In Bangladesh’s 50th year, there are many positive things to say about the country, but on three issues the situation is dire.
The first time I went to Bangladesh was in 1990, when the country was just 19 years old.*
It happened to be just at the time when a people’s revolution was taking place and I witnessed — and indeed wrote about — the fall of General Ershad from power.
In 1994, four years later, my next major encounter with Bangladesh was during BNP’s first post-democratic period of government, when I came to research war crimes committed by the Jamaat-e-Islami during the country’s war of independence, research that turned into the UK Channel 4 documentary The War Crimes File. At that time, Bangladesh was only 23 years old.
Then ten years later, in 2004, with Bangladesh in her early 30s, I moved to Dhaka staying for 13 years. Initially, I was not working as a journalist, but had a chance to return to journalism in 2010, a year after the Awami League (AL) took power.
Then sadly, when Bangladesh was 46, the government made it plain that it did not want me to stay, and so since then I have lived in the UK, though continuing to write and make films about the country.
I would like to talk about democracy, governance and human rights, and in particular the issue of freedom of the media in Bangladesh.
But before I do, I want to make clear that although I will focus on some negative aspects of contemporary Bangladesh, it is important to recognise that there are other positive narratives about the country that are equally legitimate. The most obvious ones of course involve the social and economic success of Bangladesh. There are a host of different indicators that do tell a very positive story about the country.
But that is not what I will focus on today.
In the country’s 50 years history, the narrative on democracy, governance and human rights has been by no means unidirectional.
The first years of Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League government were of course very mixed — with its low point being the introduction in 1975 of one party rule through Baksal – which, in historical terms, was most likely a trigger for his tragic and criminal assassination, which also resulted in the savage killing of his family.
Unsurprisingly, with the coup undertaken by military officers, this macabre event did not result in any great renaissance of civilian democracy. Instead, there were 15 years of military leaders — General Ziaur Rahman followed by General Ershad — ruling the country. This was not a bright time for democracy, good governance or human rights.
With the fall of General Ershad in 1990, the promise of improved democracy and governance returned, with elections in 1991 taking place under a non-political caretaker government for the very first time. This resulted in a surprise victory of the Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP) — in a national election that may well have been the fairest of all those that have taken place in Bangladesh, before or since.
During this first BNP term in power, a political movement by the AL and other opposition parties (including interestingly the Jamaat-e-Islami), forced the BNP government to change the constitution to allow for the establishment of an election time caretaker government.
The AL won the subsequent election in 1996, and the BNP — in alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami — won again in 2001. In all likelihood, the 2007 election would have resulted in victory for the AL. However, the prospect of the election being rigged by the BNP triggered the army — supported by the international community — to call a state of emergency shortly before the election was due to take place, and there followed two years of military controlled civilian caretaker government. Subsequent elections in 2009 did indeed result in the Awami League sweeping back into power, where they have remained ever since.
Although in the country’s first 38 years till 2009, governance and human rights certainly had a bumpy ride in Bangladesh, the subsequent 12 years has seen a particularly precipitous decline, particularly when one considers that the country is no longer under military control.
Some highlights might help to illustrate this:
The removal by the Awami League government in 2013 of the constitutional provisions requiring an election-time caretaker government — along with the establishment of a highly partisan Election Commission — resulted effectively in the end of electoral democracy. There was the uncontested election in 2014 and highly rigged election in 2018. There may well be a large section of the public who continues to support the Awami League, but the current government itself has no electoral legitimacy, and has not had it since 2014.
The country’s law enforcement and judiciary are in effect under the thumb of the government. It is now almost forgotten in Bangladesh that in 2017 the government forced out the then Chief Justice because he failed to rule that a law which gave parliament the right to remove judges was constitutional. After he was forced out, the remaining supreme court judges supinely followed the government wishes and gave the green light to the controversial bill.
Indeed, how the former Chief Justice Sinha was forced to sign his resignation letter is highly instructive of the contemporary country. According to his memoir, he was first put under house arrest for two weeks, then shortly after leaving the country, he received a series of calls from the country’s military intelligence agency, Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), saying that they had secretly detained a friend of his and that he would be killed if he did not sign the letter.
That is a story that encapsulates the end of the independence of the judiciary in Bangladesh.
This is why it is difficult to have much faith in the criminal cases that the government has launched against Justice Sinha. Indeed, the executive now uses the law courts as a weapon in its armoury to discredit and punish those who have become its critics.
How the government forced the Chief Justice to resign is also indicative of the lawlessness and brutality of law enforcement authorities. The enforced disappearance suffered by Justice Sinha’s friend — solely in order to act as leverage against the judge — has now become a common technique used by state agencies against dissidents, critics or opponents which has a huge chilling effect within the country, as critics fear that it might happen to them.
Of course, human rights violations are nothing new in Bangladesh, but it should be understood that the particular strategy of secret detention and disappearances was developed by the Awami League after it was elected in 2009.
And this brings us to the media.
Bangladesh is now a highly censored media environment — with critical journalism at a premium. In 2015, two of the most respected and popular newspapers, The Daily Star and Prothom Alo wrote articles about army killings in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. From the very next day, they were subject to an advertising boycott, organised and enforced by the country’s military intelligence agency, DGFI. It went on for months. This resulted in each newspaper losing about a third of their total income.
A year later, the editor of The Daily Star was subject to a campaign of legal harassment organised by the governing Awami League which resulted in him facing 79 criminal cases against him for sedition and defamation.
Just these two incidents alone would have — and indeed did — send a shudder down independent media in the country, whatever little there remained left of it.
And then there was, first, the Information and Communication Technology Act (2006) and now the Digital Security Act (2018) that have resulted in dozens of journalists and editors being arrested, and imprisoned for stories they have published or shared on social networks.
And the manner in which the country’s independent-minded media, just a few months ago, was forced to sit on its hands following the broadcast of Al Jazeera’s All the Prime Minister’s Men, which uncovered systematic corruption at the centre of the Bangladesh state, was illustrative of how tame it has been forced to be.
With the local media effectively subordinated to the wishes of the government, the authorities have focused their attention on blocking international media when it can. The day after Netra News was launched, the site was blocked. The news platform had half feared this and had prepared what is known as a “mirror site”, which is less easy for the government to block without impacting important Google services within the country. Nonetheless, the government did also block the mirror site, until it realised the impact of doing so and re-opened it.
The government has also blocked many other sites. The US government funded Benar News, the websites of Al Jazeera and that of India’s The Wire have all been blocked for long periods of time following the publication of articles. Effectively, just about any news organisation which carries critical commentary or investigations about the government risks being temporarily or permanently blocked.
There is however one kind of media produced abroad which the government has found difficult to control — and that is the dissident news programmes broadcast from outside Bangladesh on YouTube channels. It is not possible for the government to just block one YouTube channel. If they want to block a particular channel, they have to block the whole of YouTube — something which would of course cause uproar in modern Bangladesh.
However, the authorities have found a way to stop that as well.
A journalist called Kanak Sarwar, who now lives in the United State, runs one of these YouTube channels. Last year he was the man who interviewed retired Lieutenant General Saawardy that resulted in the general having to go into hiding as he feared being disappeared.
The government has been desperate to stop Sarwar from broadcasting as he gets hundreds of thousands of viewers, but until recently they have not been successful.
They may, however, have found a successful strategy. That is by arresting his sister, a woman with no involvement in politics and runs an online jewellery business in Dhaka. How this happened is quite fascinating, as well as haunting.
At the end of September, Kanak’s sister noticed that a Facebook page had been set up in her name and was publishing anti-government content. Concerned that this might be linked to her, she reported it to the police and made a written complaint through a general diary. Five days later, however, she was arrested for exactly what she feared. The anti-government content on this fake Facebook profile.
She remains in jail.
I think we can guess who created the fake Facebook page to provide a rationale for her arrest.
The Bangladesh government knows that arresting family members of journalists for fabricated offences is an effective way of stopping dissident journalists — who are living abroad — from writing or broadcasting.
While there are many positive sides to Bangladesh in its 50th anniversary year, for media freedom in particular — and for democracy, governance and human rights more generally — the situation is dire.
* This is an edited version of a talk given by the author at a seminar organised by the Centre for South Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh on November 18th, 2021