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Authorities in Bangladesh have arrested the Chairman and CEO of Ekushey TV against a background of violent protests on the anniversary of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s controversial re-election. Grahame Lucas comments.
If anyone needed any reason to be concerned about the freedom of speech and press freedoms and the future of democracy in Bangladesh, they do so no longer. The arrest of Abdus Salam, the ETV chairman, is a clear sign that the country's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is willing to go to great lengths to prevent further challenges to her leadership and to her interpretation of the country's past. It remains to be seen whether this will be a tipping point in the country's history.
The charges brought against Abdus Salam, who also holds German citizenship, are obviously trumped up. After arresting Salam police accused ETV of airing “pornographic” images in a news programme broadcast in November and claimed to be following up on a complaint filed by the woman concerned.
The allegation has been vigorously denied by the broadcaster. Referring to the disputed footage, an ETV spokesman said the program had contained “some blurred images, which is within journalistic norms”. Speaking to DW's correspondent from his prison cell Abdus Salam said his news team enjoyed editorial independence. Cable operators say they have been instructed to take ETV off-air, something the government is now denying.
For some time now human rights organizations have repeatedly criticized action taken by the Hasina government against the media and the harassment of leading human rights activists but to no avail. Moreover, they argue that the so-called International War Crimes Tribunal – in session since 2010 – is being used by the government to intimidate and crush its rivals.
The reasons for Salam's arrest can be found in events of the previous day, the first anniversary of Sheikh Hasina's election victory in a poll boycotted by the opposition parties.
After calling for anti-government rallies to protest against the 2014 election, the BNP leader and long time rival of Sheikh Hasina, Khaleda Zia, was locked in her compound by police. She is still being detained against her will. And just hours ago the acting BNP Secretary-General Mirza Fakhrul was arrested outside the press club in Dhaka after a press conference.
Against the backdrop of the mounting political crisis ETV took the editorial decision to broadcast a speech by Zia's eldest son, Tarique Rahman, from London. In December the Bangladeshi authorities issued a warrant for Rahman's arrest after he challenged the official account of the role played by the country's founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, during the war of independence in 1971. Hasina is Mujibur Rahman's daughter.
One can argue about the editorial wisdom of broadcasting Rahman's London speech. He cannot be described as a role model for a democratic politician, but rather as a man tainted by corruption. But one cannot argue about the right of a broadcaster to air content it considers relevant to the ongoing political crisis in the country. In a democratic society free media play a key role in disseminating information and orchestrating public debate.
Dialogue facilitates mutual understanding. Compromise is a vital part of democracy. It would appear however that Sheikh Hasina prefers George Orwell's 1984 vision: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past”. But Hasina should not forget that he who does not learn from the past, loses the present and the future.