News Analysis

Read before you react

Seven lawmakers have demanded in parliament The Daily Star be closed and its editor, Mahfuz Anam, be tried for treason. With banners showing pictures of the editor, his hands tied with ropes, a rally of the ruling Awami League's student front, BCL, burnt effigies and called for his arrest. Some participants in a couple of TV shows advised him to quit as editor. The editor has already been sued for Tk 51-crore for defamation.

And what kicked up the uproar? A couple of days before the founding anniversary celebration of the newspaper on February 5, the editor appeared in a TV talk show and regretted one of his editorial decisions to publish a few reports without independent verification after the 1/11 takeover by an army-backed caretaker government in 2007.

It was indeed a significant remark that required a lot of courage to make in a journalistic culture where instances of one owning up to one's mistake are rare and saying sorry for an error, or self-criticism is non-existent. That introspective remark should have encouraged others to do the same. It should have opened up a whole new constructive debate on the weaknesses of journalism in the country and how to prevent them from recurring.

Then why are The Daily Star and its editor being flayed for a "crime" that was committed by almost all other editors and media nine years back?

A day after the interview, a news website, for reasons best known to it, ran a story with lots of twists and distortions under the headline "Daily Star Editor Mahfuz Anam admits to publishing DGFI-fed baseless stories".

First, it was not baseless. It was sourced as coming from the joint interrogation cell. An ominous twist was given in the third para of the story. The line "Running those graft stories against Hasina based on unsubstantiated DGFI information" was manufactured and joined to Mahfuz Anam's original quote "It was a big mistake". Even his standalone quote was distorted into "my biggest mistake". The Star editor never said that the stories were either "manufactured" or "baseless". He only said that his mistake was to publish reports that he could not "independently verify". 

Sajeeb Wazed Joy was first to react through his Facebook account. He demanded Mahfuz Anam be detained and tried for treason for trying to facilitate a military coup by running a smear campaign against his mother, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. What followed is known to all.

Being an independent voice, The Daily Star is quite familiar with hates and threats. Since the reports in question are about nine-year-old, we felt obligated to refresh memories of our critics about the journalism the newspaper pursued during the 1/11 phase and to reaffirm the pledge to our readers about Star's journalism without fear or favour.  

Were our reports in question baseless? No.

Star published a total of 11 news items between June and July of 2007 without verifying them independently. The truth is there was no scope to verify stories of this nature. Of the news items, seven were on alleged corruption of Khaleda Zia, her two sons -- Tarique Zia and Arafat Rahman Koko -- and other BNP leaders. Three reports were about Hasina and one about the chief conservator of forests, Osman Gani.

The source of those news items was the TFI (Task Force Interrogation) cell. The "confessions" from the interrogations were made available to the media, often by telephone calls or through CDs. In addition to newspaper reports, TV channels also played the audios of their "confessions". Many of these audio tracks are still available on YouTube.   

What Star could not do was to verify those information independently and crosscheck with other sources (that is, the people under interrogation, their relatives, party men or even their lawyers) and add their sides to the reports. However, it was impossible to do so during the emergency rule, when all forms of freedom were curbed, especially media freedom. 

Then again, the publishing of stories without "independent verification" continues till date. The media continue to publish stories on crossfire, briefing of police or Rab about a crime and the accused. All these stories of today in every media are one-sourced and one-sided and published without "independent verification". The media also run political diatribes without independent substantiation and verification.

Mahfuz Anam's regret should have touched off a debate to find ways to plug holes in coverage by the media. Unfortunately though, that has not happened. It has now turned into vilification of this newspaper and its editor. As to the reasons for that, we leave it to our readers to conclude.

Had the Star manufactured those stories? No.

None from the government or families of the accused had challenged the stories we ran at that time. When they were freed and democracy was restored, none of them ever said that they did not give any confessional statement during interrogation by the task force. They said the confessions were given under duress. And Star duly published those news.

Had reports of The Daily Star created 'grounds for Hasina's arrest'? No.

This is the most tendentious aspect of the present accusation against this newspaper and one least based on fact. The first corruption charge against the present PM was lodged on April 10 in connection with Westmont Power Company. The second was on April 12. On April 13, the Anti-Corruption Commission announced its intention to start its own investigation against Sheikh Hasina. Then on April 19, the government decided to block Sheikh Hasina's return to Bangladesh. On April 20, the government declared that "action would be taken against her" if she returned. Thus it clearly shows that long before Star printed any stories, the government had filed corruption cases against the AL chief. Then again, the specific charge for which Sheikh Hasina was arrested on July 16 was one that was filed by a prominent businessman on June 13. This report Star did not publish. The reports we published were neither investigative nor Star's own. All three were based on TFI sources.  Thus in no way can any link be established between reports appearing in Star and Sheikh Hasina's arrest. It must also be remembered that almost all papers and TV channels carried the same news. So how can one newspaper's reports be identified as the cause!

We repeat, she was actually arrested on July 16 for an extortion case filed on June 13 by a prominent businessman. And Star did not publish any report, let alone intelligence-supplied information, that could lead to filing of a case or her subsequent arrest. In fact, grounds for an arrest were created when the first extortion case against her was filed in April.     

The Daily Star was the only newspaper to condemn the arrest when its editor wrote a commentary the next day, boldly demanding her immediate release. Ironically, none of today's critics of Star wrote or spoke for Sheikh Hasina's release that day. Only The Daily Star did it.

Was The Daily Star responsible for 1/11? No.

Politics had gone from bad to worse when then ruling BNP extended retirement age of judges, resulting in Justice KM Hasan being in line to head the next caretaker government to oversee elections. Awami League was hell-bent on foiling what it called was a BNP plot to influence the polls. Violence, death, hartal and mass arrest dominated daily headlines for two years. Two most powerful parties stuck to their guns, pushing the country to the brink of a constitutional crisis.         

And what did the Star do during 2005-2006? It's all there in print for all to see.

In the news pages, we reported on what was happening and in the editorial, we kept on writing against such violence, mass arrest by law-enforcers to foil AL movement, and for political dialogue to come out of the crisis. A staggering 282 editorials were written by the newspaper, highlighting the importance of holding free and fair elections and asking the two parties at loggerheads to hold talks for the sake of democracy.   

We elaborately and critically reported how the then president Iajuddin Ahmed assumed the office of the caretaker government, ignoring the constitutional provision, on the advice of the BNP, the party that elected him president, and his activities against the then advisers' move to resolve political deadlock. 

Had The Daily Star tried to prolong the interim government rule? No.

From the very first day of the caretaker government, we firmly rooted for democracy and election both in our news and views coverage. The first line of our first editorial, written on January 13, the day after Fakhruddin Ahmed took oath, read, "Nation looks forward to a free and fair election."

In the news, we kept on putting pressure on the interim government for quick election by reporting on its priority -- a free and fair election. We continuously reported on the progress in preparation of a fresh voter list to get rid of about 1.3 crore fake voters and also on electoral reforms, and whenever it lagged behind, we raised concern in our reports.

When a quarter, led by errant intelligence officials within the caretaker government, was busy forming King's Party in order to replace the existing political parties and leaderships with new ones, we exposed those moves to the public. We also critically reported on the same group's move to split political parties in the name of intra-party reforms. In our reports, we spoke in favour of lifting ban on indoor politics, allowing political parties to resume their activities.

In our editorials, we continuously hammered on the importance of holding free election for returning to democracy. Star published 203 editorials during the emergency caretaker government rule, which is one editorial every third day, demanding repeatedly the earliest restoration of democracy and handover of power to elected representatives after a "free and fair election."

One of the beauties of the print media is that everything is printed and on record forever. In the context of the ongoing controversy, we think we owe it to our readers to explain how their newspaper covered the events.

We invite our critics to examine our record and leave it to our readers to judge the newspaper that they support.   


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