A photograph, a law and the state of politics

Both citizens and the authorities have been angered by a controversial photo in a leading Bengali language publication. Syed Badrul Ahsan assesses what lies behind the strong public reaction and severe government response

In early April, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came down hard on Prothom Alo, Bangladesh’s leading Bengali language newspaper. Speaking in Parliament, she referred to it as an enemy of democracy, of the Awami League and of the people. The virulence of the attack left observers surprised, given that, while criticism of newspaper reports or comments is often voiced by citizens across the spectrum, it is unusual for any head of government to proceed headlong into a verbal assault on a media outlet.

The Bangladesh leader’s condemnation of Prothom Alo (the name translates to ‘First Light’) was prompted by a photo caption in the newspaper a few days earlier, showing a ten-year old child complaining about freedom being pointless when people could not afford food or other facilities which the state ought to guarantee for them. In publicising the photo, Prothom Alo made two mistakes. The first was that it opted to carry the item on 26 March, Bangladesh’s anniversary of independence. The second was that a mere child was shown reflecting on economic conditions when it logically precluded such a statement on his part.

For a very large number of citizens, this was a grievous error on the part of Prothom Alo. For many of them, it was a reminder of the way in which the government of the country’s founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was undermined, in 1974, by a newspaper picture of a young woman covering her modesty in a fishing net because, it was mooted, she could not afford proper clothes. This was at a time when Bangladesh was enduring a critical economic crisis exacerbated by a famine.

arrest of Promon Alo journalist Samsuzzaman Shams
The case lodged under the DSA against Prothom Alo’s editor and journalist Samsuzzaman Shams (pictured) raises questions about press responsibility and freedom

That picture, disseminated around the world, went a long way in embarrassing the Mujib government. Many years later, however, the photographer behind the picture acknowledged that his employers had pushed him into clicking the image in order to undermine the government. It was not true that the young woman had actually been in dire straits. But the damage had been done.

Therefore, when Prothom Alo carried the picture of the boy along with comments he had not made – comments that were, in fact, thought to have been either made by the newspaper or by someone else – a howl of protest descended on the publication. The picture quickly made its way into social media, although within 17 minutes, the paper had pulled it from the internet. But that was not enough to stop criticism of what was perceived as Prothom Alo’s lack of professionalism in carrying the photograph in the first place.

Charges were filed against the reporter concerned under the draconian Digital Security Act

But even as the paper continued to come under condemnation from citizens, the government  decided legal action was necessary. Charges were filed against the reporter concerned under the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA). Samsuzzaman Shams was arrested and carted off to prison. Meanwhile, a similar case was filed against the paper’s editor, who obtained bail. The situation was made more complex by the application of the DSA, a law which has often been deployed against journalists and whose withdrawal has regularly been demanded by civil society.

The Prothom Alo reporter responsible for the captioned picture has since been let out on bail, but the episode underlines the state of journalism in Bangladesh. The sweeping manner in which the DSA has regularly been applied against citizens, journalists and others has been a matter of grave concern. Intriguingly, in these past many years, individuals aggrieved by media reports have, with alacrity, filed cases against the offending media outlets on the basis of the DSA, without first lodging complaints with the Press Council.

Collective punishment is used to silence dissent

Bangladesh’s foreign policy has achieved a fine balance through a promotion of good links with India, China and Russia

While the normal practice for grievances is for the aggrieved to send rejoinders to the media organisations concerned and then to complain to the Press Council, the alarming tendency in recent years has been one of people using the DSA to bring journalists to heel.

Although Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s outburst against Prothom Alo in Parliament is the issue, she has not quite forgotten – nor has the country – the role played by the newspaper in the period of Bangladesh’s military-supported caretaker government between January 2007 and January 2009. The editor of Prothom Alo publicly advocated what he called a ‘cleaning up’ of Bangladesh’s politics.

At one point, in a signed column, he called for Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, both of whom were being hounded by the caretaker administration on a number of legal charges, to retire from politics. Neither the Awami League nor the Bangladesh Nationalist Party has forgotten that episode. On a larger scale, political observers recall the attempts to have the Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus projected as a prospective leader for Bangladesh through Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia being elbowed out of politics.

Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus
Political observers recall the attempts to have Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus projected as a prospective leader for Bangladesh

The Prothom Alo episode raises a couple of questions about the Bangladesh media today. Firstly, to what extent should the media arrogate to itself the authority to publish news or photographs which are seen to be deliberately undermining the country? Secondly, to what degree will Bangladesh’s media be in a position to function freely with the DSA looming over it like a Sword of Damocles? Critical debate on issues which matter, which are of public concern, is the mark of a democratic society. With Bangladesh preparing for general elections at the end of this year, questions relating to media freedom will inevitably arise.

The United States has lately been stressing the importance of credible elections in Bangladesh, whose Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen recently met Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington. Meanwhile, Sheikh Hasina, who recently accused Washington of possessing the power to overthrow foreign governments, has nevertheless made it known that her government will welcome observers from the UK, the US and the European Union for the elections.

Bangladesh is poised to graduate from least developed country status to the position of a lower middle income country. Its GDP, although affected by Covid-19, is on the move towards a better situation.  And its foreign policy has achieved a fine balance through a promotion of good links with India, China and Russia.

Yet the Sheikh Hasina government is still confronting some serious problems, a critical one being the presence of the million-plus Rohingya refugees in the country. Climate change is an issue the government has been going out on a limb to handle, while it has been looking for ways to promote and diversify its exports. Ports are being built or developed. Infrastructure development, a notable instance being the Padma Bridge, has eased communication across the country.

This is Bangladesh today: a nation with much to be proud of. Yet corruption is an ongoing weakness that calls for tough handling, with bank loan defaulters making their way abroad or failing to repay loans at home. A bloated bureaucracy needs to be stripped of fat and made leaner. And, of course, the rules of democracy and the evolution of a rules-based social structure are serious requirements of which the country must not lose sight.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a Bangladeshi journalist and political commentator based in London. He is the author of biographies of Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the country’s first prime minister Tajuddin Ahmad

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