An apology to Shamim Osman?

shamim osman cartoon

Mahfuz Anam

Many years ago, towards the end of Sheikh Hasina’s first term as prime minister we, in the media, failed to recognise the true value of a politician like Jainal Hazari. We kept on revealing his criminal activities and the then PM kept on telling us that it was all part of a conspiracy to malign this veteran Awami Leaguer.
When Hazari nearly killed a local journalist and left him on the roadside to bleed to death, and when the media got together to raise funds for his treatment, including sending him abroad, it was seen as part of a conspiracy to malign the government itself, and a few media houses, including ours, were never forgiven for this temerity.
After nearly a decade we made another mistake. The media totally failed to understand the true value of Abul Hossain, the former communications minister, the man the PM termed as a “true patriot” but who the World Bank held responsible for an alleged corruption conspiracy involving the Padma bridge project. So what if the nation lost nearly $2.35 billion loan at an average interest rate of 0.75 percent, with 10 years grace period and repayment period of 40 years, making for a total loan period of 50 years?  So what if such terms of loans are extremely rare and immensely attractive for resource-scarce countries like Bangladesh?  That was obviously a small price to pay to protect the honour of a “patriot”.
We, in the media, are making a similar mistake once again. The volumes that we have written about Shamim Osman and his family, the numerous investigative exposes that most newspapers have carried have been all wrong, according to our prime minister.  She said, in no other place but the sacred floor of parliament, that “Small offences of their families are always magnified, while big offences of others are ignored by the vested quarters.”  In what can be truly termed as an ironclad defence, she said, “There are few families in the country who are in politics but did not commit any crime.” Is the PM implying that some extent of corruption is normal for any politician?
The Osman family has been oppressed from the time of Yahya Khan’s regime, back in late 60s, she said.  Paying rich tributes to the late Jatiya Party lawmaker Nasim Osman, elder brother of Shamim Osman, the PM said, “Law will take its own course, but the nation will have to be careful so that no family is belittled politically and destroyed by conspiracies.”  Investigators take note.
If we have understood the prime minister correctly, we owe Shamim Osman and all members of his family an apology. It took the PM, once again, to direct us to the correct path and to make us realise what a patriot he is.  What if people in the know believe otherwise?  The Taqi murder of last year, the seven murders in the recent past, the continuous reportage about the Osman family’s links with various illegal activities are all part of a conspiracy to malign this famous family from Narayanganj.  The fact that Shamim Osman, who was backed by the ruling Awami League, was overwhelmingly defeated by Selina Hayat Ivy, simply because the voters of Narayanganj wanted to be freed from the control of this family is obviously of no consequence.
The voters of Narayanganj en masse fell victim to the conspiracies against the Osman family that the PM alluded to. She has publicly pledged to stand beside this family, knowing full well that there are numerous cases being investigated whose leads run towards this family and their many members. But, of course, law will take its own course.
The PM in her recent post-Japan visit press conference has given some other lessons that the media needs to learn.
About the corruption in making of the gold crests to honour the foreign friends of Bangladesh for their contribution during our Liberation War, she said, “The main thing is that we have honoured them. By writing about the quantity of gold in the medals we are only disgracing ourselves” and questioned whether or not it had any link with Jamaat. Obviously misuse of public fund and the accompanying corruption are not issues of any concern, according to the PM, and hence should not receive any media focus.  So let those who made money out of the “medal scandal” be left alone.
The so-called “Operation Clean Heart” launched by Khaleda Zia, as the AL chief narrated, killed about 150 people. Later the Rab killed more than a thousand people during 2004 and 2005. Why no voices were raised against them at that time, and why voices are being raised now, the PM asked.  (Many civil society voices were raised, and this paper and many others extensively published reports about these killings and wrote condemnatory editorials against the Rab). Is the message here that since, according (wrongly) to the PM, no voices were raised then, none should be raised now?
As the PM, on record, said 1,000 people were killed by the Rab in one year during Khaleda Zia’s time then shouldn’t this government investigate those deaths? After all innocent lives were lost. Also a clear case stands that the Rab had gone berserk at that time. So can’t that happen again?
During the press conference, the PM related a phenomenon that she termed as “permanent government party”. She said there are people who are always with the government party, regardless of which party is in power. These people join the ruling party of the day to protect themselves. Citing Nur Hossain, the main suspect in the seven-murder incident in Narayanganj, the PM said he belonged to Jatiya Party, then joined BNP in 1991 and came to AL in 1996. The question is, given his background, why was he allowed a berth in the AL in the first place and then kept for the last 18 years?  Was anything done to see that he did not use AL membership as a “licence” for his criminal activities? How many more “permanent ruling party” members are there in the AL? What crimes are they still committing under the protection of the ruling party?
At the press conference the PM neither seemed worried about these possibilities nor did she articulate any plans to purge her party of such elements.
Not only for the media, the PM also had some lessons for the judiciary. Why did a two-member bench of the High Court order the arrest of three “dismissed” Rab officers, she questioned? Even though one of them confessed to his crimes in a court yesterday, which would not have been possible unless they were arrested and taken on remand and questioned? Yet, according to the PM, the judiciary was wrong, and going by the law minister’s comments, the judiciary was verging on “anarchy”.
We are not sure what we are to make of the messages emanating from the prime minister.