In the opening credit of the 1990s popular TV series Dark Justice, judge Nicholas Marshal (played by Rami Zada) was seen to have a reminiscence:

“As a cop, I lost my collars to legal loopholes, but I believed in the system. As a district attorney, I lost my cases to crooked lawyers, but I believed in the system. As a judge, my hands were bound by the letter of the law, but I believed in the system. Until they took my life away. Then I stopped believing in the system and started believing in justice.” 

Like Judge Marshal, Bangladesh, as a country, apparently has a threshold of tolerance when it comes to upholding its image in front of the world.

Bangladesh’s image was not tarnished when global media wrote how the country’s people were robbed of their voting rights in two consecutive elections. Its image was not tarnished when pages of documented evidence portrayed how the state machinery use extrajudicial killings or enforced disappearances to instil fear among the dissenters. It was not tarnished when an incarcerated writer, detained under a controversial cyber law, died in jail.

But all of a sudden it started to get tarnished when journalists write about corruption in media or when common people vented out their anger and frustrations about the government’s misdeeds in social media.

This consciousness about the image got all too evident when Bangladesh’s Chief Justice Syed Mahmud Hossain recently made an observation in a case filed under the much-discussed country’s Digital Security Act.

On March 7, Justice Hossain was presiding over a three-member bench of the Appellate Division of the country’s Supreme Court and hearing a bail petition concerning journalist Golam Sarwar, 61, who was arrested by the notorious Rapid Action Battalion under the Digital Security Act on March 15, 2020. Sarwar’s crime was that he had covered a protest staged by locals demanding relief during the Covid-19 pandemic.

While ruling on the case, the Chief Justice commented, “We are cautioning that we will not consider granting bail to those who tarnish the country’s image in any manner. It has to be kept in mind that the image of the country is the first priority.”

Al Jazeera’s explosive documentary 'All the Prime Minister’s Men' unearthed massive corruption at the top level of the armed forces.

Not the first time

This is not for the first time a high-profile person in Bangladesh talked about the tarnishing of the country’s image. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself mentioned it more than once.

She alleged that her political opponents are tarnishing the image of the country by making false complaints to foreigners about her government. While talking about the Digital Security Act at the Parliament, Hasina said, “Journalism is surely not for increasing conflict, or for tarnishing the image of the country.”

Even when discussing the progress of Padma Bridge – one of the largest-ever projects taken by the Bangladesh government – Hasina said, “Constructing the Padma bridge would give a befitting reply to those who are trying to tarnish the country’s image.”

It is to be noted that the World Bank earlier cancelled its $1.2 billion credit line to the Padma bridge project on charges of graft and malpractice.

Hasina’s party men also jump onto the wagon on a number of occasions to churn out similar statements. Obaidul Quader, the general secretary of the ruling Awami League and an influential minister of the government said a vested quarter is out to “continuously spread falsehood and propaganda at home and abroad against the government and thus the clique is tarnishing the country’s image abroad” hinting the activities of the main opposition Bangladesh National Party, which according to Quader has become a party whose “politics remains stuck in press briefing based negativity”.

Even top government official bestowed with the duty of investigating corruption also admittedly traded the path of compromise when it comes to the issue of upholding the country’s image. During his last press conference, the departing chairman of the Anti-Corruption Commission Iqbal Mahmood said that he had refrained from taking any decision when he thought it “might tarnish the image of the country”.

Time and again, these Awami League politicians and government officials have made it clear that a mere criticism against its government’s wrongdoings become synonymous with hurting the image of the country. Interestingly, when fact-based reports about its misdeeds appear, especially in the international media, the Awami League government simply brushes aside those as propaganda.

The recent reaction of the Bangladesh government against Al Jazeera’s explosive documentary is a glaring example of that. While the documentary unearthed massive corruption at the top level of the armed forces, the Bangladesh government only termed it as a “false, defamatory and politically-motivated smear campaign” without ever putting up an appropriate rebuttal against the charges that were made in the documentary.

Ironically, instead of addressing the actual corruption – which truly hurts Bangladesh’s image in the domestic and international arena – the government had resorted to the same old tactic of blaming it onto the opposition who they said have funded the making of the documentary.

Obsession with image

Mahfuz Anam, editor of The Daily Star – Bangladesh’s highest circulated English daily – wrote in a recent column that “though we are turning 50 as a country [referring to the 50th Independence Day of the country on March 26], our obsession with ‘image’, however, does not appear to be ebbing”.

“People in vital positions seem to talk about it as if it is the be-all-and-end-all of all things about our country,” he said. “We are perhaps the only country in the world – unless we want to side with the authoritarian ones whose protestations in favour of democracy are most vigorous – that has a law to protect its ‘image’”.

Parliament in 2018 had passed the controversial Digital Security Act, which has loosely worded provisions to proffer a jail sentence of up to 14 years for tarnishing the country’s image or for running any propaganda or campaign against the country’s independence war, its founding father, the national anthem or flag.

Anam said if a concept like “tarnishing the image” is made an “offence” and punishable, the country runs into a very serious risk of abuse of the law.

“A reckless spree of arrests, detention, torture and defamation cases have been set in motion ever since the enactment of the Digital Security Act,” Anam said. “This single act did more harm to the image of the country than the so-called ‘enemies’ could have done.”

It is to be noted that just in last year, as many as 457 people of all professions were prosecuted and arrested in 198 cases filed under the Digital Security Act, said United Kingdom-based Article 19 in its annual report. Of this figure, 75 were journalists, while others included teachers, students, folk musicians and cultural artists among others.

Bangladesh journalists protesting against the Digital Security Act in 2018. Mohammad Ponir Hossain/ Reuters

The United States-based Human Rights Watch termed Digital Security Act as “abusive” and said the authorities in Bangladesh use this act to harass and indefinitely detain activists, journalists, and others critical of the government and its political leadership. “The administration of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed should immediately take steps to amend or repeal the law to protect freedom of speech,” said Human Rights Watch.

Dangerous proposition

The Daily Star editor questioned where do priorities like protecting the constitution, upholding the rule of law, ensuring freedom and rights of the people and equality before the law, etc find their place if protecting the country’s image takes precedence above everything else?

Anam wrote:

“Imagine if our heads of statutory bodies, secretaries of ministries, the police chief, chiefs of intelligence agencies, heads of departments in ministries all started to decide what to do and what not to do on the basis of their personal thoughts on what and what would not hurt our image. Imagine our auditor and comptroller general deciding not to reveal the anomalies he unearths because of the ‘image’ factor. The whole edifice of governance would collapse if such a thought process was to receive widespread currency.”

Veteran journalist Kamal Ahmed said the issue of the image of the country has not been mentioned in the descriptions of offences against the state and seditious offences under the Code of Criminal Procedure.

“That means what I and many others like me consider to be fair and legitimate criticism and freedom of expression, may be considered by the complainants or investigating police officials as tarnishing the image of the country,” he said.

Ahmed said that criticising the heads of the government and politicians is part and parcel of democracy and the stronger and sharper the criticism, the brighter is the image of the country. “The democracy of such countries is said to be vibrant and citizens’ freedom is unhindered,” he said.

Faisal Mahmud is a Dhaka-based journalist.