There is not much media in Bangladesh that seeks to hold the government and powerful to account as well as supporting the principles of liberal democracy and human rights. Most Bangladeshi media are owned by corporations, with no interest in these values, who support the government, and are using their ownership as a means of furthering their own business interests. In such a scenario, the highly successful Bengali language papers, Prothom Alo and the English language The Daily Star, continue to stand out.
Since 2009, the Awami League, during its three terms of ever increasingly authoritarian government, has managed to almost eradicate the last semblance of independent institutions in the country. As a result, from the prime minister’s perspective, as the country’s chief autocrat, these two papers, in their relative defiance against Awami League subservience, and their willingness to attempt to report on human rights, free and fair elections and corruption, are seen as a threat to her position in power.
It is this which explains her rabid populist Orwellian rant against the two papers claiming in parliament last week that they “are trying to eliminate democracy and introduce a government that will not act democratically.”
She specifically called Prothom Alo “an enemy of the Awami League, democracy, and the people of Bangladesh.”
This is just the latest in a string of attacks over the years against these two papers, which have been subject to rhetorical abuse, advertising bans and criminal cases.
It is important for Hasina, it seems, to discredit anyone or any institution which stands against rigged elections, the Awami League’s widespread corruption and human rights abuses.
As a senior editor, quoted by Amnesty International stated, the government’s crackdown on Prothom Alo was a deliberate campaign, “to create an atmosphere of terror ahead of the general elections [...] The government is sending a very clear message (that) this is what happens when you cross the limits of speech we have set.”
The next elections will take place at the end of the year. Expect much more of this rabid abuse and other kinds of action against those who stand up against the current authoritarianism. The Awami League knows it cannot risk a free and fair election — and Hasina’s comments suggest that suborning independent voices is now part and parcel of the party’s road map to remaining in power.