Ever since the publication of a bombshell special investigation on Al Jazeera titled All the Prime Minister’s Men, the question has been raised as to why the Bangladeshi media has neither reported on the investigation nor embarked upon its own investigations of the explosive allegations that have been raised by the programme.
The silence of the Bangladeshi media in this instance has been all-encompassing and deafening.
The reason for our silence is simple: The current state of media and defamation law in Bangladesh, and how it is interpreted by the judiciary, makes it unwise for any Bangladeshi media house to venture into any kind of meaningful comment on the controversy.
The Bangladesh foreign ministry, Inter Service Public Relation and home ministry have all released statements blasting the report as a “smear campaign” and “yellow journalism”, and it is their right to respond rhetorically as they see fit. The authorities are also reportedly looking into legal action, which is an entirely appropriate action for a party that believes it has been defamed.
More encouragingly, we note that neither has the media outlet that released the story been banned nor have the media channels on which it may be viewed been shut down, something that has happened in the past.
We congratulate the authorities on their apparent decision to let the Bangladeshi people see and read the investigative reports and to decide for themselves whether they find the contents persuasive or credible.
In our opinion, this is entirely how it should be.
If the contents of a news report are unconvincing or lack credibility or are biased or prejudiced, then this will be clear to the reader or viewer, who will then reject and dismiss the allegations contained therein.
Where a news report crosses the line and peddles falsehood and defamation, there are laws in place to counter such abuse, though we counsel that they should be exercised stringently and with extreme caution so as to not unduly interfere with the public’s right to information.
Which brings us to the unfortunate situation pertaining in Bangladesh.
The simple fact is that the Digital Security Act has had a chilling effect on Bangladeshi media.
The Act contains language proscribing reporting that is so broad in its scope and threatens such draconian consequences that no responsible editor can take the chance of publishing reports that might even conceivably fall into its purview.
Unfortunately, the courts have demonstrated that they take a very expansive interpretation of the act’s language when it comes to accepting cases, and the record strongly suggests that our extreme –some might say excessive – prudence and caution in this respect is not unwarranted.
When something as seemingly innocent as a social media post taken out of context can bring down the full force of the law on an individual, this has a severe and chilling effect on the media at large, as we are seeing right now.
It is not only the Digital Security Act, but Bangladesh’s country’s defamation laws are also remarkable in their application, allowing for an effectively uninjured third party to sue on behalf of the ostensibly injured party, and also allowing such cases to be filed in multiple jurisdictions so that one can easily find oneself sued in dozens of courts by parties who essentially have only the most tenuous connection to the case and are not injured parties in any recognisable sense of the word.
Nor is this a hypothetical situation, theoretically permitted by the law but never put into action. Time and again we have seen parties harassed by multiple defamation cases filed by essentially uninjured third parties in far-flung districts, and the cases accepted by the courts.
The issue is not the veracity or lack thereof of the Al Jazeera reports. As we have said, we applaud the government’s forbearance on the matter and think it is right that the public have been left to make up their own minds.
However, the lack of any robust discussion of or commentary on the reports in the domestic media suggests an uncomfortable truth.
This newspaper has always taken the position that allowing maximal freedom to the media – of course, tempered by responsibility – is ultimately in the interests of any government. There is nothing so damaging to the image of a government that outweighs the damage done to its image by suppressing it.
We feel that this is especially so for a government that has many successes and achievements to its credit, as the present one does. It appears that, to its credit, the government has recognised this when it comes to international media reporting on Bangladesh and we hope that such a conversation can now be restarted with respect to the domestic media climate.
This article first appeared in the Dhaka Tribune.