Sheikh Hasina criticises the media

Half truths and some serious issues in Bangladesh

The Daily Star
Saturday, January 31, 2004

The Awami League chief had some very nasty things to say about the media, especially about the newspapers. She uttered some half-truths and, in our view, some serious issues. Her comments should, we think, result in some serious introspection and soul searching. However, her language could have been less crude, less offensive and her manner less taunting. But then habits die hard.

Of the three successive elected governments -- since the restoration of democracy -- none has been free-press friendly, with the first Khaleda Zia's government being the least offensive and the following two getting successively worse. Sheikh Hasina's government was neither supportive of the independent media nor helpful to the journalists as she claimed in her speech. She has never been able to accept The Daily Star and Prothom Alo's role in fund raising for Tipu Sultan, which she always considered to be a deliberate move by us to discredit her government, an accusation she repeated last Wednesday. Her comment that our fund raising move was motivated because we didn't take similar measures for others is like saying doing one good thing is wrong because we are unable to do other good things. One positive, constructive and helpful action is its own justification whose motive does not need to be proven by doing anything else. Yes, it would be nice (and we would love to do it) to save the world. However failing that, it is not a crime (as AL chief would like to believe) to save an individual.

The truth is the governments we have had so far have all been fundamentally 'failed' governments, and it is the nature of failed governments to blame the critical press for their failures. Our leaders have never tried to see what the independent media are saying but have always attempted to 'discover' the motive behind what has been written. When no motive could be found, it is automatically assumed that it was done to help the opposition. What plagues our leaders is the mentality that they can never do, or have done, anything wrong and that all wrongs are done by their opponents and critics.

In the last 13 years of our democracy -- and we are not even talking about the military leaders from whom we do not expect democratic behaviour -- neither Sheikh Hasina nor Khaleda Zia have ever accepted, even for once, that they made a mistake or took a wrong decision. How can such people ever accept an independent and critical press? Without the slightest bit of democracy within their respective parties and in the absence of any gutsy and conscientious intellectual daring to speak the truth in their faces, it is only the free press where they face criticism. Tragically, most of the press is also politically divided. This leaves only a handful of newspapers that 'dare' to be 'impertinent' and thus earn wrath of the two top leaders.

As for the present, and here we think Sheikh Hasina has raised a pertinent issue, we see some ominous trends in the attitude of the government vis-à-vis the free press. The more it is failing to come to grips with domestic problems the more it is becoming critical, suspicious, intolerant and repressive towards the critical press. We are alarmed at news reports of proposed laws to control electronic and print media. We are sad about the comments in the parliament on the press, the harassment meted out to editors and journalists, and the arrest warrants issued against them only to intimidate and repress independent voices. And we are outraged to see no steps being taken when journalists are killed by terrorists or criminals. Most incredibly a 'list' of journalists to be killed has been published by a terrorist group and yet no commensurate action from the government has been seen about it.

This paper, and journalists in general, are proud of the fact that neither the government nor the opposition like us. We are happy that our readers continue to trust us and support us. We need nothing more. We pledge to our readers that the independent media will continue to perform its duty for freedom, democracy, rule of law, accountable and transparent government and for individual and collective rights. We will fight for the rights of all minority groups and for the marginalised and the downtrodden.

And of course we will always fight for a FREE PRESS.