I thought of thanking state minister for foreign affairs Shahriar Alam for disclosing information about spending millions of taka abroad for politics in Bangladesh. This money has been spent for lobbying. But after the media reports on his delivery in the parliament, I unfortunately can't thank him. He gave rise to fresh questions by providing incomplete information in parliament. No sooner after 24 hours of his statement in the parliament, on Tuesday he disclosed to newsmen a new sum of expenditure for lobbying by BNP. He also said the government will write to Bangladesh Bank to investigate the source and transaction of this money.
The state minister for foreign affairs in the parliament said BNP has spent two million US dollars (Tk 170 million) in three years. But he on Tuesday told the media that BNP's expenditure stands at 3.75 million US dollars (over Tk 320 million). It seems he does not have an accurate account of the expenditure of BNP. If BNP illegally sends money abroad, that must be investigated. And BNP can be asked to justify their lobbying abroad.
But the question is as to when and who started lobbying abroad for Bangladesh politics? What is the logic behind the government spending 320,000 US dollars (T2.75 million) every year for the political campaign of the ruling party? The main thing is, why is the matter shrouded in so much secrecy?
On 5 January in a meeting, the parliamentary standing committee on the foreign ministry discussed the US sanctions on RAB and its former and current officials. In the meeting, the members of the committee suggested appointment of lobbyists in the US. Why were the members not informed that the government has appointed lobbyists there since 2014? After the publication of reports that lobbyists in the US are working in favour of the government, admitting the matter, foreign minister AK Abdul Momen said the government would take steps as necessary.
Apart from the lobbyist firm BGR working on a regular basis, another lobbyist organisation Friedlander was appointed for 40,000 US dollars as fees for arranging top level meetings and trips between two countries. In the meeting of the parliamentary standing committee, both the minister and the state minister were present. Didn't they know about these lobbyists? If they didn't, it proves that foreign cadre bureaucrats run the foreign office. Or are they hiding the information as there has been no success in boosting the country's image despite the appointment of lobbyists?
Speaking to newsmen on Tuesday, Shahriar Alam said the government has not appointed any lobbyists, a PR (Public Relations) firm has been appointed. BGR is not a common lobbyist organisation. In 2020, they are recognised as the lobbyist of the year, which is shown on their website.
In the US, they also lobby in favour of neighbouring India. In the US, PR is the major part of the lobbying organisations. There is no scope of separating lobbying from PR. The functions of lobbyists are to protect the interest of recruiters in the US government, lawmakers, policymakers and the media.
These are the statements of the government. But will the state minister inform us of the record of the ruling party? On the eve of the last parliamentary election, the ministers almost every day leveled allegations of lobbying abroad against the opposition. Investigations at the time revealed no one was lagging behind lobbying. According to Prothom Alo reports, in the US, Awami League paid the lobbying organisation, Alcalde and Fay, 1.25 million US dollars ( Tk over 100 million) in 2005, 2006 and 2007. The first agreement was made on 29 November 2004 and became effective on 1 January 2005.
According to the agreement made public, their monthly fees were 30,000 US dollars (Tk 24,00,000). Out of fees, other expenditures including media and trips of researchers were said to be paid separately. But its estimation of the expenditure was not disclosed. There is no information that before Awami League, any other political parties in Bangladesh received services from the professional lobbyists in the US. This information is published online in the record of the Justice Department under Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
The controversy of lobbying is at the root of the country's human rights, rule of law and wretched condition of democracy. In the declaration of sanctions against RAB, they are accused of extreme violation of human rights by different international organisations. There is no scope to hide the reports of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International or the Human Rights organisation of the UN. In the past, Awami League also quoted reports of these organisations in various statements. So it is expected the government would pay attention to fundamental problems and investigate the violations of human rights and bring the perpetrators to book.
* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist.
*This report, originally published in Prothom Alo print and online editions, has been rewritten in English by Rabiul Islam.