Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Media censorship in Bangladesh

No logic in forcing media self-censorship

February 04, 2008
Source: UPI Asia Online

Bangladesh's Ministry of Information denies that the government is officially censoring the media, despite reports from some media that they have been ordered to shut down. "The media might have been advised to practice self-censorship, as the country is under a state of emergency," the ministry's secretary, Jamil Osman, was quoted as saying in a national daily newspaper on Jan. 26. Osman denied that the ministry had issued letters ordering two television stations to stop certain programming. Still, he said, "considering the emergency period, I think imposing self-censorship is logical."

The newspaper interviewed Osman after a letter was sent to a private television channel asking it to stop broadcasting its live talk show programs, which allowed viewers to telephone in and voice their opinions on socio-economic and political issues affecting the country.

According to published reports, on Jan. 24 Ekushey Television received by fax a letter on plain paper asking the private satellite channel to stop two of its live talk show programs, called "Ekushey Shomoy" and "Ekusheyer Raat." Both programs included questions and comments from viewers as part of their program format.

On the same day a similar letter was faxed to another private satellite TV station, Channel-1, insisting that it cancel viewers' participation through telephone calls to a talk show called "Nirbachito Khabor." The BBC also reportedly received a letter instructing it to air only recorded talk shows, rather than live ones.

Subsequently, Ekushey TV stopped its two talk show programs and Channel-1 curtailed the phone-in portion of "Nirbachito Khabor," or selected news.

This type of plain-paper directive, sent from a government office but without any letterhead, is a new approach by the military-backed government. Needless to say it is a hypocritical strategy by which the rulers hope to control the media while denying they are doing so.

At the same time, it raises a few questions about the intelligence and the morality of the government. Why would the information secretary pretend to be uninformed about such letters, when three different media reported receiving similar letters from the government? Why does the government object to people's participation in media programs? What's wrong if the people express their views? Why is the government afraid of the people? How does it benefit by suppressing the media?

On one hand, the government has already broken the backbone of the media industry by forcing the closure of newspapers and television channels. It has caused massive unemployment among journalists and those in media-related occupations as well.

On the other hand, the citizens that have been suffering from financial hardships due to inflation above 11 percent in one year, especially those that can barely afford the necessities of life, can hardly contain their frustrations. They need channels to express themselves or there may be a public outburst.

Should not the media provide such channels for the expression of public opinion? Should not the people's pain be known to the nation? Is it logical to suppress these channels?

Military-backed governments are, by nature, detached from the people, as their power is based on arms and ammunition. Yet once again, Bangladesh's present government has clarified that public opinion is stronger than ammunition. That's why it is afraid of the media that reflects and represents the opinions of the common people.

The government should realize that its own deeds are producing an environment of fear and creating threats against itself. Neither the people nor the media are objects to be feared. Imposing self-censorship on the media is a form of repression, as the people of Bangladesh have been experiencing for one year. There is no logic in this at all.

(Rater Zonaki is the pseudonym of a human rights defender based in Hong Kong, working at the Asian Human Rights Commission. He is a Bangladeshi national with a degree in literature from a university in Dhaka. He began his career as a journalist in 1990 and engaged in human rights activism at the grassroots level in his country for more than a decade. He also worked as an editor for publications on human rights and socio-cultural issues and contributed to other similar publications.)

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