US visa policy on the media: 190 eminent citizens express concern

US ambassador in Dhaka Peter Haas
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In a statement, 190 eminent citizens of the country have expressed their concern and disappointment over the statement of the US ambassador in Bangladesh, Peter Haas, concerning the implementation of the visa policy against the media. The statement referred to the concern expressed in a letter issued on Saturday, by the Editors' Council.

The statement issued yesterday, Saturday, was signed by 190 eminent citizens including rights activists, minority community leaders, publicists, journalists, cultural activists and others.

Among the signatories were journalist Shahriar Kabir, theatre personality Ramendu Majumdar, Professor Muntassir Mamoon, educationist Shyamali Nasrin Chowdhury, writer Professor Zafar Iqbal, Salma Huq, freedom fighter Justice Shamsuddin Chowdhury Manik, lawyer and general secretary of the Hindu Christian Bouddha Christian Oikya Parishad, Rana Das Gupta, filmmaker Nasir Uddin Yusuf,  and more.

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The statement, expressing dismay over US Ambassador Peter Haas' remark that those connected with the media may also fall under this visa policy, said that this went against media freedom. The statement said that the media played an important role in Bangladesh in creating awareness. It said, "We found media taking up an instrumental role in creating awareness against radical forces, militants, and terrorist outfits like Jamaat-e-Islami that consists of war criminals and seeks to eliminate progressive and secular forces including religious and ethnic minorities and establish a Taliban style rule in Bangladesh."

The statement went on to say that the hardliners and anti-independence groups had hailed Haas' statement concerning the visa policy. These groups would criticise other policies of the West. They see free thinks as the enemy and are in favour of indemnity for the 1971 war criminals. The Facebook page 'Basher Kella', known to be the mouthpiece of Jamaat-e-Islami, had welcomed Haas' words, terming him as a true friend. This page in the past had spoken positively about the killing of bloggers and free thinkers. So the post on this page concerning Haas' statement gives an ominous message to secular citizens.

The statement said, "We noted that the state department officials had refrained from mentioning the media in context of the visa policy. However, as Peter Haas has not withdrawn his statement, it seems that perhaps the decision to take measures against the media is final. Editors and journalists have expressed their concern. Many have expressed their views that this statement made by Haas will deter the media from publishing critical reports."

The statement went on to say, "We had seen the US reacting to the crimes against humanity committed during the liberation war by leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, the gagging of secular citizens, and torture of the minorities. The US had said that there had been exaggeration on the Basher Kella page."

They said that Peter Haas' words reflected his double standards. He had been a champion of media freedom when he came to Bangladesh. But his present stance would harm the fundamentals of media freedom.

The statement made by the department of state, on the other hand, has said that those who would obstruct the media from working independently would also come under the visa policy. But Haas' statement will seriously harm the role that the media could play in the US commitment towards a free and fair election in Bangladesh.

The statement by the eminent citizens said, "We have seen several efforts by the US that may harm the country's communal harmony. The controversial US senator Bob Mendes had played a role in raising the demand to impose sanctions against RAB. Also, a statement signed by six US congressmen claimed that the number of minority community members in Bangladesh had been halved during the present government's rule. This is a travesty of the truth and unjustified.  That is why we are forced to believe that there may have other motives behind such matters."

The statement said, "In the past we have seen the attack by Jamaat and communal forces on the minorities and then the attack of the militants and terrorists on Holey Artisan Bakery. It is impossible to fight against these communal forces without the support of the law enforcement agencies. During the last BNP and Jamaat's coalition government, over 28,000 attacks had been carried out against the minority communities, their homes and property was grabbed, temples smashed and looted, and people were set on fire alive. But the government at the time took no action. But after the present government was elected to power, the repression of the minorities came to a halt with the help of the state. The role of the law enforcement is extremely important in maintaining this harmony."

The statement went on to say that, "We noted that the US commitment to uphold justice was not implemented in the case of the convicted self-confessed killers of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman whom the US has given shelter. This was a despicable killing that gave rise to fundamentalist forces in Bangladesh. So we find it justified to question the manner in which the visa policy will be applied. It is necessary to know who will approve of this and who will take decisions in this regard. We have seen the activities of the ambassador and other activities too, which work as gunpowder for the fundamentalist forces who want to destablise the country." 

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