Hasan Mahmud is the joint general secretary of Awami League and information minister of Bangladesh. In an interview with Prothom Alo, he discusses the state of media, the unruly behaviour of certain leaders and activists in the ruling party and the overall political situation of the country.
The government has been more or less successful in tackling the economic disruption caused by the coronavirus outbreak, but what about the 'pandemic' in the party? First it was Sylhet, then Noakhali and the recent incident involving Irfan Salim, the son of Haji Salim MP.
None of our party members was involved in the Sylhet MC College incident or in Noakhali. The persons involved were hoodlums. Awami League has been in power for a stretch of 12 years and so many opportunists try to use the party name to carry out their misdeeds. This happens in all developing countries. They have no posts in our party. It is our party policy to take action against organisational and legal action against anyone indulging in such crime, no matter from which party they may come. Stern action is being taken against anyone committing misdeeds in the name of politics. We have sent directives to the grassroots to send a list of all those who are using the party name in their own personal interests. A preliminary list has already been drawn up.
From the anti-casino drive last year to all the other similar drives, it has been leaders and activists of Awami League and its affiliated organisations that have been caught. The inquiry committee formed regarding the act of violence against a woman in Noakhali, has recommended a special law to deal with crimes committed under the shelter of political power. Will you consider that?
The inquiry committee can come up with recommendations, but I think the prevailing laws of the country are adequate to punish any crime that may be committed. This is happening too.
Awami League is claiming that these crimes are being committed by BNP and Jamaat elements, even persons from Freedom Party, who are entering the ruling party. How could they enter the party?
This has not happened that much, but it should not happen at all. And particularly no one from Jamaat or Freedom Party should be given place in the party. In the meantime, action has been taken against those elements.
Haji Salim is originally from BNP, defeating Awami League candidate Mostafa Jalal Mohiuddin in 2014 to become a member of parliament. He violated party discipline but was still accepted into the party. The media is now rife with reports of his misdeeds.
Action was taken against many of those who violated party discipline to take part in the election. Haji Salim is among those who were taken into the party. I saw in the media that Agrani Bank land was under his occupation. He grabbed government land in Sonargaon and steps have been taken to recover that. No representative of the people, whether MP or otherwise, should be involved in such deeds. Grabbing government or private land is a criminal offence. If the allegations against him are proven, the party will certainly take a decision.
At a recent gathering of Reporters Unity, you asked the journalists to praise the government alongside criticising it. But many news media outlets have faced repercussions for criticising the government.
We believe that if one is in power, one will invariably face criticism. A culture of accepting criticism is important. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina accepts criticism and so does her government. But sometimes unjust criticism is made, fake news is published. That is not acceptable.
You say that BNP has no public support, so why do you all talk about BNP almost every day?
We never say that BNP has no public support, but it does not have support as it had in the past. BNP is our main opponent in politics. We naturally respond when they lash out and make false allegations against us.
In 2013 Hefajat-e-Islam launched a movement against the government, but later we see the government drew them close as allies.
Hefajat-e-Islam is not a political party, it is a platform of qawmi madrasa-walas. In 2013 it took a stand against the government and later approached the government with certain demands. Many of the demands were met, including the official recognition of qawmi madrasas. This gave the qawmi students the opportunity to join the mainstream. I think this is a success of the government. We are taking forward the spirit on which Bangladesh was founded. We have not changed our principles or policy. On the contrary, it is because of timely steps taken by the government that others have changed their policies.
But what about the change made in the school textbooks in keeping with Hefajat's demands?
The textbooks were not changed on the basis of Hefajat's demands. There were discrepancies in the textbooks. These came to the attention of the government and the changes were made accordingly.
During this coronavirus crisis, the information ministry took initiative to recover the dues owed to news media by various agencies and organisations of the government. How far has this been successful?
The dues owed by the information ministry have been paid in full. Letters have been sent twice through the cabinet division to the other ministries and agencies to pay their outstanding dues. It is because of these initiatives that the newspapers are running. Assistance has also been provided to journalists who have been facing financial crisis.
There should be a free flow of information in the country and, to that end, the government enacted the Right to Information Act. But the Digital Security Act has curbed that right to information. When the Digital Security Act was drawn up, it was said that it would not be used against journalists, but it is being used against them continuously.
Even developed countries do not have the free flow of information that exists in Bangladesh. Over the past 10 years, not a single newspaper has been shut down for publishing incorrect or false news. They have not been fined. In Europe and America they have to pay fines. In England, the 168-year-old News of the World closed down for publishing false news. The Digital Security Act is to protect the people. There are similar laws in Europe and America. If anyone resorts to information technology to defame a journalist, how will he get recompense without this act?
But this law is being misused against journalists.
The government is keeping watch to ensure this law is not misused. Personally, I am also monitoring this.
The number of newspapers and television channels is not a benchmark of freedom of expression. The Digital Security Act has created an environment of fear all around.
There is no environment of fear in Bangladesh. Everything is being written about freely. The media in the western countries does not even have the freedom that the media enjoys here.
You all claim that the government does not spare any criminal, but the government has not taken any effective measures to prevent crime from being carried out under the party umbrella.
The prime minister has a zero tolerance policy in this regard. If the government indulged such criminals, they would not be caught in such a manner. The government is taking action wherever there is crime and corruption. The criminals must face the law. This is the most effective way to control corruption.
What about the political crisis that prevails in the country? How can it be overcome?
There is no political crisis in the country, it is in BNP. Awami League is a people's organisation. All sorts of people are in the party and we are trying to cleanse it. During BNP times, was action ever taken as speedily as we took against Haji Salim's son? It was most unfortunate that a naval officer was beaten up in public. It was a despicable incident. But this cannot be termed as a political crisis.