Trial by media: Bangladesh's 'International' Crimes Tribunal

Phone tapping, court orders and vitriolic condemnations of the accused point to a disconcerting unity between the regime, the press and the ICT

Aisha Rahman
28 February 2012

In the past year, Bangladesh’s Awami League government has embarked on the task of bringing a number of opposition leaders to trial, on charges of war crimes and “crimes against humanity” during the independence struggle of 1971. Although crimes were committed by both sides during the war, a small number of key political figures from the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have been targeted. Constitutional rights have been suspended for the accused and they have been denied access to international lawyers.

The Bangladesh media has demonstrated a complete lack of moral standards ever since the International Crimes Tribunal was first formed. Newspapers such as The Daily Star and Prothom Alo are ever ready to propagate the government’s version of history. These newspapers, amongst others, have made monsters of the accused through a constant bombardment of accusations disguised as fact.  While some have been incarcerated without charge, against universally accepted standards of human rights, others face charges which would be farcical if not so serious: having been a regional leader of a small political party opposing the secession of East Pakistan Professor Ghulam Azam now stands accused of “responsibility for all atrocities committed across the country from March 25 to December 16, 1971” and has been made into a hate figure by the Bangladeshi media. These accusations are taken as fact by media outlets keen to curry favour with an increasingly erratic and ruthless regime.

This near-hysterical lack of balance has not gone unnoticed. David Bergman, a British journalist working for New Age and currently reporting on the ICT, wrote surprisingly candidly of his disgust at recent concocted reports about Ghulam Azam and the “worldwide conspiracy” to free him. He wrote of the “malicious journalism” published by Daily Jonokhonto and Bhorer Kagoj, which alleged that information obtained by intelligence agencies “confirmed” that Jamaat-e-Islami was expending huge amounts of money in trying to change international opinion on the trial.

Al-Jazeera English under fire

Following a report on Al Jazeera English, newspapers claimed that the reporter Nicholas Haque had been flown in to interview Ghulam Azam with a view to publishing a series of reports denouncing the trials. Later, The Daily Star also picked up on the official rhetoric, publishing an article and an editorial piece harshly criticising Al Jazeera and accusing it of a deliberate and motivated attempt at undermining the tribunal. In response, Bergman wrote a lengthy critique of The Daily Star’s unsubstantiated accusations.

The transparency of this attempt to smear Al-Jazeera exposes Bangladesh’s media and so-called “intelligence” services to ridicule given, Al-Jazeera’s towering reputation for responsible world-class journalism and integrity, indeed one which has earned it the coveted award for News Channel of the Year from Britain’s Royal Television Society. The AJE news report in fact tended towards suggesting the accused may be guilty, despite the lack of evidence and clear political motivations of the trial. It did however, address the lack of international standards at the trial, and the opinion of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, leading to more accusations of conspiracy and paid lobbying, this time by Prothom Alo.  This is in stark contrast to local media which failed to mention the UN’s Opinion or the lack of response to the UN on the part of the government.

Phone tapping and court orders: the prelude to formal censorship?

Recently, Ghulam Azam’s sons, who have never held any political positions within Bangladesh or elsewhere, were falsely implicated in the recent attempted army coup in Bangladesh. This disgracefully irresponsible story alleged that one son, Numan Azmi, was being funded by Pakistan whilst being based in Malaysia. In fact, he has never visited either of these countries and has no links with Pakistan. More worryingly, another son, former Brigadier Abdullahil Amaan Azmi, who had served almost three decades of decorated service to the Bangladesh army, was also alleged to be involved. It is not surprising (in fact, quite the opposite) that Amaan Azmi has had his phone tapped, but the episode highlights the poisonous partnership between the regime and the media.

This may in part be due to fear of repercussions, such as being held in contempt of court. David Bergman himself has fallen foul of the ICT’s liberal use of this court order and the Law Minister, Shafiq Ahmed, has threatened legal action against those critical of the tribunal. Yet, statements made by the Law Minister, Shafiq Ahmed, amongst others, presuming the outcome of the trial are allowed to stand unquestioned, despite being a clear transgression of the responsibilities of the position he holds. Sheikh Hasina has also made concerted efforts to get the international community on side, using the buzzwords of “terrorism” and “extremism” in an effort to generate support. The media are quick to report this rhetoric without reservation.

In contrast there is barely any coverage of Ghulam Azam’s wife’s distressing statements, highlighting the poor treatment he is receiving, his increasing frailty and the family’s fears that he may die in custody. In recent weeks, Azam’s family reapplied for bail on grounds of old age and ill-health, yet this was again denied early on Wednesday. The media has fostered an atmosphere of ugly bloodlust, and there is a disturbing lack of humanity in public opinion on the fate of the accused.

The pretence that Bangladesh is a progressive, liberal democracy is being gradually exposed, with increasingly vocal condemnation, from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to the EU and UN. This has led the government to call for new legal powers to punish anyone who attempts to “obstruct the trial”, thus making any criticism of the trial a crime, whether by the press or others. They have also made it clear that the trials must be concluded before the next election, suggesting that the outcome is decided and the trial is merely to render it palatable to the international community. In the face of this, pro-regime media remain voluntarily silent, while more independent forums are silenced.

The role of media recalled

This trial demands international interest due to the grave consequences of the actions the Awami League politicians have so lightly undertaken. The Bangladeshi government cannot be permitted to hang men on such flimsy evidence as newspaper reports or clearly rehearsed statements by questionable witnesses that fall apart upon cross-examination. They cannot expect the UN to accept these trials as an end to impunity, while allowing those openly admitting to have committed war crimes to walk free simply for being on the “winners” side. Indeed, any trial in which the judge himself has provided evidence against the accused must be deeply flawed. Bangladesh needs this trial to be conducted with fairness and transparency, upholding the process and rule of law. The ICT is simply unable to meet this standard, with even the British High Commissioner joining a long list of international figures expressing concerns.

The Bangladesh media has parroted the arguments of the ruling party instead of critically analysing the objectives of this trial. Journalistic pride, independence and ethical standards have given way to unquestioning subservience. The recent deaths of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, two war correspondents who died reporting the truth from the front line in Syria, is a reminder to the Bangladesh media to reassess its standards and the role it plays within its country.  Unless and until the media rises to the challenge of questioning authority, investigating the truth and documenting it honestly, the citizens of Bangladesh will be failed by this mockery of a trial.

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