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.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sex and politics

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times