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Media Coverage During Bangladesh’s Election Disappoints People

Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury, media adviser to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, said that "few" journalists might have "faced restrictions" in Bangladesh.

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Bangladesh, Media
Activists of the leftist alliance cover their mouths with black cloths as they join in a rally to demand a new election under caretaker government, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Jan. 3, 2019. VOA

In the wake of Bangladesh’s recent general election, opposition coalition and pro-democracy activists expressed disappointment with alleged episodes of vote manipulation going largely unreported in the local media. But several journalists argue that fear of government reprisals led many media outlets to avoid publishing stories about the alleged wrongdoing.

“The level of vote robbery in the December 30 general election was unprecedented in world history. Ahead of conducting the massively rigged election, the government introduced some black laws, like the Digital Security Act, to shackle the media,” BNP senior joint secretary Ruhul Kabir Rizvi Ahmed told VOA.

“In different ways the government issued threats to the domestic media outlets to keep them away from reporting freely and not to let the outside world know of the massive vote manipulation,” he said.

 

Bangladesh, media
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina interacts with journalists in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Dec. 31, 2018. VOA

 

A Dhaka-based national TV channel news producer said many media outlets could not exercise their freedom during the election.

“Ahead of the general election, the Election Commission issued new guidelines strictly limiting the coverage-related activities of the journalists during the polling. In a first ever such move, it banned photography, videography or live telecast of the polling-related activities inside voting centers,” said a Dhaka-based national TV channel news producer who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal by the government.

‘Chilling message’

“Journalists got a chilling message that if they flouted the guidelines they would face serious retribution from the government. In such a terrifying situation, the rigging-related activities went largely unreported.”

Other journalists who told VOA similar stories did not want to be quoted, saying they feared reprisals from the government.

“They are facing severe pressure on many fronts, including arbitrary arrests and beating by police, forced disappearances and tough criminal defamation and online security laws that have put many in jail,” said Steven Butler, Asia Program coordinator of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

“They also endure repeated intimidating advisory phone calls from police, army intelligence and the government. The net result is a siege mentality. So, it’s not surprising they are afraid to report on election irregularities they have witnessed,” Butler added.

Bangladesh, Media
Activists of the leftist alliance join in a rally to demand a new election under caretaker government, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Jan. 3, 2019. VOA

Vote fraud allegations

After the schedule of the general election was announced by Bangladesh’s election commission in early December, the government reiterated that the election would be free, fair and all-inclusive.

But hours before the polling began on Dec. 30, the opposition alliance alleged that activists of the ruling Awami League (AL) were illegally stuffing ballot boxes at many voting centers across the country in the presence of election and security officials.

On the day of the polling, the alliance also alleged that tens of thousands of its polling agents, intimidated by AL supporters, had been driven away from the voting centers across the country.

After the election commission announced that the Awami League and its allies had overwhelmingly won 288 of the 300 parliamentary seats in the election, the Jatiya Oikya Front (JOF), the main political opposition coalition, rejected the results, saying it was a “massively rigged, farcical” election.

Bangladesh, Media
Bangladeshi President M. Abdul Hamid administers the oath of office to Prime Minister-elect Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Jan. 7, 2019. The new government is Hasina’s third in a row and fourth overall. VOA

AL leaders, however, said the charge of rigging was baseless.

“Can they show any evidence of any booth being captured by force or some people casting votes fraudulently? They cannot present any evidence in support of their charge. Yet, they are claiming that votes have been rigged,” senior AL leader Mahbubul Alam Hanif told VOA.

JOF leader Iqbal Hasan Mahmud Tuku said there was far less evidence of vote manipulation in this election largely because many journalists were not allowed to work freely during the polling.

“While rigging was going on at almost all voting centers in the presence of the election and security around, we asked some reporters to go and cover the incidents. But they all said they were too scared to report on those wrongdoings and stayed away from the voting centers,” Tuku told VOA.

Social media activity

Although the mainstream media largely refrained from reporting on the allegations of fraud, social media remained very active. Many users wrote on Facebook about their experiences at the voting centers.

Bangladesh, Media
Activists of the leftist alliance cover their mouths with black cloths as they join in a rally to demand a new election under caretaker government, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Jan. 3, 2019. VOA

Hundreds of video clips, in which people claimed that they had been stopped by AL activists from casting their votes, circulated across social media. Video clips that claimed to show AL activists casting illegal votes also surfaced on Facebook and Twitter.

Pro-democracy activist Pinaki Bhattacharya said the threat of the Digital Security Act also kept many journalists away from the election.

“Journalists in Bangladesh fear of being framed in multiple cases under the Digital Security Act. So, they are refraining from reporting the truth in many cases as it happened during the December 30 election. This act has robbed the spirit and freedom of journalism in Bangladesh,” Bhattacharya, who is also known as a popular online activist, told VOA.

The Dhaka-based activist, who has been in hiding since August after a military intelligence agency reportedly began hounding him, used his Facebook and Twitter pages to report on alleged malpractice during the election.

The election was not sufficiently documented, with most mainstream media outlets largely staying away from reporting the alleged rigging, Bhattacharya said.

“No independent international election observer group operated during this election. In such a situation, reports in the mainstream media in Bangladesh would have played a key role to document the election. In 95 percent or more voting centers, votes were rigged. But such malpractices have now remained largely undocumented in the absence of proper journalistic reporting,” Bhattacharya said.

Bagladesh, election, media
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina gestures after casting her vote in the morning during the general election in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Dec. 30, 2018. VOA

‘Immeasurable’ suppression

Hong Kong-based rights activist Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman of the Asian Legal Resource Centre, said the media “blackout” during the election was “immeasurable and irreparable.”

He said the charge of election fraud “should have been independently investigated by the mainstream media outlets that have extensive networks across the country. It would have helped the world to know how a government is being installed in Bangladesh via a massively rigged election.”

Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury, media adviser to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, said that “few” journalists might have “faced restrictions” in Bangladesh.

Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury, media adviser to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, said that “few” journalists might have “faced restrictions” in Bangladesh.

“But, if you generalize the comment like this, that the journalists in Bangladesh are working under some sort of threats or restrictions, that will not be fair because it may have happened to just one, two, three or four journalists,” Chowdhury told VOA.

Also Read: Bangladesh PM Gets Global Support, Will Withstand Calls To Investigate Allegations

If any journalist received a threat from police or a military intelligence agency he should have filed an official complaint within the country, he said.

“[In Bangladesh] there are professional bodies like the Editors’ Council, Press Institute and Press Council. If it is so that they have been restricted, they have been threatened by the intelligence agencies or police, I don’t know whether they have complained to these bodies. I don’t think that there is any complaint received by these bodies. Also, here they can file any case against these [security] agencies in the court,” he said.

He added, “I would not comment on what these reporters and journalists said to people or bodies outside the country [to VOA or CPJ]. At least if we do not receive any complaint from any reporter, we cannot comment on this.” (VOA)

Next Story

U.S. Media Industry Going Through A Bad Phase

On the surface, it may look as though the average U.S. media consumer is awash in choices: websites, podcasts, cable and broadcast TV, satellite, but this is not the reality

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US, Media, News, Downfall, State
Some front pages and section fronts of the Orange County Register are seen in the newsroom in Santa Ana, Calif., Dec. 27, 2012. VOA

On the surface, it may look as though the average U.S. media consumer is awash in choices: websites, podcasts, cable and broadcast TV, satellite and over-the-air radio, and yes, even printed newspapers. But the reality is different.

There is an oft-quoted line from Thomas Jefferson about the importance of a free press to the stability of the newly formed United States: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government,” he wrote to a colleague, “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Almost always, though, the words Jefferson wrote next are forgotten. He added, “But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.”

His insight was that a press free from government interference is a necessary condition for a healthy democracy, but not a sufficient one. A free press isn’t very useful if nobody has access to relevant reporting on the issues that affect them.

If Jefferson were able to look at the media landscape in his country today, particularly at the local level, he would almost certainly be worried.

Consolidation

News sources, particularly local ones, are increasingly controlled by a limited number of companies that have bought up smaller news organizations and consolidated them.

This is perhaps most visible in the world of newspapers. Twenty percent of the newspapers that were active 15 years ago have been shut down, according to the University of North Carolina, leaving hundreds of locales without a local paper.

US, Media, News, Downfall, State
A specialist works at the post that handles Gannett on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Aug. 5, 2014. VOA

Employment in newspaper newsrooms has fallen by 47% since 2004, according to the Pew Research Center. Meanwhile, companies like GateHouse Media and Gannett  control hundreds of publications using centralized news gathering that decreases the focus on their communities.

In August, the two companies announced a plan to merge, a deal that would create a company controlling more than 250 daily newspapers, as well as hundreds more weeklies and community papers. The merged companies would be several times larger than the next biggest newspaper company, Digital First Media, which in 2018 owned 51 daily papers and 158 other publications.

Digital First, which is owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, has been at the forefront of another troubling trend: buying up newspapers, laying off newsroom staff, and liquidating the papers’ real estate assets.

Digital First, which also goes by MediaNews Group, or MNG, did not respond to a request for comment from VOA. However, in response to a Washington Post story earlier this year, the company said “MNG is committed to the newspaper business and a long-term investor in the space. MNG’s focus is on getting publications to a place where they can operate profitably and sustainably and continue to serve their communities.”

Job cuts, quick profits

“They’re owned, essentially, by private equity companies, or even hedge funds at times, and they don’t particularly care about the quality of the journalism,” said Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post and former public editor of The New York Times.

US, Media, News, Downfall, State
Two New York Daily News employees leave the newspaper’s office after they were laid off, in New York, July 23, 2018. VOA

“What they’re there to do is to strip mine these properties and get as much profit from them as they can in the short term. And that is very bad for journalism. It’s very bad for journalists, because it often means round after round of job reductions, cutting costs in really draconian ways that hurt the news gathering process.”

Newspapers are not typically seen as a major profit-making venture. While they generate significant cash flow through advertising sales, that is offset by high production costs of personnel and the logistics of printing and delivery. Many are run by family foundations and other organizations that place some value on their public mission.

The strategy of many investment firms buying up newspaper chains has been to increase profits by slashing personnel costs.

In the broadcast world, the story is similar. Large companies have been buying up local stations and cutting costs by centralizing the production of much of the content they air. Most notorious among them is Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns 193 stations across the country, reaching up to 40% of the U.S. population.

Sinclair is known for enforcing a sharply conservative political slant on its broadcasts, providing “must-run” content that appears on every station the company owns. It regularly requires its stations to air commentary by Boris Epshteyn, a friend of President Donald Trump’s family and a former political consultant to the president.

Last year, a video went viral in which dozens of Sinclair anchors could be seen repeating, verbatim, a script that echoed Trump’s complaints about “fake news.”

Easing antitrust

Rules that formerly limited the ability of individual companies to own a dominant share of the media outlets in a specific market have been slowly eased over the years. Then, in 2017, the Federal Communications Commission gutted many of the remaining restrictions, opening the door to single companies dominating individual markets in both broadcast and print.

US, Media, News, Downfall, State
Hundreds of old newspaper vending machines are shown in a vacant lot near the former offices of the Alaska Dispatch News in Anchorage, Alaska, Sept. 11, 2017. VOA

The resulting consolidation has been “disastrous for local communities,” said Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, an organization that advocates for the decentralization of media. “We’ve gone from a more diverse localized media system to one increasingly controlled by a small handful of companies.”

 

“You used to get in your car in New York and drive to, I don’t know, Phoenix,” said Aaron. “Everywhere along the way, you would get incredibly different local voices, local flavors, local music. Now, you’re much more likely to get the same hit songs and Rush Limbaugh. So, we’ve lost some of that, you know, which I think has huge cultural value.”

The impact goes beyond culture, though, as Aaron and others have pointed out. It also has a direct impact on how Americans govern themselves.

“When sources of local and regional news dry up or go away,” Sullivan said, “there’s research that shows that the way people engage politically changes. They are going to be less likely to vote, they become more polarized, because for many years, the local newspaper might have been a way that people in that community were sharing a set of facts. Now, that’s gone or diminis