By Fatima Zahra
I used to have a lot of respect for Al-Jazeera. Al-Jazeera in Arabic translates as ‘The Island’, that is proudly independent from the uniform voices of the distorted partisan mainland media. And initially for a few years Al-Jazeera was a lone brave voice. Now the Island has joined the mainland in its warped misrepresentations.
Al-Jazeera’s Listening Post on 13 May 2013 was further evidence of its lazy yellow journalism and seemingly having no journalists based in Bangladesh has swallowed hook, line and sinker the corrupt Awami league government’s narrative without question. Indeed, there was no counter-narrative, or attempt to understand Hefazot-Islam who were dehumanised in the Listening Post by reducing them to ‘Islamic Fundamentalists’.
There was much talk on the piece about ‘Freedom of Speech’. Since the current Awami League govt took power in 2009, reporting the truth by journalists has resulted in arrest, torture and even death. In the past year, there have been over a hundred documented attacks on journalists, mostly for criticism or exposure of the ruling Awami League party. In one astonishing case, Awami League members ordered nineteen journalists to leave the city or they would be ‘chopped to pieces and buried.’
Recent cases are too abundant to mention here, but include a machete attack in a newsroom, the public beating of three photojournalists after covering a student demonstration and the assault of three journalists by police because they had accused inspectors of abusing a 15-year-old girl. Privately owned television stations were even temporarily shut down to prevent them from covering a major rally of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
The International Federation of Journalists reported that there is a continuous threat and harassment against the press in Bangladesh. The World Development Indicators between 1992 and 2011 ranked Bangladesh as 11th in the Impunity Index Rating with regard to unsolved murders of journalists. 75% of journalists who have been killed so far in Bangladesh were targeted for reporting corruption, political scandals, and violations of human rights. Sheikh Hasina’s Rapid Action Battalion – a paramilitary arm of the police force -is responsible for over 1000 extra-judicial killings.
Newspaper editor Mahmudur Rahman, who reported the International Crimes Tribunal leaks, was arrested in April and is currently being detained and tortured in a prison cell. He went on hunger strike for several days in protest over his treatment, before Hefazot Islam’s spiritual guide ‘Ahmed Shafi’ wrote him a letter saying Bangladesh needs him to live and call off his strike. International human rights groups criticized the government’s actions and called for the release of Rahman. Protesting were Human Rights Watch, the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT), which also asked the government to guarantee Rahman’s security from torture; and the Asian Human Rights Commission.
Mahmadur Rahman is a popular hero in Bangladesh, some going so far as to call him our very own Julian Assange. However, the Listening Post, whose journalists don’t come anywhere near being brave as Mahmadur Rahman, smeared him as the instigator of religious hatred.
The Listening Post was so concerned about the theoretical risk to freedom of speech by Hefazot-Islam it completely side-lined and white-washed the actual destruction of freedom of speech happening in BD today under this govt under the so-called name of secularism and democracy. And is freedom of speech only permissible for those whose views we are in agreement with? A guest speaker, Gita Saghal, a former member of Amnesty International who was sacked by them in 2010, and who likes to cast herself as a modern, liberal free-thinker does not extend her liberalism to Diganta TV or Islamic TV. These 2 channels were switched off around 4am by the govt as they were the only 2 media outlets to be bravely stay on to capture the massacre of Hefazot protesters in Dhaka by the police/ RAB/ army/ Border Gueards whilst the other journalists had heeded the govt’s demands to evacuate the area.
Sabir Mustafa of the BBC and Gita Saghal claim that Diganta TV were closed down because it was ‘inciting violence’ and ‘widely exaggerating’ the number of deaths at the 5-6th May shootout. However, as Gita Saghal was not there in person and prior to any completed investigation by Human Rights Organisations, how does she know the numbers have been exaggerated or otherwise? Ms Saghal is towing the Awami line and not being much of the neutral free-thinker she espouses to be. Sabir Mustafa’s claims of Diganta TV’s exceeding its remit and inciting violence may have been a valid point had the TV channel not suddenly gone off air around 3-4am. The normal protocol of any media outlet which may be suspected of inciting violence would be to serve warning, investigate and charge or clear. However, none of this happened and no due process was followed. What could Diganta TV have been doing to be abruptly cut off in the middle of night? Why were all the journalists told to leave Mothijeel earlier that night? Why of course, they were capturing and revealing images that the Bangladeshi government did not want to be exposed to the world: it’s perfectly planned premeditated murder of its protesting citizens.
The Listening Posts reported one of the guests saying ‘The 3-way clashes’ by Hefazot-Islam members on the police. However, any audience member with eyes can discern that the footage they showed did not match this accusation. Hefazot-Islam members had sticks (to prop up the posters they had been carrying for the protest) versus 10,000 police/ RAB/ army/ border guards armed to the teeth with rubber and live bullets, tanks, tear gas, hose-pipes (to wash blood stains). The latter chose to attack in the dead of night around 2.30am when they knew most protesters were resting and not expecting an offensive. And this was only after the govt has switched off the electricity at 8pm and got rid of the journalists.
Gita Saghal also claims that the number of dead have been widely exaggerated. Hefazot allege between 2000-3000 people were massacred that night and many thousands more injured. The BD govt claim less than 50 were killed. If the electricity has been cut, it’s 2.30am, pitch-black and most protestors (several tens of thousands) are sleeping with the govt forces firing indiscriminately: how many do you think died? Would it be closer to 50 or 3000? However many died and whatever the true numbers, it was done in cold-blood, planned beforehand and executed ruthlessly. However, Al-Jazeera decided to overlook this part.
Hasina is the PM of BD. She will, as all leaders do, disagree with her own people. She is allowed to disagree, critique and dissent. What she is not allowed to do is monstrously a massacre civilian to quell their dissenting voices. Civilised leaders sit down, have a dialogue, come to a compromise. Barbaric leaders do what Hasina has done. She is Bangladesh’s Assad, Gaddafi, Mubarak, Saddam. And like these vicious leaders her time will also come.