Our independent press is not safe

The threat the political climate in Bangladesh created to the free press

On Thursday 11 January, the president of Bangladesh, Dr Iajuddin Ahmed, did a spectacular and unexpected thing. He appeared on national television and gave up his right to be the most powerful man in the country. In his role as chief adviser to the caretaker government, President Iajuddin had proved incapable of holding free and fair elections, and so was forced from his post after pressure from the army and international community. The next day, he named Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former World Bank official, as the new chief adviser, to start afresh the election process.

It is still unclear how the present situation will unfold. The first job before the new caretaker government will be to set itself a rigid time-frame, preferably three months, and immediately start the task of setting up an entirely new electoral process. Any ambiguity here will create unnecessary suspicion in the public mind and unease among political parties, without whose co-operation it cannot function.

More importantly, however, the new administration will have to be sensitive to the way it imposes itself and carries out its duties under the auspices of this emergency. This is particularly relevant in the case of the media. Most regrettably, the new government seems to be heading for a confrontation with the independent media, both electronic and print.

For the first time in 16 years, this writer received a call from the ministry of information, saying: "I hope you are aware that we are in an emergency." I asked the caller what he meant and under what authority and on whose directive he was calling me. He avoided my questions and I told him never to call me again with anything that has to do with restricting press freedom.

Obviously this official was not calling me on his own. So who is pushing the just-born caretaker government towards an inevitable clash with the independent media?

It is a well-known experience, and one that is globally applicable, that media restrictions serve only the corrupt and the vested interest groups. Anybody or any group devoted to serving the public interest has nothing to fear from a free press. Take the most recent political crisis. The nation would have had to suffer a one-sided election, with the most flawed voter list and partisan bureaucracy imaginable, but for the media. If Iajuddin had really pursued the public interest he would have got our full backing, even after assuming power unconventionally. But he got the very opposite from the media, and, as a result of that, the people have been better served.

With the declaration of the state of emergency, an overall legal cover has been brought into effect within which the government now has the power to institute certain restrictive rules for the purpose of maintaining law and order, and related governance issues. But it does not automatically mean that a government must necessarily issue restrictive rules in all the fields covered by the emergency provision of the Ban gladesh constitution.

The free media have greatly enhanced Bangladesh's prestige globally. They are a matter of pride for our people. Of the things that give a positive image of our country, the free media are high among them. Restricting them in any way will come at a great cost to our international goodwill. Since the promulgation of the emergency, almost all the foreign press organisations that have contacted this writer for comments - and it has been nearly two dozen - have asked about the fate of press freedom under the present circumstances. It is my sincere wish that I can continue to state unequivocally that I have been allowed to do my job as a free, independent and non-partisan journalist in Bangladesh.