On February 1, Qatar-based international news channel Al Jazeera released a documentary in whch it alleged that Bangladesh’s army chief General Aziz Ahmed had been offering aid to his fugitive brothers, who had been convicted for murdering a political rival. The documentary titled All the Prime Minister’s Men alleged that Ahmed helped his brothers obtain fraudulent passports and run illegal businesses abroad, with the tacit approval of the country’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
The investigative documentary, which is a product of two years of work, is based on information from a whistle-blower named Sami. A sting operation on one of Ahmed’s brothers – Haris Ahmed, who has been living under the forged identity in Hungary of Mohammad Hasan – also alleged that Haris Ahmed had functioned as a middleman, amassing bribes in exchange for using his connections with government officials in Bangladesh.
The investigation indicated that the Ahmed brothers have been selling off jobs in Bangladesh’s police forces for hundreds of thousands of dollars “in collusion with senior officers”. The Al Jazeera documentary alleged that the country’s home minister, the inspector general and the police commissioner had helped coordinate bribe payments.
Creating a storm
As soon as it was released, the hour-long investigative documentary created a storm in Bangladesh. Millions of people watched it on Youtube and other social media. Numerous users shared it on Facebook, which has been flooded with posts and comments about the allegations. While the documentary has become the talk of the country over the past few days, one startling feature stood out – the silence of mainstream media about the documentary’s allegations.
Except the national English daily New Age, none of the mainstream newspapers or televisions printed or broadcast anything about the investigation. They only published the statements issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Army Headquarters about the documentary. These institutions mainly debunked the investigation, dismissing it as “nothing more than a misleading series of innuendos and insinuations”.
Fear of Digital Security Act
In their defence, some of the leading dailies of Bangladesh said the Digital Security Act – a controversial law that could be used to suppress free speech – is the main reason behind their contrived silence.
“If we were a free media today, we would have delved deeper into the widely-talked-about Al Jazeera report and analysed it, point by point, and exposed it for what it really is – not a top-class work of investigative journalism,” wrote Mahfuz Anam, the editor of The Daily Star, the country’s highest-circulated English daily, in a column on Friday.
He added, “We have done nothing because they all are involved with power, both financial and political, and we dare not nudge them. Sometimes we do our own investigative stories but only so long as those who pull the strings are kept out of the scene, or when the real culprit has no political or institutional clout, or when the object of our investigation has fallen out of favour.”
Earlier, on February 3, the paper carried an editorial stating, “It is really the reflection of the environment in which we operate exemplified by the existence of the DSA, among others, which is perhaps among the most comprehensively restrictive and oppressive laws against the free press anywhere.”
An editorial in the Dhaka Tribune titled “Why the silence” explained that the reason for their silence is simple as “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 Dhaka Tribue editorial said that the Digital Security Act has a chilling effect on Bangladeshi media since it 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”.
The sorry state of media
However, Germany-based Bangladeshi media and political analyst Zia Hassan begs to differ. According to him, there are three types of media in Bangladesh.
“There are ones that the regime sees as a threat to its narrative and policies,” he said. “The journalists from those media are either mimed, imprisoned, abducted, or thrown out of the country. Their website IP addresses are immediately blocked. The detective agencies ensure that their voices are never heard.”.
The second type, he said, is the type that is operated by the beneficiaries of the regime. They may sound loud but they don’t matter.
“However, the third is the interesting type,” he said. “This is the kind of media that project independence and try to maintain objective journalism. The regime tolerates them to a degree, as their presence allows it to display a symbol of a functioning democracy.”
He added: “The cries for free speech, media freedom, and complaints about restrictive digital security laws we hear are from this third type of media establishment. To many this sounds a little hollow, if not completely diabolical.”
According to Hassan, these independent media entities are the direct beneficiaries of the regime’s elimination of the media entities that would now have been extremely popular and would have the motivation and courage to expose the regime’s crimes.
“In the past, these independent outlets have worked tirelessly to build the exclusionary Bengali nationalist narrative on which the current fascism now thrives,” he said. “These two parties have an uneasy relationship, but both have a common interest in keeping the status quo – the mafia regime that Al Jazeera exposed – alive.”
Losing public trust
Hassan said the complaints about freedom of speech and media freedom are only due to their discomfort at losing people’s trust, which is making them financially unsustainable.
“They care about freedom of speech and media only when it hurts them, because I don’t remember them caring about freedom of speech when their market competitors were eliminated or when the telecom regulatory authority blocks platforms like investigative entities like Netra news operating from abroad,” said Hassan.
Renowned Bangladesh photojournalist Shahidul Alam said that an explosive report involving key government officials on a leading international channel should have been splashed across the front page of every newspaper with bold headlines.
“To report on the rebuttal without having reported on the news itself, is journalistically untenable, but situationally understandable,” said Alam. “The government boasts of a free and unfettered media, but the unwritten taboos in the media include critiquing the prime minister or the military, as many in jail will testify.”
He said this journalistic “lapse” is substantiated by the candid admission by the editor of the Daily Star as he wrote, “If one looks at the flood of totally groundless and unsubstantiated defamatory cases under the DSA against journalists and newspapers, and the promptness with which such cases were accepted and the accused sent to jail and refused bail for weeks if not months, the answer will be obvious.
“The irony is we are not even mentioning the intimidation, threats and restrictions of advertisements and other tactics that are used. But even then, we must struggle on and, that’s what we do.”
Faisal Mahmud is a Dhaka based journalist