The Bangladeshi government ordered the closure of the country’s third largest national daily newspaper Amar Desh at around midnight last night. In an interview conducted with the acting editor, Mahmudur Rahman, in the early hours of the morning before his arrest, he told Index on Censorship that police officers under government orders had stormed the newspaper’s headquarters in Kawaran Bazar, Dhaka. Many in the opposition Bangladeshi National Party (BNP) — which Amar Desh supports — believe the closure is part of a move by the Awami League government to crack down on press freedom to minimise opposition to government policy.
In April, Bangladesh’s only private television station, Channel One, was taken off air by the government due to “licensing issues” and yesterday, popular social networking site Facebook was also blocked in the name of “public order”. Many Bangladeshis fear a return to the censorship and silence enforced by previous governments. In 1975, Awami League leader, the late Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, banned and closed all but four state-owned national newspapers to shore up support for one-party rule. This latest clampdown comes in spite of the government’s official rhetoric of creating a Digital Bangladesh.
Background to the closure
In recent months, Mahmudur Rahman has written editorials and articles criticising the government, he has documented human rights abuses, extra-judicial killings and maladministration by officials linked to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Rahman told Index: “The government has made a fascist stance against freedom of expression.” He stressed, “We are the third largest national daily and have the second largest internet readership…I have in my journalism exposed the government’s record on corruption and human rights abuses extensively, in recent days we have seen a high number of custodial deaths…in other words I have challenged Sheikh Hasina, the current prime minister, on her integrity and challenged the establishment.”
According to unconfirmed reports, Amar Desh’s troubles began when its publisher, Hashmat Ali Hash, was detained by National Security Intelligence agents at an undisclosed location. Ali was freed after six hours, and announced his intention to sue Mahmudur Rahman on charges of fraud, impersonation and defamation. Ali signed papers stating he was no longer responsible for Amar Desh and stating “legal steps can be taken as his name is being printed as the publisher”, hence the fraud charges.
According to reports for Index from Bangladesh, the police were initially unable to arrest Mahmudur Rahman as almost 400 members of the newspapers staff acted as a human barricade. They pleaded to be arrested with him in an act of solidarity to highlight the government’s curbs on freedom of speech.
Rahman has asked those who work for freedom of expression around the world to publicise the situation in Bangladesh. He said: “Support us in the fight to freedom of speech, people should be free to struggle and show their dissent against oppressive measures, that is part of any civil plural democracy”.
We have been unable to contact Bangladesh’s High Commission for comment.
The Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists and Dhaka Union of Journalists have called a protest rally at the National Press Club at 11:00am today (Thursday) in protest against the government’s action
Parvez Kabir is a UK-based activist on Bangladeshi issues; Michael Harris is Index on Censorship’s Public Affairs Manager
UPDATE: Mahmudar Rahman’s lawayers claim he has benn tortured in custody. Read here