I first started researching Bangladeshi censorship cases during a relatively minor incident– the 2007 “Mohammed Biral” (Mohammed cat) cartoon controversy in the satirical magazine Alpin. A list of post-1971 cases was meant to be the appendix to a sarcastic essay, “Save us from cats”. The piece was, appropriately enough, rejected by the newspapers. “Too sensitive a subject,” I was told. Let sleeping cats lie, as it were.
In the years since 2007, I kept adding items to this list, and was gradually struck by the always expanding scope of censorship, and the increasing weakness (or complicity) of the media in the face of this onslaught. This is theoretically counter-intuitive given the post-liberalization fertile mediascape, but it makes sense when we frame the record number of newspapers and TV stations as an appendage to political ambitions, a space to park money, and a project to accelerate consumption capitalism. Free speech concerns now play out in parochial terms (hands off our employees, but not necessarily hands off the content) and not in a regime-neutral manner.
If we look at the totality of public and private censorship, we see that while religion does come up (and provokes global hand-wringing), it is not always the overriding concern. Rather it is challenges to state power, initially class-based critiques in the 1970s, and later critical writing organized around centrist polarities, that provoke the deepest backlash. Journalists who benefit from business opportunities and government linkages complicate matters– as beneficiaries of state or business patronage, they lose editorial independence and are also likely to be targets of recrimination after regime change. Two types of cases are well represented in any systematic accounting of censorship. First, cases that went to court, or precipitated state intervention, are usually part of the official records. Secondly, cases over the last half decade are better documented, due to proliferation of online archives of newspapers.
The thinner flow of cases in earlier periods does not necessarily indicate less censorship, but rather that these records are harder to find. During periods of martial law, there are draconian press curbs already in place, so offending reports never come out. What is also not documented here are the quieter forms of persuasion, the “invitation to tea”, accompanied by subtle coercion. Even more powerful is the withdrawal of lucrative advertisements, effective against a nervous, self-censoring editor. There are probably hundreds of such incidents from 1972 until now, but they remain mostly undocumented.
While censorship related to state power is represented here, that related to social sensitivity is sometimes absent. It was a common phenomenon in the 1980s for episodes of television programs to disappear; especially, but not exclusively, western programs: Brideshead Revisited after the censors realized the central characters were a gay couple, or Jewel in the Crown’s missing final episode depicting Hindu-Muslim riots, coupled with Bangla drama serials that were subject to pre-broadcast editing. Some of these censorship efforts were comical, such as excising of specific songs within the musical show Solid Gold, or the four-week stoppage of series such as Wonder Woman during Ramadan. Today, with dozens of satellite channels, and unfiltered data on the internet, such blockages are akin to sifting sand. But there is still coercive power at the disposal of the state (laws, arrests, closure) and business interests (as owner and advertising client), which can strategically control the flow of news and information.
1972-1975: unsteady new country
As Bangladesh came into being after a brutal war, the post-liberation months showed a country lacking preparation for what was to follow. In the scramble for position and power, many compromises were made for the sake of “stability”. One such foundational error was of defining the people of Bangladesh as only “Bengali” in the constitution, which set in motion the instabilities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts culminating in the Jumma (Pahari) indigenous people’s guerrilla war for liberation, the 1997 Peace Accord, and post-accord disillusionment. Another inconsistency came in the new Constitution’s clause on restrictions on press “in the interest of the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states, decency or morality”. In the Constituent Assembly debates, this was opposed only by Suranjit Sengupta of National Awami Party (Moscow-aligned) and Manabendra Larma of Chittagong Hill Tracts (who also opposed the “Bengali” clause). The repressive apparatus that Pakistan had deployed was also carried over to the new state— for example, the Printing & Publication Ordinance (PPO).
An early confrontation with the state came when veteran journalist Abdus Salam published his “The Supreme Test” editorial in Bangladesh Observer (March 15, 1972), which discussed the legal and constitutional challenges for the new government. Readers interpreted this editorial as stating that the new state needed new mechanisms, not just the 1970 election results, as a framework for the country’s governance. The next day, the newspaper announced that Salam, who had been with Observer house for 20 years, had been “retired.” A month later, on 26th April, Novosti Press Agency of the Soviet Union released a commentary titled “Maoist activies in Bangladesh.” Displaying the new modes of superpower meddling, Novosti demanded that ultraleft newspaper Ganashakti, Maulana Bhashani’s Haq Katha and Holiday be banned. Whether reflecting this diktat, or using it as an excuse for wheels already in motion, Fayzur Rahman, editor of Spokesman and Mukhopatra, was detained, and Haq Katha, Ganashakti, Mukhopatra, Lal Pataka and Banglar Mukh received notices asking why their license would not be cancelled (Ullah, 2002).
The new Awami League (AL) government was simultaneously handling an international balancing act (UN membership, repatriation of Bengali soldiers, war crimes trials, relationships with Islamic nations), and facing an increasingly strident opposition, mainly from a left energized by defections from the Awami League to form JSD (Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal or National Socialist Party). On New Year’s day 1973, police fired on protesters in front of the USIS (United States Information Services) building. When Dainik Bangla published a special report on the incident, Hasan Hafizur Rahman and Toab Khan were made OSD (Officer on Special Duty, a punishment short of firing) in retaliation.
Although the Pakistan-era PPO was repealed this year, it was replaced by Printing Presses and Publication Ordinance, which carried nearly identical powers (Riaz, 1993: p. 205). The second Amendment to the Constitution was also passed, allowing for suspension of certain fundamental rights of citizens during an emergency. In one example of “emergency”, the Deshbangla office was raided after they published a news item claiming that the town of Rangamati would soon fall under control of “armed rebels”, including indigenous Jumma people. 1974 saw passage of the notorious Special Powers Act (SPA), which was used numerous times over the next decades against the media and opposition politicians (on the receiving end was often the same Awami League that passed the law). In a moment of unintentional irony, the Press Council Act was enacted in the same week as SPA, although they contradicted each other on press freedom. Finance Minister Tajuddin Ahmed seemingly went against the SPA when he called for “healthy and fearless journalism”, but this gesture did not reduce the coercive power of the law.
1973-74 also saw the first blasphemy cases involving religion. These allowed a small gesture of strength by Islamist groups, which had been sidelined by their support of Pakistan during the war. In 1973, Daud Haider published a poem in Sangbad where he allegedly insulted Prophet Mohammed, Jesus Christ and Gautama Buddha. A college teacher filed a case, and Dhaka saw its first post-71 Islamist procession. Haider was taken into protective custody and later went into permanent exile in Germany. Soon afterward, social worker Engineer Enamul Haq published a leaflet which contained a reference to the Prophet’s wives, although Haq said it was not meant in a negative way. Death threats were issued and processions were brought out, but the government dismissed it as “politics of anti-liberation forces.” Haq spent time in protective custody and was released.
JSD became increasingly restless, and their gherao (surround) of the Home Minister’s residence led to deaths. In retaliation, JSD aligned Ganakantha newspaper was closed and Acting Editor Al Mahmud was jailed– he was released a year later. The country was also shaken by the underground guerrilla campaign waged by the Maoist-aligned Sarbahara Party. The government’s response to such perceived “internal enemies” led to increasingly violent measures. As instability increased, goom khoon (disappearance murder) entered the lexicon and Nirmal Sen wrote an essay in Dainik Bangla, “Shabhabik Mrittu’r Nishchoyota Chai (We want a guarantee of natural death)”. He faced heavy censure from the government for this. In an even stronger protest, Rafiq Azad published a poem inspired by the infamous 1974 famine: “Bhat De, Haramjada (Give me rice, you bastard)”. He went into hiding after the government attempted to arrest him.
1975 was the year when things fell apart. Increasingly besieged and isolated, the AL passed the controversial 4th Amendment to the Constitution. This dissolved all political parties and created BKSAL (Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League or Bangladesh Farmer Laborer People’s League) as a unified political party. A Newspaper Declaration announced closure of twenty-nine daily and 138 weekly publications; only four titles were allowed to continue. Hundreds of journalists signed applications to join BKSAL, although it was not clear whether this was “voluntary”. Among those who refused to sign were Nirmal Sen (who had been censured the previous year), Kamal Lohani and Mahfuz Ullah.
Whether a free press in the period leading up to 1975 would have saved Sheikh Mujib is unclear, but the blanket suppression of media and political parties did not stabilize the country. Rebellious forces were driven underground, with tragic results. Sheikh Mujib and his family were brutally assassinated in a military coup on August 15th. Khondoker Mushtaq, a member of Mujib’s cabinet, was installed as President. Soon afterward, a counter-coup deposed the August group, and they were deposed in turn by another counter-coup. It seemed for a moment that the country was headed into a spiral of endless power grabs, until the cycle was broken by the arrival of the Zia regime.
1976-1981: making politics difficult
Since most of modern Bangladeshi history has been dominated by the Awami League/AL (party of Sheikh Mujib) or the Bangladesh Nationalist Party/BNP (party of Ziaur Rahman), the contours of current politics are usually explained through comparisons between the first two regimes (AL:1972-75, BNP:1976-81). While there is little agreement between official historians, a broad consensus can be sought around the idea that Sheikh Mujib was the leader who brought independence, but could not manage to stabilize postwar Bangladesh. Zia therefore framed himself, proactively, as the restorer of discipline after 1975. While civilian forces were indeed stabilized, the army was not and the Zia period saw multiple attempted coups, including the final one that assassinated him in 1981.
Regarding the media, Zia alternated a skilfull carrot and stick approach. We can see the attention paid to the media by the fact that Zia initially assigned himself the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (Alam, 2008: p. 189). The first year was marked by draconian controls on press freedom especially regarding internal stability. In connection with the 7th November 1975 mutiny (the last coup before Zia came to power), Colonel Taher and eleven others were put on trial for conspiracy to overthrow the government. Among the charged was KBM Mahmoud, editor of by-then defunct English newspaper Wave. Mahmoud was accused of being one of the authors of a manifesto released during Col Taher’s mutiny. Bangladesh also saw a high-profile deportation when Lawrence Lifschultz’s reports on the Taher trial resulted in his expulsion. On the domestic front, Mainul Hossain, chairman of Ittefaq, was arrested and newspaper column writers were asked to provide their personal financial details to the government (Alam, 2008: 189).
The 1975 ordinance placing press under government control was repealed, but martial law regulations were passed that made it an offence “to criticise in any way the imposition, operation or continuation of martial law, to spread reports calculated to cause fear or alarm” (Alam, 2008: p. 221). With these controls in place, press reports about attacks on journalists were focused only on non-state actors. For example, in June 1977, the dead body of a journalist was recovered from a pond in Tangail, and in early 1978 three journalists, investigating the selling of dangerous medicine, were badly beaten in Ishwardi. In an ironic twist, a bomb attack on a rally by Khondoker Mushtaq (hated for his role in the Mujib coup) spared him but accidentally killed journalists sitting nearby. Other incidents reveal bubbling tensions under the calm. In 1978, twenty-two journalists were injured during police beating of a rally demanding restoration of freedom of press. The office of Azad, the oldest daily newspaper of Bangladesh, also came under attack for an article which “hurt public sentiment”.
However, Zia had a very specific, and targeted soft-power approach toward the media, informed by the mistakes of the preceding Mujib era. The government brought in newspaper editors for private conversations about broadcasting positive news. As part of the accompanying charm initiative, senior journalists Enayetullah Khan and Daud Khan Majlish were brought into the government, Observer editor Abdus Salam became Press Institute of Bangladesh (PIB) chairman, Al Mahmud became Shilpakala Academy chairman, and former AL Member of Parliament ABM Musa became Press Council chairman. The government now had very senior journalists who could call editors on their behalf, to make requests.
There were other structural changes that encouraged a more positive relationship with media. Senior journalist Mahfuz Ullah[i] points out that Zia, as head of state, made the maximum number of visits to the Press Club. Attention was also paid to inviting large number of journalists along on overseas trips. A diplomatic battle with India over the disputed Talpatti islands, also encouraged the press to project a united front against “external enemies”. Most significantly, the 2nd Journalist Wage Board was formed in this period (the 1st Board having been structured under Pakistan’s General Ayub Khan). Veteran journalists such as Nirmal Sen (censured under the previous government) were on the union team, negotiating with the army’s chief negotiator General Manzur. The Wage Board’s positive resolution created a buoyant, pro-government mood in the press. This was generally maintained until the 1979 election, which brought a small opposition (including the AL) into the Parliament. This began a period of dissent against the government, which the press started to cover.
Some reports suggest there were over twenty attempted mutinies during the Zia period (Mascarenhas, 1986), and there was little indication of this in the media. An October 1977 press release (Bichitra, 1977: 9) about an attempted mutiny at Dhaka airport was a rare exception, and this was precipitated by the presence of Japanese press at the airport, due to the overlap with the hijack of Japan Airlines JAL 472. Knowing that the international press would report it anyway, the government pre-emptively published the bare bone basics of the incident. Given the brutal assassination of Ziaur Rahman in the 1981 Chittagong coup, we can argue that a free press could have alerted the government to continued resentment inside the army.
A significant development for later censorship came early in this government’s tenure. Seeking to mark a decisive break with the 1972-1975 government, and the forging of a new “Bangladeshi” (as opposed to the theoretically more secular “Bengali”) nationalism, the government removed secularism from the constitution and later issued a proclamation inserting Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim (In the name of God, most Gracious, most Compassionate) into the preamble of the Constitution. These new moves created a legal basis for the primacy of Islam over other religions in citizen life. This shift, as well as the subsequent insertion of Islam as state religion by the Ershad regime in the 1980s, facilitated later legal prosecutions for blasphemy. We see this reflected in the post-91 era, with the mushrooming of cases based around religion.
1982-1990: fourth estate in battle mode
The post-Zia regime of General Ershad, which took power through another coup in 1982 (after a brief civilian period), had a particularly tortured relationship with the press, which can be understood through a simplified comparison of entry point perceptions. Ershad came to power in a bloodless coup, unlike the 1975 regime changes that were marked by bloodshed and instability. But the self-projection of regime change was very different. As mentioned earlier, Zia effectively presented himself as a force for stability after a period of chaos. This may have been a factor in the press decision to not critique the government at the outset (as well as martial law regulations). Zia was also adept at handling the press, not encouraging, for example, public visibility of his family members in business or government opportunities (knowing this had been a fatal flaw for Sheikh mujib). By contrast, the Ershad regime did not arrive after chaos but rather took power from the weak but democratically elected Justice Sattar (Zia’s Vice President, elected by a sympathy vote landslide after the assassination). The Ershad regime was therefore never able to shake off an image of being a usurper of power. His era was marked by a continuous cat and mouse game between the press and the regime, with newspapers and magazines getting censured for reports, and then immediately committing the same offence. The period was also marked by the use of coded signals in the press (e.g., romance stories that were actually about a corruption scandal) as well as a thriving parallel press of underground leaflets and pamphlets.
In 1982, soon after coming to power, General Ershad told the New York Times (Fichlock, 1982), “There was nothing to write against us, so they [journalists] are not writing anything.” A short time later, Ittehad published the first criticism of the Ershad military regime, and was promptly banned. Golam Mazed of Daily Ranar was also sentenced to three year’s imprisonment for criticism of martial law. The arrest happened in April, but was not reported for four months due to press censorship. The gap between proclamations to the West, and actions at home, became a continuing theme of private discussions.
One persistent device of the next decade was the regular issuance of “Press Advice”, instructing newspaper editors about what not to print. Although these advisories were transmitted by a phone call from the Information Ministry, veteran dissident journalist Mahfuz Ullah has done a service to history by keeping a regular written record of all “Press Advice” received from the Ministry between 1982 and 1990 (Ullah, 1991). Looking through the records, we start to see what the government considered important and dangerous. To pick just a few examples, they instructed newspapers not to report on a Rajshahi Jail prisoner’s hunger strike (January 1983), a seed distribution corruption scandal (September 1985), a Thai trawler scandal (October 1985), and a Shanti Bahini guerrilla attack on Rangamati Radio station (July 1990). Sometimes the incidents were surreal, including a reporting ban on the death of an Airport customs officer indicted on watch smuggling (May 1983), the drowning death of a drunk Kenyan defense cadet (September 1985), and an electric short circuit at the Presidential residence Bangabhaban (December 1985). An advisory on November 9th, 1985 appears to be wrestling with philosophical concepts: “The number of dead in the Adamjee incident is incorrect. Those whom the news described as dead have not really died.”
General Ershad proved to be particularly inept at charming the press, and many of his steps (placing his wife on the nightly news, penning a song that played regularly on television) backfired, generating more press jabs. One heavily lampooned initiative was his publicly proclaimed persona as a poet, and instructions to print his poems on he front page generated intense backlash. By contrast, photos of Zia in a white vest with a digging instrument, promoting khal khonon kormoshuchi (canal digging program), or taking government officials on a 36 mile walk through the district of Pabna, were powerful iconography for rural Bangladesh. Perhaps this also indicates that the national psyche could accept a military man projecting a strongman and discipline restoration ethos, but not one who wrote poetry and songs. One year into the regime, Mohammed Rafiq published his Khola Chithi/Open Letter poem, which carried the explosive opening stanza, “every son-of-a-bitch wants to be a poet—even industrious ants/ want to fly, tusked boars from the forest dream of sitting on thrones” (Rafiq, 1983), seen as a dual attack on military rule and Ershad’s poet persona. Thousands of clandestine copies of the poem were circulated, especially on university campuses. Rafiq was summoned before a military board of inquiry and later a warrant was issued. He escaped and stayed underground for months. The next year, left activist Farhad Mazhar was also arrested for his poem “All the corpses will take their revenge.”
The push-and-pull game continued elsewhere with other journalists. Golam Mazed was released in 1983, and then detained again for writing another critical article. This was a halcyon era for journalism when arrest and intimidation could not silence voices. Tragically, Mazed paid a heavy price for his courage: after eight months in jail, he was released for ill health and died five days later. Meanhwile, the Dainik Desh was banned for an article that alleged that Burmese Muslim rebels were operating inside Bangladeshi borders (Alam, 2008: p. 192) and Shafiq Rehman’s Jai Jai Din magazine was shut down for almost ten months. Rehman in particular was a continuous thorn in the regime’s side (as Enayetullah Khan had been for the Mujib government). His weekly column featuring romantic phone banter by a woman called Mila also carried coded stories about the regime. However, such crusading journalists could also become compromised via state patronage, and Rehman lost some of his daredevil reputation in the post-Ershad era. This was also linked to class relationships and mobility (via media ownership) in society.
In 1985, the regime’s grip on the press appeared to be slipping and martial law was re-imposed after political protests. Habibur Rahman, President of Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists, was arrested. The government looked at international publications as a source of danger and London-based Bengali weekly Janomat was prohibited in 1986, one of the first actions against an overseas Bengali publication. Jai Jai Din resumed publication this year, but was shut down again for an article about the military. Several journalists were arrested, all under the 1974 Special Powers Act. Foreign press had been banned before, going back to specific issues of the Far Eastern Economic Review during the Sheikh Mujib government.[ii] But the Ershad government paid particular attention to international information flows.
The British press closely monitored the regime’s instability and as a result Ataus Samad of BBC was placed under SPA detention. His arrest spurred mass demonstrations at Dhaka University where he was a part-time teacher, and he was released sixteen days later. Indian publications The Hindu, Telegraph, Ananda Bazar, Sunday and Illustrated Weekly of India were all banned. London-based Notun Din was blocked under Customs Act of 1969, a new tool in the government’s arsenal. As things slipped further out of control, a state of emergency was declared in November 1987. The BBC’s reporting was targeted again, and reporter Phil Jones was deported. It was another high-profile expulsion since Lifschultz in the 1970s and the world press took notice.
Dissatisfied with his Ministers’ “handling” of the press, General Ershad now took charge of the Information portfolio. A Martial Law regulation was passed prohibiting reports opposing the forthcoming elections, and media coverage of protests. Daily Khobor came under fire for publishing a map which showed parts of Bangladesh as Indian territory, although the real reason was possibly their coverage of anti-Ershad protests. Local weeklies Desh Bandhu and Prohor were banned, Bichinta and Jai Jatra were suspended for two months, and Amar Desh was banned after an editorial about government corruption. Banglar Bani was closed indefinitely for an article alleging that the Home Minister allowed ruling Jatiya Party members to be supplied with weapons. To round off the year, Farhad Mazhar was arrested again for his poem “Lieutenant General Truck”, commemorating an incident where an army truck ran over protesters.
As soon as one journalist was arrested, his replacement would publish even more incendiary reporting. This may indicate that the press was continually emboldened by the inherent weakness of a regime which spent most of its tenure battling democracy activists (unlike the Zia era). Tight control of the country’s only television station did not produce obedience to the state narrative. Nightly televised reports of a peaceful presidential tour contrasted sharply with the underground press and word-of-mouth reporting on a pitched street battle with police the same day. Thus, the operating motif for this era was to trust nothing that came from state media organs.
Censorship actions became more desperate as the regime approached. In 1988, there was a national press ban on reporting about election violence that claimed at least thirteen lives. The Home Ministry ordered a black-out of the International Herald Tribune for a report on the elections. Minar Mahmud was arrested for reproducing an article from the Indian press in Bichinta. In an example of the government’s catch-and-release strategy, Robbar, which was suspended in 1987, was allowed to resume publication. The magazine was then banned again for publishing a report criticizing the government and police filed a case under SPA against four of its journalists. Seeking to create an alternate power base, General Ershad passed a constitutional amendment declaring Islam as the state religion. In combination with the earlier Bismillah insertion under the Zia government, this set the stage for the blasphemy wars of the post-Ershad regime.
As if to prove their Islamist credentials, the regime seized the April 3rd, 1989 issue of Newsweek, allegedly for carrying an image of Prophet Mohammed. An issue of daily Millat was also banned and one of their photographers detained. Saiful Islam Dilder, chief of Institute of Rural Journalists, was arrested and the weekly Bibartan was charged with libel for a report on corruption at Telegraph & Telephone Board. As the Ershad regime went into its last year, attacks against the press peaked. In 1990, there were sixty-seven incidents of harassment, twenty-four attacks on media organizations, eight publication bans, twelve arrests and two journalist deaths (Nirikkha, 1991). Out of the total of thirty-one publication bans during the Ershad years, twenty-four were done under the 1974 Special Powers Act (Alam, 2008: p. 197). A state of emergency was declared again in November, 1989 and all critical reporting was banned. A month later, the regime collapsed in the face of national, coordinated strikes and millions of people on the streets. The press could definitively claim to have been a decisive element in this, along with urban political forces and university campuses.
1991-1996: debate shifts to religion
With the arrival of democracy, the first elected government was that of the BNP, led by Zia’s widow Khaleda Zia. She alternated in power for the next two decades (with a two year military “interim” in 2007-2008) with the AL, led by Mujib’s daughter Sheikh Hasina. While there are some broad and subtle differences between these two parties, their approach to press freedom was roughly equivalent. Only the target shifted with each government change. For example, ownership of the political legacy of the 1971 war became a crucial issue over the next two decades.
1991 began with the Censor board blocking Tanvir Mokammel’s documentary Sreeti Ekattur (Remembrance of 1971). Presumably because the film emphasized Sheikh Mujib’s role, which would politically help the opposition Awami League. Religion was an even bigger issue, and eminent academic Dr. Ahmad Sharif faced private complaints in 1992 following a report published in Inquilab of alleged remarks criticizing Islam during a private seminar[iii]. Anti-India sentiments also come into play, as an issue of Kolkata’s Desh magazine was banned, allegedly due to comments by West Bengali intellectual Nirad Chaudhury about, what he termed, “so-called Bangladesh”. By 1993, blasphemy related prosecutions saw a sharp increase, as Section 99A CrPC was invoked to proscribe book verses from Sufi mystic Lalon Fakir. A case was brought in court to stop publication of the Ahmadi Muslim community’s book regarding Islam e Nabuat, then in its tenth edition and in continuous circulation for 40 years[iv]. A private lawyer sought declaration from the High Court that Ahmadiyas were non-Muslims. In support of his application he referred to actions taken in Pakistan, however the High Court ruled that it was not required to discuss Pakistani decisions. This was a temporary rebuke to blasphemy cases, but events soon brought religion to the national stage in an explosive way. This was through the crucible of the Taslima Nasreen case.
Though there had been other critics of religion (e.g., the earlier Daud Haider case) the Taslima Nasreen case transfixed national cultural politics, and energized Islamist groups in a new way. The government played a key role by allowing the protests to grow out of control, and there was probably an electoral math calculation related to vote banks. The Nasreen case was a volatile cocktail of several issues: the Hindu community’s position inside increasingly “Muslim” Bangladesh, the position of religious politics on the national stage, interpretations of the Quran and its intersection with women’s rights, cross-border currents between India and Bangladesh, the rise of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) in Indian politics, and finally the figure of Nasreen herself as the mythical “wild woman” willing to defy all conventions.
Events began with the 1993 publication of Lajja (Shame), a novel set in the backdrop of anti-Hindu riots in Bangladesh in the aftermath of the Babri Mosque demolition by right-wing Hindu activists in India. The last sentence of the novel showed the Hindu protagonist leaving Bangladesh for India: Bangladesh was no longer home to non-Muslims, that was the bleak message of the novel’s finale. The government immediately banned the book. As the controversy escalated, Nasreen gave an infamous and widely misquoted interview to India’s The Statesman newspaper, where she allegedly called for revision of the Quran to ensure women’s rights. Later Nasreen claimed she had only asked for revision of shariah law and the newspaper misquoted her—but the damage control was too late. A previously unknown group called Shahaba Sainik Parishad in Sylhet announced a bounty on Nasreen’s head, evoking parallels with the Iranian fatwa on Salman Rushdie. In synchronicity, Matiur Rahman Nizami, Secretary General of the Jamaat e Islami party (a junior partner of the ruling BNP), tabled a ‘blasphemy bill’ in Parliament. New groups such as Touhidi Jonota Jamat reached the national spotlight through their anti-Nasreen programs. Death threats and strikes ensued, and police filed a case against her[v], forcing Nasreen to go into hiding. She eventually fled into exile and, when her Bangladeshi passport was revoked, took Swedish citizenship.
With Nasreen out of the country, religious fervor appeared to abate, and defendants in other blasphemy cases started shifting strategies. In 1995, Humayan Azad’s book Naari (Woman) was banned by the government because of chapters analyzing religious doctrine that imposed chauvinism on women. While the gist of Azad’s critique was similar to Nasreen’s, he confronted the issue by taking the government to court. The ban was finally lifted after a five-year legal battle which Azad won in High Court[vi]. In two other religion cases, the Lalon Fakir debate reached the courts in the 1996 Dr. (Homeo) Baba Jahangir Beiman al-Shuresari v State[vii] and Sadruddin Ahmad Chishty v Bangladesh and others[viii]. Elsewhere, Anjuman e Ahmadiyya Case, supra, per Sultan Hossain Khan J. declared ‘The petitioner’s [submission that] Ahmadiyyas also being Muslim, the order stating that the book has not outraged the feelings of the Muslims’ was not correct. The decision was upheld by the High Court in Sadruddin Ahmed Chishty v Bangladesh[ix].
In one high-profile case not linked to religion, the government arrested Farhad Mazhar for his essay on an armed rebellion by the paramilitary force, the Ansars. In one of the contentious sections, Mazhar wrote, “The BDR soldiers that shot and killed the Ansars are also the same “farmers in uniforms”. And yet, the BDR soldier did not realize that he had just killed his own brother.” (Mazhar, 1995) Among several accusations leveled against Mazhar was that he was trying to foment internal rebellion. International protests followed, led by scholars Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Jacques Derrida, and the government eventually released Mazhar from jail.
Elsewhere, the legacy of the 1971 war continued to be a sensitive spot for the government. Tanvir Mokammel’s film Nadir Nam Modhumati (The River Named Modhumati), which restaged Hamlet in a 1971 setting, was banned. Mokammel went to cour, which reversed the ban after a two year legal battle. The government also tried to block the release of Tareque Masud’s Muktir Gaan (Song of Freedom), fearing footage of the war would help their rival, the Awami League. The film was eventually released after local media pressure, and the AL did manage to capitalize on screenings of the film, though this was not Masud’s intent.
1997-2006: sedition charges and blasphemy wars
The election of the Awami League in 1997 brought in a shifting lens on 1971, and this was seen in actions against the Khatib of Dhaka’s central Baitul Mokarram mosque. He was charged under section 501 BPC after declaring that those who had supported the 1971 liberation struggle were ‘gaddars’ (traitors). However, the few blasphemy cases in this time did not receive any particular “secular” dispensation. In a 1998 case regarding banning of books containing Baul verses (Sadruddin Ahmad Chishty case), apex court held that the notification need not indicate the reasons for the satisfaction of the government[x]. The next year, Nasreen released volume one of her autobiography, Amar Meyebela (My Girlhood) in India. The Bangladesh government promptly banned the book. In 2000, a judgment was issued in the case of Shamsuddin Ahmed and others v The State[xi], a case against editors of Janakantha on blasphemy charges.
Cases involving India were a particularly sensitive issue, and a senior newspaper editor has pointed out that each newspaper that receives a declaration to publish has to agree to a series of conditions, including not publishing news that can “harm relations” with neighboring allies[xii]. Thus, the arrest inside Bangladesh of Golab Barua, a guerrilla leader of the Indian separatist group ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam), was presented in careful language, gingerly stepping around the groups’ actual demands (Ittefaq, 1998). Finally, in 2001, an issue of Desh magazine was banned for being “offensive to the country”.
The 2001 return of the BNP to power was marked by post-election vengeance attacks against the country’s Hindu community, who were perceived to be a solid vote bank for the AL. Ironically, these are the types of anti-Hindu violence that, when presented by Nasreen in Lajja, were dismissed as “exaggerated”. Because some of the refugees from violence had fled to India, tracking them down required crossing the border in a manner which made it easier for the government to prosecute people. This method was used to arrest author Shahriar Kabir when he returned to Bangladesh after filming interviews with Hindu refugees in India. Similarly, reporters Saleem Samad and Priscilla Raj were arrested under sedition charges for assisting a Channel 4 (UK) documentary team that looked at the same phenomenon. Historian Muntasir Mamoon was also arrested on a related charge.
One significant development in the pre-2001 period had been the launch of the country’s first private TV station, Ekushey TV (ETV). This laid the groundwork for the later growth of the private TV sector. From the beginning, private TV stations were seen as being aligned with political parties, especially due to opaque licensing processes. The first manifestation of this was in 2002, when the government shut down ETV, allegedly due to irregularities in the license granting process. Whatever the technical specifics, conventional wisdom was that the channel was being punished for a partisan role during the 2001 elections. The ETV case represented a new mode in state control mechanisms. While some newspapers were always in private hands, television and radio had remained state owned, until the ETV precedent. In the post-ETV era, the energy shifted to private ownership with at least one owner in any TV station often being a person linked to the ruling party at the time of granting of license. This created a nimble new method of controlling of news (politicians understood that controlling state media had not saved the Ershad regime) and also allowed maintaining control even when out of power. The subsequent years would see a battle between new TV channels that had just received fresh licences through their link to a new regime, and older channels that had been licensed by the previous government.
Nasreen was back in headlines, though at a more tepid pace. The Home Ministry ordered police to confiscate all copies of volume 2 of Nasreen’s autobiography Utal Hawa (Wild Wind). The Indian edition was seized under section 99A CrPC– the ban extended to future editions published from Dhaka. Currently pending cases in this regard include Mesbahuddin Ahmed v Bangladesh and others[xiii]. In Faridpur, members of an amateur theatre group, a number of whom were prominent in the Hindu community, were arrested under section 295A BPC for a play that was “causing hurt to religious sentiment.” Meanwhile, just as it had done in 1996, the Censor Board banned Tareque Masud’s new film Matir Moina (Clay Bird), because its madrasa setting in 1971 was deemed sensitive. A week later, the film became the first Bangladeshi production to win a major Award at Cannes, an international embarrassment for the government. Masud, himself a madrasa student, vigorously protested the decision until the Appeal Board finally lifted the ban and the film was released to wide acclaim.
Religion was center focus in 2003 with the beginning of coordinated national campaigns to declare the Ahmadiyas as non-Muslim. The campaign was led by Khatme Nabuwat Andolon and included members of Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ), a partner of the ruling BNP-Jamaat coalition. By 2004, the campaign picked up steam and the government capitaulated by banning all publications of the Ahmadiyya Muslims. In a seemingly related move, Member of Parliament Abdul Mannan prepared a private member’s bill on dhormo obomanona (insult to religion) but was persuaded by a fellow MP not to table it. Unlike Nasreen, the Ahmadiya case was an easier one to argue for and Ain-o-Salish Kendra, Shommilito Shamajik Andolon, and others issued a legal notice on the government challenging the ban on Ahmadiyya publications. The case was taken up by Barrister Sara Hossain and the Court eventually declared a temporary stay order on the ban on Ahmadiya books, but to date they have not revoked it. In an unrelated development, but perhaps buoyed by the same environment, a case was initiated by Mohd Rafiqul Islam Rony MP against Professor Ali Asghar for causing hurt to religious sentiment, regarding his alleged remarks that religious instruction need not be compulsory.
Another case of this period involved the defense forces rather than religion. While there is tacit self-censorship regarding militarization in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Tanvir Mokammel’s documentary on oppression of indigenous Jumma people, Karnaphuli’r Kanna (Teardrops of Karnaphuli), appeared to have crossed this line and was banned. Later, Sara Hossain, who also fought the Ahmadiya case, led a petition and successfully won a stay order on the ban. Leftist forces also had elements who were intolerant of critique, and the deaths of journalists Manik Saha (2000) and now Shamsur Rahman (2004) sent signals of what was unacceptable critique
In the other high-profile case of a commingling of religion and politics, at stake was a critique of Islamist politics, rather than blasphemy (although Islamist politicians may argue the two are the same). In 2003, author and well-known critic of religion, Humayun Azad, published excerpts from his forthcoming novel Pak Sar Jamin Sad Bad (a title satirizing Pakistan’s national anthem “Blessed be the Sacred Land”). In 2004, Jamaat e Islami MP Delwar Hossain Sayeedi demanded in parliament that the book be banned. A week later, Azad was stabbed by unknown assailants outside the Ekushey Book Fair. After drifting near-death in a hospital, Azad finally recovered. Six months after the attack, he flew to Germany to begin research for a forthcoming book on Heinrich Himmler. A week later his body was found in a Munich apartment; although his family demanded an investigation, the conventional explanation was that he had died of a heart attack brought on by the stress of his earlier injuries. A tragic coda to the religion wars of this decade.
2007-2008: a globalized press is harder to muzzle
As tensions and street battles between the ruling BNP and the opposition AL reached a high pitch in 2006, the Military intervened, taking control and installing a Caretaker Government (CTG). The CTG ended up being Bangladesh’s shortest tenured military government, holding elections within two years and handing power back to civilian victors. Local media played a role in this, publishing critical reports (after a brief honeymoon) and not fully buckling under attempts at censorship or cajoling by the authorities. The more globalized position of Bangladesh by 2007 was a major factor, with many more transnational agencies (e.g., International Crisis Group) following developments closely, in a way not possible in the 1970s and 1980s. Most crucially, almost every media outlet now had a patronage relationship with a business house partially owned by a BNP or AL leader. In some cases, arrests of politically-linked businessmen directly affected the channel or newspaper’s cash flow and survival. Thus, reporting against the CTG was not just a struggle for democracy, but also media survival itself.
Although newspaper editors were routinely picked up for interrogation, an early case of journalist under siege involved the largest circulation English newspaper The Daily Star. The newspaper’s monthly magazine Forum, edited by Zafar Sobhan, published a cover story “Prince of Bogra” that alleged intelligence agencies had supported militant Islamist groups during the previous BNP era. Under pressure, The Daily Star withdrew the entire print run of the issue before it could reach newsstands. The author of the report, Tasneem Khalil, was taken into custody and allegedly tortured (Human Rights Watch, 2008). Khalil was also a CNN stringer and international outcry, especially on blogs, began hours after his arrest. He was finally released and fled into exile in Sweden. Like Daud Haider and Taslima Nasreen before him, he has yet to return, in spite of regime change.
After the Khalil case, the situation came to a boil when anti-army riots broke out on the Dhaka University campus. Although the situation eventually stabilized, 24-hour news channel CSB (Chronus Satellite Broadcast) was accused of fomenting violence by repeatedly showing footage of the riots, and shut down. After the Dhaka University confrontation, the regime became increasingly unsteady. Talk shows were curbed, first with a ban on live phone calls, then with a ban on talk show hosts Muzammel Babu and Samia Zaman. Issues of The Economist with negative reports about the Caretaker Government arrived in Dhaka with the offending pages torn out. This led to critical comments even from a government-affiliated official. As one journalist commented, “the wheels start coming off when your own people don’t get in line.”[xiv]
A negative innovation of this period was the publishing of “leaked” news from intelligence agency interrogations of arrested politicians. In the case of the interrogation tapes of senior politician M A Jalil and others, Kafkaesque scenarios were played out when “leaked” tapes mysteriously arrived at newspaper offices, followed by demands that the tapes be returned to the relevant authorities. While the CTG was the primary subject of discussion, a vacuum was also created in national politics (it took until mid-2008 for the AL to flex its muscle, and the BNP never recovered from the mass arrests of its leadership). Into this gap entered, once again, religion. There are some theories that the CTG also allowed these issues to flare up so as to create an international argument for their continued presence to ensure stability against Islamists. This was the time of the cartoon controversy I described in my opening paragraph. Satirical magazine Alpin (Pin) published the cartoon, showing a conversation between a religious leader and a young boy about the proper use of the honorific “Mohammad”. In the final panel, the boy called his cat “Mohammad Biral” (Mohammad Cat). Cartoonist Arifur Rahman was immediately arrested and editor Sumanta Aslam was fired. A Dhaka district magistrate ordered suspension of the magazine’s publication. Arif was represented by Sara Hossain, and was eventually acquitted and released.
As elections drew near, almost on cue, the country saw a return of the ghosts of the 1970s. The Eid holiday issue of Shaptahik 2000 magazine was banned, because of a blasphemous reference in an autobiographical essay by Daud Haider, writing from his German exile. An emboldened Islami Chatra Shibir threatened to burn alive members of the theater group Udichi, as well as a Hindu playwright, for staging allegedly blasphemous play Mandar at Rajshahi University. The University authorities responded by banning the play and the related local theater group Dhumketu Natya Sangsad. As the army prepared to host the elections, Jamaat e Islami announced its manifesto, which included enactment of “Blasphemy Law”. However, events did not go as planned and there was a boomerang effect. When an Islamist group pulled down Mrinal Haq’s in-progress sculpture of Baul musicians near the airport, there was intense mobilization of cultural activists to defend Baul cultural icons. Just as “Islam in danger” is a frequent rallying cry for Islamists, “Bangla culture under attack” mobilized and temporarily brought together many disparate cultural organizations (Mohaiemen, 2008). Some of this possibly had a spillover effect at the national polls with an anti-Islamist vote bloc.
2009-2012: targeting newer media
Journalists expected the 2009 return to democracy to be accompanied with new appreciation for the press, whose voices had made the CTG’s tenure increasingly difficult. But perversely, government interference has now increased to the point that by 2012 there are regular reports of actions against a blog, blogger, or even Facebook accounts. Several factors seem to be converging here. First, the CTG’s humbling by the press appears to have incentivized even more press control by the current government. Thus, political party investment in ownership of media outlets has increased. The second factor is the brutality of the February 2009 mutiny inside the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) compound, and the continuing mystery around the provenance of the ferocity on display. The incident badly destabilized the government only two months into its tenure. Three years on, some actions continue to carry the signs of an administration suffering from a siege mentality. Finally, the spectre of the Arab Spring and the role of social media and Internet within that has meant that the government has turned a microscopic eye on new media networks.
The first major action against Internet outlets came when the government blocked YouTube for carrying covert audio recordings of the Prime Minister’s meeting with army officers after the tragic BDR massacre. A week later, the block was removed after its technical futility was demonstrated. In 2010, following similar action in Pakistan, Facebook was blocked for carrying a “Draw the Prophet” contest page. After sustained protests, especially from youth audiences, the ban was removed. Among websites, Sheershanews.com was closed after publishing reports alleging corruption in climate change funds. In 2011, a case was pursued involving the Facebook status of a Bangladeshi professor studying in Australia. For allegedly threatening the Prime Minister, he was tried in absentia and sentenced to prison. Finally, in 2012 another student came under investigation for his Facebook status message and a businessman was arrested for posting a satirical image of government officials. Ubiquitous networks have created nimble multiplier effects, but also enhanced surveillance opportunities.
On television, there were various situations of conflict. A sequel to the BDR mutiny was a controversy about Nurul Kabir’s comments on a talk show about the need to move cantonments away from civilian areas. Kazi Jesin, a strong critic of the government, lost her talk show Point of Order on Banglavision channel, allegedly after complaints from the government. Jamuna TV’s test transmission was also halted by Bangladesh Telecommunications and Regulatory Commission (BTRC) for unknown reasons, and Channel 1, a station aligned with the opposition party, was shut down. The move was made in line with the Telecommunications Act 2001, which Professor Asif Nazrul describes as “inconsistent with the principles of free speech, and allows BTRC to be the judge, jury and executioner” (Al-mahmood, 2010). In 2011, the press leaked a draft of a proposed National Broadcast Policy, which included clauses for bans on “derogatory comments about national figures” and programs that “pose threat to national security and sovereignty.”
In the cinema halls, there were three cases of attempted censorship. Enamul Karim Nirjhar’s Nomuna (Sample), the follow-up to his award winning film Aha, was refused a censor certificate for its’ satirical portraits of party leaders Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, both played by the actress Champa. Several newspapers also demanded that Mostafa Sarwar Farooki’s new film Third Person Singular Number be removed from theaters because the main characters “live together” outside of marriage, and sexual relationships are discussed freely. Farooki is one of the most popular blockbuster directors and the film sailed through the controversy unscathed. Not as sanguine was the fate of Rubaiyat Hossain’s film Meherjaan, which ran into a firestorm because the plot portrayed a romance between a Pakistani soldier and a Bengali woman during the 1971 war. The film received strong critique from government MPs, including a former actor who now seemed to be pro-censorship, and the distributor “voluntarily” withdrew it from theaters (Ethirajan, 2011; Mohaiemen, 2011).
Photography also came under the spotlight, as police closed down the Into Exile: Tibet 1949-2009 show at Drik Gallery, after pressure from the Chinese embassy. Authorities also closed down Shahidul Alam’s photography show Crossfire, which depicted extra-judicial killings (Gonzales, 2010). Alam eventually won a court case to allow the show to be reopened. Battle lines were also drawn around the struggle for indigenous peoples’ rights in Chittagong Hill Tracts, as Shokaler Khobor reported that an unofficial government instruction has been given to remove the word “Adibashi” (Indigenous) from official documents. Several newspapers also asked correspondents to stop using the word, which was presumed to carry international treaty obligations. Finally, in a high profile case involving a journalist, Amar Desh editor Mahmudur Rahman was sentenced to jail for a report that was critical of the Supreme Court, although analysts presume that his allegations of irregularities in gas bloc negotiations may have been the decisive factor (Mazhar, 2012). Libel laws have increasingly become a powerful weapon, with twenty-four defamation cases filed against Rahman in a single day after he published a report about Chevron’s gas bidding.
The indicators continue to remain dark and paths of free expression are increasingly limited. Recently the High Court ordered bestselling novelist Humayun Ahmed to revise his historical novel Deyaal (Wall). Ahmed died of cancer in a New York hospital before he could comply (or defy) the Court order, so the matter remains another unresolved chapter. It is appropriate to end this section with editor Sajjad Sharif’s recent op-ed about this Court ruling:
French philosopher Alain Badiou said in his book Polemics, power and creativity can never have a true dialogue with each other. In the final analysis, power is violent. On the other hand, creativity has no rule to follow except its’ own internal logic. When power faces off against creativity, it can only destroy that creativity. (Sharif, 2012: 13)
Censorship, subtle and overt, concerned with both the sacred and secular, has been a characteristic of every post-independence, civilian and military, government. There have been variations in intensity depending on the nervousness of that particular regime. The targets and taboos have also shifted, almost vertiginously during the last two decades. Certain areas, especially related to security, surveillance and territoriality have remained permanently in the no-go zone. However, as the media expanded, so did censorship, subtle and overt. No comforting scenarios of “it was better during regime X” are really available to researchers.
Recently I met the publisher of a Bengali newspaper who described how, just that day, he had a discussion with his newsroom about reporting a speech given by the leader of the opposition. He had ordered that her speech be published, minus a crucial allegation. His logic was that a politician could afford to make unsubstantiated accusations. But if his newspaper printed the same allegation as a direct quote, they might be brought to court the next day. Gesturing at one of the newsmen seated at his desk, he said that everyone wanted free speech until you told them it might mean no job and salary from next month. Turning to me, he said, “so it is not a question of self-censorship, I like to say we practice self-regulation.”[xv] It was probably an honest assessment of the code of many newsrooms, yet it was dispiriting in its realpolitik admission of defeat and normalizing of power relations.
Fortunately there are still younger dissident voices, not yet exhausted, that insist on the fourth estate’s return to its role as a defender of the right to information. Najmul Ashraf, who coined the phrase “Journalism of Oiling vs. Journalism of Bamboo” (Ashraf, 2012: p. 37), gives a bittersweet indictment of journalism’s dire straits in the national imagination:
Ey chaira gyalo (It’s about to leave), Farmgate-Shahbag-Press Club-GPO-Gulistan! In my youth, I first heard this name, Press Club, from the mouth of a bus helper. On the side of the bus was written the destination, Press Club. I still see this. But to the bus driver, helper, and most passengers, Press Club is now only a “bus stoppage” spot. (Ashraf, 2012: 44)
Ashraf writes essays that lay bare the tattered state of the press, but his intention, as well as that of recent writing by Zulfikar Matin, ABM Saiful Islam and Mustak Ahmed (Ahmed, 2010) is a rediscovery of media integrity and independence.
Danger to press freedom does not come only from crude forms of censorship, but also from the expanding corporate ownership of media, and the resulting lack of separation between big capital and editorial independence. Fahmidul Haq outlines the contours of corporate controlled press in his Oshommoti Utpadon/Manufacturing Discontent:
When name is so important, political leadership or a government position can render something newsworthy. If a movie actress’ mobile phone is stolen, that’s hot news; but if the common man is rendered destitute by looters, that’s not news. And this is how we are teaching western style journalism in our classrooms. A ready space for western markets and hegemony is being created by academia and practical journalism. In today’s Bangladesh, where new money has taken control, where large group of companies own each newspaper, we can no longer expect a pro-people role from the media. (Haq, 2011: 22)
What is needed are movements to oppose laws that allow censorious actions (some dating back to British and Pakistan era), and to build up free speech institutions (strong press, independent watchdogs, responsible journalism, fact-checking mechanisms) that also respect the right to privacy and protection against unjust libel. The state has historically been against its citizen’s free speech, and of late the courts have become a powerful weapon for the same. We could argue that a more independent judiciary, one that takes an activist role on behalf of people rather than the state, will also help strengthen the press. Finally, as part of a systemic critique of, and resistance to, neoliberal economic paradigms, the power of corporate houses in dictating self-censorship must be named and opposed. Press freedom will come not only through resistance to midnight knocks, mysterious phone calls, cancelled declarations and shutdowns, but also by vigorously resisting corporate instrumentalization of journalism, which can effectively neuter the media without requiring any state censorship.
Adapted from a chapter in the forthcoming anthology Bangladesh’s Changing Mediascape: From state control to market forces, Brian Shoesmith & Jude William Genilo ed. London: Intellect Books, 2013.
Acknowledgments: Jyoti Rahman, Rumi Ahmed, Syed Yousuf, and Mahmud Rahman.
Naeem Mohaiemen is a writer, visual artist, and a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at Columbia University. [shobak.org]
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[i] Conversation with author, 23 July, 2012.
[ii] 7 February 1975. “Letter from London.” in Far East Economic Review. Hong Kong. It alleged that the World Bank paid $4 million in bribes for an irrigation project in northwest Bangladesh.
[iii] Dr. Ahmed Sharif v The State; 17 BLD (1997) 235; Moulana Md. Yusuf v State and another (3 BCLC (AD) 171
[iv] Anjuman a Ahmadiyya v Bangladesh, DLR (1993) 185
[v] Nurul Alam, Officer in Charge, Motijheel Police Station v Taslima Nasrin, Complaint Case No. 1315 of 1994, unreported
[vi] Humayun Azad and others v Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs and others, 20 Writ Petition No. 2553 of 1995
[vii] BLD (1996)
[viii] 16 BLD (1996) 141 upheld in part by 18 BLD (AD) (1998)
[ix] 44 DLR (1996) 39
[x] 18 BLD (1998) (AD) 210
[xi] 20 BLD (2000) 268; 52 DLR 497
[xii] Conversation with author, June 2012.
[xiii] Writ Petition No. 681 of 2003
[xiv] Conversation with author, December 2010.