To the editors and reporters reading this, a simple question: Should a country, especially one that calls itself “leader of the free world”, preach and practice something on their own soil and do a 180 in some countries like Bangladesh?
The founding fathers of the United States found the idea of press freedom so important that it is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Now consider if that matches the recent remark of the US ambassador to Bangladesh, when during a TV interview he said that media in Bangladesh could also come under the purview of US visa restrictions.
Just a year back, on the occasion of International Press Freedom Day, before a section of editors and journalists, US Ambassador Peter Haas had said, “To the editors and reporters here today, I have a simple message: Yours is a noble profession.”
Little did the editors and journalists, who took part in the event, know how the ambassador – despite his sermons and much ado about his country’s stance on freedom of expression – would change his tune. His remark on possible visa restrictions on media has concerned editors and journalists, with many calling it “intimidation.”
Media in Bangladesh may also come under the purview of US visa policy is what the envoy gleefully said during an interview with Channel 24. This was described by some senior journalists as an “affront to the freedom of press.”
The ambassador’s announcement on possible visa restrictions on media seemingly sparked a row between those upholding and supporting secular liberal values, and hardliners and radical groups.
Pro BNP and Jamaat social media activists and leaders even lashed out at certain media outlets and named a number of journalists for their critical reportage on the parties.
BNP-Jamaat leaders including Rumeen Farhana, BNP's international affairs secretary, spared no time in hailing the US ambassador’s remark on including media in the visa restrictions and named a number of private television channels that BNP has boycotted.
Zahir Uddin Swapon, convener of BNP’s media cell, echoed Rumeen with reposting a photo of a senior journalist with the text: “US visa restriction policy at work?”
Basherkella, a pro-Jamaat-e-Islami X (formerly Twitter) account, also tweeted that Haas “is a true friend of Bangladesh.” This particular social media account made news for running what the minority Ahmadiyya community called a “hate campaign” against them.
Despite this round of salvo going on, the US Embassy in Dhaka, on September 25 – in sync with what the ambassador had said – reasserted: “We are applying the [visa restriction] policy in a balanced way against anyone [undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh] – regardless of being pro-government, opposition party, members of law enforcement agencies, members of the judiciary, or media persons.” The post also contained the video interview of the ambassador.
Meanwhile, asked specifically about the inclusion of media under visa restrictions during multiple press briefings, the US State Department has repeatedly refrained from mentioning media.
It is not difficult to decipher that encouraged by the US ambassador’s announcement, BNP and radical groups went on an overdrive to settle scores with media outlets that are not portraying them favorably in their reportage. It would also not be an overstatement to say that the US embassy reiterating the ambassador’s remark works as a shot in the arm for them.
Two leading platforms comprising of editors have expressed their concerns and sought explanation from the ambassador.
A statement from Editors Guild said: “We want to know what triggered the ambassador to go for hectic activism to disparage Bangladesh media. The statement of the US ambassador is not transparent enough and it needs a clear interpretation.”
“The statement of the ambassador to expand visa restrictions on journalists can be seen as an attempt to silence the voices of the people, and impose unseen censorship on the media, which contradicts the principles of freedom of expression and press freedom, the main pillars of democracy and governance,” read the statement.
Meanwhile, in a letter to the ambassador, Mahfuz Anam, president of Editors’ Council, wrote: “Frankly, this remark has created confusion among us and hence our request for a clarification.”
Referring to Haas’ statement that visa restriction “is not based on anything else but their actions,” Anam pointed out that media’s “action” is writing or broadcasting, and wanted to know if visa restriction will be based on what a journalist writes or broadcasts.
“If so, then doesn’t it come under ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘freedom of press’? How will it be used in case of media? What are the factors being considered?” – he wrote.
Then came a response from the envoy, which seemingly failed to provide any clarification or assuage the journalists’ concerns. Bewildered by the response, as many as 190 eminent citizens, including rights activists, journalists, writers, anti-war crimes campaigners, and minority community leaders expressed disappointment over Haas’ justification for visa restrictions on media and journalists, saying that it did not offer “substance”.
Over the last 15 years, while the number of media and journalists both witnessed a significant rise, the work environment also saw a topsy-turvy path. Glaring abuse of the former Digital Security Act is another blot, but nothing justifies Haas’ stance to include media under visa restrictions.
But what underscores danger in all of this is the ambassador being hailed as a “hero” by hardliners and radical groups – evoking memories of 1971 when the US administration sided with the Pakistan army that unleashed a genocide to stop the birth of the youngest nation in South Asia.
In most Muslim countries where US has tried to bring their version of “democracy” by removing what they felt were autocratic regimes, ended up bringing Islamist radicals to power. Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan – the list is long. The doyen of democracy ends up promoting the worst of radicals at the expense of nationalist governments who won’t take Washington’s dictation, it seems.
It is clear that Haas with his initial statement that rattled the media ahead of the national election made a mess and after facing backlash, is on a mission to take on a neutral look. But his explanation does not support the objective.
Sukharanjan Dasgupta is a Kolkata-based commentator and author of “Midnight Massacre” on the August 15, 1975 coup. Views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.