Police investigations into the case regarding the death of schoolboy Naimul Abrar due to negligence were completed with alacrity. And based on the police investigation report, the court issued warrants of arrest against the accused without them even knowing the results of the investigation.
Certainly, there must be an investigation into what level of negligence lay behind the accidental death of Abrar. However, questions and apprehensions have arisen as to whether the entire matter is being used to teach Prothom Alo a lesson. There is not much to discuss in the media about an issue under trial in court. Matiur Rahman may have been granted bail by the Supreme Court, but there is still a question about the fear that this is a matter of vengeance against Prothom Alo. This calls for discussion.
It is clear that the space for expression of views is shrinking in the country. Those within the country and outside who work for human rights, have been quite vocal about this issue over the past few years. The government tries to dismiss such contentions by pointing to the extensive number of media outlets, but the backlash against criticism and opposing views simply serves to reinforce the veracity of the contentions. And it is in these adverse circumstances that Prothom Alo has been striving to the best of its ability to present factual news and criticism. That is why Prothom Alo regularly faces direct and indirect obstructions. In this backdrop, it is particularly important to take certain incongruities of the case into consideration.
1. The first and main cause of apprehension is the charge brought against the newspaper’s editor Matiur Rahman and the arrest warrant. He was at no time even present at the event, and this is obviously just an attempt to put him behind bars. If this charge is to be brought against Matiur Rahman as publisher of Kishor Alo, then the chief executives of all institutions in Bangladesh where accidental deaths have occurred, must be accused. These can be accidents in readymade garment factories or government offices, or railway, road, river or plane accidents.
The deaths which occur every day on the roads are due to infrastructural problems, indiscipline and irregularities. So the roads and bridges minister can be charged. There were three major railway accidents in 2019. Over the year, 39 people lost their lives in these accidents. Management shortcomings and irresponsibility of the railway authorities led to these accidents. The railway minister, as head of the ministry, bears the blame.
How many vice chancellors have faced charges for the students who have been killed? There are no cases against those who organised a programme last year commemorating the death anniversary of a politician, in which 10 people died in a stampede. Has there ever been a case against any chief election commissioner for the killings during the election? There are so many examples that can be cited.
2. Interestingly, no one in charge of emergency services has been accused by the police. I was in Dhaka on the day of the accident and I watched several TV talk shows on the issue over the ensuing days. The most significant among these was the interview of the chief executive of the hospital where the two physicians present at the venue took Abrar. This executive of Universal Medical College Hospital explained why Abrar was not taken to any nearby hospital. He stressed that it was the decision of the two physicians to take the boy to that hospital, no one else’s decision. It is primarily the responsibility of the physicians to decide where to take a person who is injured or falls ill, and what treatment should be administered. They are the first responders. They are the experts. No one else is qualified to take that decision, no matter if he is the editor of the country’s most influential newspaper or a popular writer or a politician.
3. The liability of the school authorities where the event was held was not taken into cognizance. Yet in most countries, the authorities of the event site are legally most liable. From personal experience I can say that BBC does not allow any food to be catered from outside at their events. It was compulsory to order the food and drinks from the BBC club or cafeteria, no matter how costly. This was because if anyone fell ill due to the food taken at the BBC office, the BBC authorities would be held responsible. Similarly, if any auditorium is hired, the auditorium authorities are in charge of the security there.
4. There are specific laws concerning death due to accidents in factories and various establishments and these laws are regularly revised and brought up to date. The readymade garment industry is a prominent example. There are compulsory rules for the factory buildings to be renovated and for security to be ensured. But how updated are the laws regarding the security of any auditorium or open space used for various events?
In the past, the district administration would issue permission for ‘jatra’ shows and fairs and all sorts of rules and regulations would be attached. But more than the safety of the spectators and visitors, focus was on whether there were any anti-state statements being made. It was more of a political concern. In the absence of any specific laws, there is invariably the fear of power being misused in the name of justice.
5. The fact that the case was filed a week or more after the incident, indicates the hand of the government and an agency behind the matter. Before and after the case, many government persons were heard to say that the negligence of the Prothom Alo organisers led to the death of Residential Model College student Naimul Abrar. So the role of the government and the ruling party in including the name of the Prothom Alo editor in the case warrants due consideration. And then there were half a dozen or so human chains held by various organisations, known and unknown, demanding that the editor be tried and that Prothom Alo be shut down. A few Chhatra League leaders and activists were also a part of these demonstrations. What do these human chains, held in front of the newspaper office, indicate?
6. Though there is scope for the accused to be summoned before the court after the investigation report is submitted, legal experts find it an exception that arrest warrants were issued instead. And would it be unjust to feel that the open statements made by the information minister and from other levels of the government are influencing the case?
7. Over the past few years all sorts of pressure and obstruction has been applied against Prothom Alo. Is there any scope to see these as unrelated to inclusion of the editor in this case? Prothom Alo is restricted from the prime minister’s office and any of her programmes. From August 2016, at least 50 of the main advertisers were obliged to stop giving advertisements to Prothom Alo. While several of the companies later ignored these restrictions, many big companies are still unable to advertise in Prothom Alo.
In the parliament, ministers and members of parliament have castigated Prothom Alo and over the past 10 years over 100 cases have been filed again the newspaper and its editor. Of these, 50 are still under trial. What could these be other than serial harassment and coercion? Since it is difficult to explain at an international arena muffling the voice of the country’s top newspaper, is the accidental death of a student being used as an excuse?
8. As Prothom Alo has exposed their corruption and irregularities, ruling party leaders regularly accuse the newspaper of tarnishing the image of the government. Various quarters of the government have openly said that the newspaper must not be subscribed or read and even should be boycotted. Such a situation has emerged that many people in various organisations of the state machinery are too scared to read Prothom Alo. So there are apprehensions that this incident is being used to mount pressure on the newspaper.
9. In the circumstances of shrinking freedom of expression and diminishing civil and democratic rights, Prothom Alo and The Daily Star boldly speak about these rights. Over the past few years in his speeches, interviews and writing, Matiur Rahman has openly said that he is unable to speak of the things he wants to speak about. Mahfuz Anam has also expressed his concern about not having the freedom to write independently.
On the flip side, the ministers, MPs and the pro-government media point to the large number of publications and TV and radio channels as proof of democracy. So it is obvious that the government will be eager to stop any words being uttered about the lack of freedom of expression. The pressure on Prothom Alo has a singular objective, to pacify the media completely.
There are, however, certain people who do not see the arrest warrant against the Prothom Alo editor and others as a threat to freedom of expression. Their stance is political. Then there are those who have personal grudges against Prothom Alo and are happy if Prothom Alo is harmed in any way. Those who support the case for political reasons are mostly supporters of the ruling party. There is another group who see this case as an attempt to suppress the voice of the media, but opt to remain silent. Their excuse is that Prothom Alo as an institution did not stand by their side during the arrest of former BNP leader and editor of Amar Desh and editor of Jamaat-e-Islami’s newspaper Abul Asad.
Also, those who are envious of Prothom Alo’s success, see this as an opportunity. They feel that if Prothom Alo is harmed, this will benefit them commercially. They are not bothered about press freedom. They consider subservience to the financially and politically powerful quarters to be the basis of success.
Hope remains in the fact that Prothom Alo’s strength lies in its success. Millions of readers have put their trust in the newspaper. That means they have faith in the paper’s editorial policy. This credit undoubtedly goes to the newspaper’s editor Matiur Rahman and his co-workers. That is why it is imperative that everyone expresses their full support for Prothom Alo’s editorial freedom. After all, harm to Prothom Alo will lead to the silencing of other voices in the media.
* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist and columnist. This piece has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.