On Thursday, Al Jazeera published a report on how on 16 August 2015, Bangladesh intelligence agency officials had instructed telecommunication and consumer good companies from advertising in the country’s two leading newspapers.
After you have read the article, as well as the full statement from Telenor (the majority shareholder of Grameen Phone), here are seven further things to understand about this situation.
1. Dont underestimate the significance of this attack on Prothom Alo and the Daily Star
The order by DGFI, presumably with the agreement of the powers that be in the Bangladesh government, to stop large companies from advertising in Prothom Alo and the Daily Star is a serious attempt to undermine the freedom of the media in Bangladesh. By throttling the papers’ advertising revenue, the government is trying to bring these papers in line – so they no longer are the independent institutions, able to question and challenge the government through their reporting and investigative journalism.
Though there is a background of historic disagreements as to why parts of the government do not like these papers, this current attack on the papers is probably not just about settling scores. Members of the government think that Prothom Alo’s reporting and journalism, which reaches many millions of people, can swing votes. This attack is about ensuring that when the next elections come, the government has beaten these papers into submission – and perhaps even to have them shut them down.
2. The silence of the media
What is particularly worrying about the current situation, is that not a word about the instruction has been reported in the country’s newspapers or electronic media – not in the Daily Star/Prothom Alo, nor in other newspapers and TV media, although they are all fully aware of the situation.
The Daily Star and Prothom Alo are for sure in a difficult situation, but their silence only makes them appear weak. Moreover, their presumed strategy of seeking to persuade the “powers that be” to backtrack is both unlikely to work in the current political dispensation, and if it was to succeed would inevitably result in the newspapers making some kind of concessions to the government. Already it appears that both papers are self-censoring to show that they can be ‘trusted’ . Papers like Prothom Alo and the Daily Star should never get involved in this kind of ‘diplomacy’ over principles like freedom of the media – otherwise they will lose what is so valuable in them; their independence and integrity. The papers should be open and transparent and say what they know, and embarrass the government in rescinding the instruction.
As to other media, many of whom are getting the benefit of some advertising from the companies now shifting to them, their silence deserves criticism. Though one could never expect that the pro-government newspapers would publish critical articles of this sort – and in fact no doubt delighting in the current situation – one would hope that the more independent minded media would have reported it. They should recognize that if the government succeeds with Prothom Alo and the Daily Star, it could well be them next.
3. Understanding corporate adherence: fearful of getting on the wrong side of the government
One may ask, why did these companies abide by the instruction given by the intelligence agency officers, which has no legal basis? Apart from the specific fear of going against a request from DGFI (see below), there is also the fear of arbitrary and politicized action that would be taken against them by the government – whether by a regulatory body refusing to provide or otherwise delaying requests for various permissions that would normally be agreed promptly, or the myriad other ways in which governments in Bangladesh can make corporate life difficult including suddenly finding new alleged failures that they must all of a sudden investigate. Rule 101 in Bangladesh corporate business – keep the right side of the government.
And of course, these companies are themselves not necessarily principled. How much do they care about principles like freedom of the media. It is the bottom line that counts.
4. Telenor, stepping up to the plate
One can understand the difficulties big companies have in rejecting the instruction from the authorities, but one would hope that they would not just willingly accept the instruction but do all they can to get the order rescinded. It is notable that it is only Telenor – the Norwegian majority shareholder of Grameen Phone – that has been willing to be open and transparent about what has been going on, and also is seeking to bring an end to the embargo.
5. The four most feared letters in Bangladesh
To understand how government authorities have both managed to obtain the compliance of the companies and also kept this under wraps, one must understand that the letters D.G.F.I. are probably the most feared four letters in Bangladesh. An intelligence agency, based in the army, which operates in the domestic sphere of politics in support of the government and which is unregulated by law. As one leading civil society leader said to the question as to why DGFI was so feared in Bangladesh: ‘Think ISI [in Pakistan].’ DGFI is not ISI, but the letters certainly put the fear of god into people, and help explain why the telecommunications and other companies were unwilling to defy the instruction – and newspapers not willing to publish the story.
6. The army’s sensitivity to the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
The whole episode shines light on the particular sensitivity of the army and government towards the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The trigger for the instruction were articles published on the 16 August about the killing of five men by the army in the CHT. The army contacted the two newspapers Prothom Alo and the Daily Star about their news article on the killings of five men by the army. They criticized the papers for failing to clearly refer to the men killed as “terrorists” and also reprimanded them for describing the men as “indigenous”, insisting that tribal populations living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts should be called “ethnic minorities” instead.
This suggests particular sensitivity of the army to what is going on in the CHT, and in particular about how people living there are described. The army is following the government’s position (or perhaps it is the other way round) that people should simply not call the the Shantal, Chakma, and Marma and other groups in the hill tracts as ‘indigenous’. They don’t accept the United Nations definition of what is indigenous – which focuses on relationship to land, and culture, and self identification – and they argue that it is the Bengali people who are the real indigenous people to Bangladesh.
Whilst the language of ‘indigenous’ had for some time been a matter of contestation, it only became a serious matter for the army and government when the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues recommended in 2011, in relation to the CHT, that “consistent with the code of conduct for United Nations peacekeeping personnel, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations prevent military personnel and units that are violating human rights from participating in international peacekeeping activities under the auspices of the United Nations, in order to maintain the integrity of the indigenous peoples concerned.” (para 102).
The sensitivity of the army to these articles may also have been because the army was concerned that the killings of these five men would find the army bracketed along with the Bangladesh police and other law enforcement authorities who have been heavily criticized in recent months for extra judicial killings in Bangladesh – where people are allegedly picked up by the authorities and then killed with the police denying any such detention having taken place.
7. Concern about the willingness of the papers to respond to army concerns
The Daily Star responded to the initial criticism by the army in relation to their 16 August articles by publishing a “follow-up” report the next morning that referred to the dead men as “armed criminals” and “terrorist gang members”. Prothom Alo also published an “explanation” saying that describing the men as “indigenous” did not “necessarily mean that they are innocent young men”. It must be a concern how the two papers – and the Daily Star in particular – were willing to accede to the concerns of the army by writing their ‘follow up’ stories.