Monday, September 10, 2007

Bangladesh losing its voice

Bangladesh losing its voice
SYLHET, September 10, 2007

Source: UPI Asia Online

Column: Humanity or Humor?
The military-backed government of Bangladesh stopped the transmission of a television news channel, CSB News, on Sept. 6. Since imposing a state of emergency in January, the government has been censoring newspapers, online news agencies and satellite TV channels. CSB News met its doom after broadcasting footage of military brutality during a scuffle at a football match at Dhaka University on Aug. 20.

The government claimed the station had fraudulently obtained approval to broadcast on that frequency from the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission -- which happens to be headed by a retired major general of the army.

The government officially imposed media censorship through the Emergency Powers Rules-2007, which have been in effect since the state of emergency was proclaimed. Section 5 (1) of the rules prohibits "provocative" bulletins, video footage and programs, while Section 5 (3) allows for prison sentences of two to five years or fines or both for breaking the rules.

The government also has the power to confiscate and seize materials and equipment from the media for violating the rules. As a result, newspapers and electronic media have been effectively practicing self-censorship, and have cut down their programs and pages of coverage.

This was not enough for the news-killers in the government, however. Officers of the armed forces are reportedly censoring the news regularly. Many editors have been called to the offices of the armed forces and other departments of the government to explain why they have supposedly flouted the rules. How dare they release disturbing and provocative news and other stories that the government does not like!

Barrister Mainul Hosein, an adviser to the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, has reminded media professionals many times at press briefings and in public speeches that "a state of emergency is imposed in the country; the government can censor the news and take necessary actions against the press." In such speeches the adviser has repeatedly held the sword of the Emergency Powers Rules-2007 over the heads of the media, threatening to behead any who challenge them.

Grassroots media is already facing extinction in Bangladesh. There are a few hundred newspapers in different categories -- published daily, weekly, fortnightly, monthly, quarterly, etc. -- in small towns and rural areas of the country. The owners and publishers face constant financial hardship.

Media owners that have an affinity with the ruling party enjoy maximum support from the government through public advertisements, which are the key source of income for the country's newspapers, along with a small amount of private advertising. Newspapers without political connections, with no money from black marketers or smugglers, and who do not pay bribes to the Department of Film and Press of the Ministry of Information -- the authority that distributes public advertisements among the newspapers -- face both pressure and poverty.

Due to lack of funding, such small newspapers sometimes fail to publish an issue or two, which turns them into "irregular" publications in the view of the government. As they contribute little or nothing to the government, the authorities have no interest in their survival. They first demand the cause of the "irregularities" and later will threaten to close the publication.

For instance, if a newspaper publishes only one issue in six months, the authorities can cancel its registration unless it pays a fine of up to 10,000 takas (US$145) or unless the local district magistrate is "satisfied" with it -- although there is no explanation of the process to determine the level or scale of "satisfaction" of the bureaucrats.

Thus, small local newspapers are facing extinction through policies aimed at closing them down, while national and regional city-based newspapers and electronic media are facing strangulation by the military-backed government. This process will eventually leave the whole nation voiceless. No one will dare to speak out, fearing the guillotine of Emergency Powers Rules-2007 as well the government's policies.

Only the generals of the army and the advisers of the government -- eleven in number -- along with a group of bureaucrats, have the right to speak whatever they like inside the country. The people of Bangladesh don't know when their right to speak out will be reinstated and the media will enjoy freedom of expression indeed and in need.
(Rater Zonaki is the pseudonym of a human rights defender living in Sylhet in Bangladesh. He has been working on human rights issues in the country for more than a decade and was a journalist in Bangladesh in the 1990s.)

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