Threat to Bangladesh's prosperity and democracy does not come from the free and independent media. It comes from terrorism. And you can only fight terrorism by taking the people with you, and that you can only do if you allow the free media to play its role.
Hence, we must express our astonishment and complete shock at the PM's declaration on the floor of the parliament on Wednesday -- accompanied by table thumping of many MPs present -- that action will be taken against The Daily Star. Why? Because we reproduced, on February 11, a poster of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a banned organisation. We published a photograph of the poster with a big heading "Fanatics raise their ugly heads again". The caption said, "Taking advantage of the current political crisis in the country accompanied by wanton violence, banned extremist Islamist organisation Hizb-ut-Tahrir published and pasted posters in the capital in an attempt to foment unrest within the armed forces. This poster was found pasted on a wall in an alleyway near the Bangla Motor intersection yesterday."
Can there be any doubt as to the purpose behind our publication? The photograph, with its condemning heading and caption, makes it clear that our purpose was to warn the public and inform the government about how taking advantage of the present violence the banned outfit is trying to raise its "ugly head" with the dangerous propaganda.
The prime minister, however, felt differently, saying, "Publishing the poster of a banned organisation in a newspaper means helping to publicise that banned outfit. It is most unfortunate that The Daily Star gave such a huge space to publish a poster pasted in a corner of Bangla Motor of Hizb-ut-Tahrir… Perhaps none would have read that poster. Irrespective of whether (the paper) wrote in a negative or a positive way, I think giving such a big coverage to a poster is tantamount to patronising Hizb-ut-Tahrir…But I don't understand why they (The Daily Star) did this. However, we are taking appropriate action against those who are trying to patronise Hizb-ut-Tahrir by publishing its poster."
We want to unambiguously state that the prime minister's statement is ill advised, and no free and independent media will survive in Bangladesh if what has been said is implemented.
Let us first take the accusation that by reproducing the Hizb-ut-Tahrir poster we have helped with its publicity. In a lighter vein we want to point out that if we are "guilty" of taking a wayside poster and giving it coverage, the PM by her speech on the floor of the parliament gave the poster much more coverage than we could ever have.
More seriously, if terrorism is to be fought effectively, then public support behind it is a must. To get the requisite public support, the government and the free media must work hand in hand. This can be achieved only by allowing the free media to play its due role of informing, and in necessary cases, (as in this one) alerting the public and the government as to what the terrorists are doing, what they are saying, who they are targeting, and how they are going about it. It is the duty of the media to let the public know what is going on, especially the activities of organisations that mean to harm our state, our independence, our society, and our culture.
If informing the public and the government of activities of terrorist outfits is tantamount to helping to publicise them, then the whole world's media is "guilty" of the "crime" that The Daily Star is supposed to have committed.
Every action, every word, and every video rendering of Osama bin Laden or his successor Ayman al Zawahiri which were uploaded in some obscure Al Qaeda websites were immediately taken by the Al Jazeeras, BBCs, and the CNNs of the world, and published by the media of almost every country of the globe, including Bangladesh.
Were we then all supporters of bin Laden? Was the British media supporting the IRA when for decades it covered their terrorist activities and reported on their secret networks, often publishing IRA's secret plans of attacking the British army? More recently after the bus bombing in London and the bombing in Birmingham, the UK and the world media covered them extensively. The Basque separatists (ETA) in Spain are regularly covered by the Spanish media. Terrorist bodies in Denmark, Germany, and France are under constant media focus. Often they publish exclusive interviews, organisational manifestos, or plans of action. Never the media of these countries are accused of helping the terrorists.
Are we helping Boko Haram by publishing their atrocities? Would the world be better off if we ignored what they had done to nearly three hundred schoolgirls, and the recent killings of the people of other faiths?
What about the brutalities of ISIS? Is the media guilty of helping them by telling the world about them?
In our region, does not the Filipino media cover the activities of Moro National Liberation Front and its offshoot, Abu Sayyaf Group, in Mindanao? These are separatist bodies wanting to disintegrate the country. Still the media covers them as diligently as possible. In fact the media helped to steer a dialogue between the government and the separatists who have now signed a peace deal, and are being absorbed in the mainstream of the Philippines.
Closer to home, does not the Indian media cover the activities of its own extremist groups? For decades, they have been writing about the separatists in the seven sisters. More recently after the attack on the Indian parliament, and the attacks on Taj Hotel and Mumbai railway station, terrorism and extremism is one of the most important areas of coverage by the Indian media.
Pakistan is being torn asunder by terrorists. Many Pakistani journalists are being killed while covering them. Are they helping the terrorists or helping the fight against them?
Focusing on our own country, have not the media done a sterling job in raising public awareness, helping our anti-terrorism efforts?
Perhaps the most illustrative case for us is that of Bangla Bhai. He came to spotlight in 2004 when his JMJB (Jagrata Muslim Janata, Bangladesh) and JMB (Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh) started killing people in Rajshahi and Naogaon areas in the name of cleansing the districts' outlaws.
On May 17 of that year, Bangla Bhai rounded up three individuals, killed one of them after three days, and hung his body from a tree for the public to see.
The Daily Star and the Prothom Alo exposed the workings of this terrorist group and created public awareness about them. It was The Daily Star that published a huge picture of the hanging body and rang the alarm about Bangla Bhai's activities.
The erstwhile premier Khaleda Zia, in a meeting with editors in August 2004, said, "Bangla Bhai does not exist. It is a media creation."
In March 2005, on the floor of the parliament, Khaleda Zia said, "It's a propaganda against the government and the country. And it is aimed at causing a rift within the four-party alliance."
Thankfully she did not order any action against those of us who were most vocal in exposing the extremist-terrorist outfit.
Her finance minister, Saifur Rahman, dubbed the onset of Islamic militancy across the country as nothing but "foul propaganda" by a section of the media. "Taking advantage of the press freedom, some media outlets (read The Daily Star and the Prothom Alo, also the present suspects) have been making propaganda about fake issues like human rights violation, emergence of fundamentalist forces, and repression on minorities. A section of the print and electronic media is carrying out well-orchestrated propaganda against the government."
Similar statements were made by other ministers of BNP-led four-party government, including Nizami, Amini, and others.
Did The Daily Star give publicity to Bangla Bhai when it informed the public about him or was it alerting the public, and especially the government to fight against them? Was The Daily Star helping Bangla Bhai when we published the horrendous picture of the man, executed by the terrorist outfit, hanging from a tree?
The incumbent prime minister said, "Irrespective of whether the paper wrote in a negative or positive way… giving such a big coverage of the poster is tantamount to patronising Hizb-ut-Tahrir." How can this be? The editorial position of a paper is its very "heart and soul". Differing editorial positions is the very raison d'être that so many newspapers exist. It is the fundamental reason why people prefer one newspaper to another. Are we to understand that the PM sees no difference in the coverage of the on-going war crime trials, or saw no difference in the past coverage of the tragic BDR incident and the subsequent trial?
Following Sayedee's verdict, a rumour was deliberately spread that an image of his face could be seen on the surface of the moon. Many papers published the picture of that image including The Daily Star, just to prove that the photo was doctored. So if "negative or positive" makes no difference, then are we not guilty of giving the fake picture a publicity by publishing it?
We printed the infamous photoshopped pictures showing the Imams from the Holy Kaaba gathering in support of Sayedee. The Daily Star exposed the fraud by publishing those fake pictures alongside the real ones. Again if "negative" or "positive" made no difference then the printing of those fake pictures alongside the real ones makes us guilty of giving publicity to the fake ones.
When Hefajat claimed thousands to be dead, after an action by law enforcers that evicted them from the Bangladesh Bank area, it was this newspaper -- because it had few reporters and photographers placed all night on site -- which could resolutely assert that the death toll during the night was 12 or 13, with several others dying from later incidents. If "negative" or "positive" is "irrelevant" then those who claimed thousands dead and those of us who contested, were no different.
Again if "negative" or "positive" makes no difference, then how to differentiate between newspapers that contested Tarique Rahman's recent distorted and false claims about Bangabandhu and our Liberation War, and those who just published his views without comments?
We would like to draw our prime minister's attention to the fact that the workings of the media can be seen in two broad perspectives -- democratic and totalitarian.
In the democratic perspective the fundamental belief is that an "informed public" is the best guarantor of national interest, and all sorts of democratic freedoms. Thus in this dispensation all information is made available to the public, so that they judge what is good and what is bad for the nation. No restriction is put on the media.
In the totalitarian way of things, the view is that the government is the best guarantor of national interest, and hence the public will only know as much as the government allows it to know. It is often said that of the many reasons why the Soviet experiment collapsed, one of the main ones was the absence of a free media. The Soviet leaders just did not know the truth about the country they were governing, and thus had no idea that it was collapsing under their own feet.
Coming back to the Hizb-ut-Tahrir poster, we printed it for the sole purpose of informing the public and the government that a banned organisation is again becoming active. The poster was not only pasted in a corner of Bangla Motor but in many other parts of the city. The photo, our heading, and the caption make the nefarious aim of the banned organisation very clear.
There is no way one can misinterpret our "intent" which is how a media report must ultimately be judged, unless it is a deliberate exercise to the contrary. Our purpose was to "serve the public" by informing them, which is the only way to build a strong and participatory democracy. Is the nation better served when such information is kept hidden from the public eye, or when it is shared with them so that every citizen of the country can resist those both individually and collectively?
We conclude by saying -- which is an article of faith with us -- that in any clash between a government and a free media, the government wins, but only in the short run. It is the free media that wins in the long run, with some valuable nation building time being lost in the interim period. It is our hope that this will not happen in Bangladesh which is poised to grow sustainably only if democracy and the free media are allowed to play their designated roles. We have no time to lose.