been widely alleged by victims and family members. Human Rights Watch has confirmed these allegations in cases that it has investigated.

Freedom of the press has also come under assault by the government. In some districts, the army has summoned journalists and photographed them in blatant efforts at intimidation, warning them not to publish anything critical of the security forces. Even as the caretaker government announced that it would make the state-run Bangladesh Television (BTV) an effective, autonomous body, it pulled the country’s only privately owned 24-hour news channel off the air, days after it warned the channel not to broadcast footage of recent anti-government riots.

Moreover, government censors ripped out two recent articles in the The Economist on protests and Bangladeshi politics before the magazine could be distributed. Bangladeshi editors and journalists have told Human Rights Watch that self-censorship has become common.

“The government should make the same commitment to ending human rights abuses that it it has made to fighting corruption,” said Richardson. “The army and other security forces need to be reined in, and censorship has to end.

“Ripping out pages from an international magazine is the hallmark of a dictatorship, not a caretaker government committed to reform and the rule of law,” Richardson added.