A private television channel has accused Prothom Alo of resorting to a conspiracy against the country, putting words into the mouth of seven-year-old boy, besmearing independence, in a manner hardly feasible of such a young child. They go as far as saying that the newspaper even changed the name of the child. We witness an exceptional example how an ordinary piece of news can be twisted to stir up an extraordinary controversy.     

For anyone reading the report, it is obvious that the heading and the words inside the report, "We want independence for (being able to afford) fish, meat and rice", is not a quote of the child, but of the day labourer Zakir Hossain. The picture used with the report is of the child named Sabuj, but the comment next to the picture was made by Zakir Hossain. This mismatching image and quote may seem a discrepancy to many, but how does it constitute a criminal offence? Will no one be able to speak out on Independence Day about people’s hardship due to spiralling prices of daily commodities while their incomes are falling? How many of those who made the allegations have actually read the original report or the subsequent edited report and explanation? It is hard to believe that those who stirred the debate don't understand that it is necessary to check facts first. It seems the motive behind controversy is to teach Prothom Alo a lesson for its independent and courageous journalism.

Unfortunately, many viewers in our country, evenly divided by their political affiliations, were duped by the television channel's cunning manipulations and reacted emotionally without reading the original report. Do those who allege that the report contains a conspiracy to tarnish and denigrate the country's independence, actually believe our national sovereignty is so fragile that it will shatter if someone points out the existence of poverty and hunger in the country?

On 29 March, the South Asian Network of Economic Modelling (SANEM) published the findings of one of their surveys which stated that 32 per cent of the people in the country are being forced to suppress their hunger and go without a meal. Will this be termed as propaganda against the government in the election year? Do we not have the ability to review our own failures and take lessons from these? Or has the government lost confidence in itself to such an extent that it quakes in the fear of losing power the moment it hears criticism?

No news media is above accountability. They are accountable to readers, viewers and listeners each and every day. In that sense, politicians are lucky, they only have to face the voters once every five years. And when elections are reduced to a mere constitutional formality, the voters have no value at all. Everything is shackled in the chains of power. The huge protest over the past few days in support of Prothom Alo, against the case and also against the repression of the journalist, proves the staunch confidence the people have in the newspaper's objective and courageous journalism.

The case lodged under the Digital Security Act against Prothom Alo editor Matiur Rahman and journalist Samsuzzaman, and picking up Samsuzzaman in the dead of night and then sending him to jail, give rise to several important questions. According to the police files, general secretary of Dhaka North ward 11 Jubo League, Syed Golam Kibria, filed the case against Samsuzzaman under the Digital Security Act at 2:15am Wednesday night, with the Tejgaon police station. In under less than two hours after that, members of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), along with a sub-inspector of the local police station, turned up at Samsuzzaman's house. From the police's activities it is quite clear that the case filed by the ruling party leader was no sudden or spontaneous.

CID set him free on the road and the Ramna police picked him up from there. What sort of farce is this? How is this any different from unlawful abduction or enforced disappearance?

Everyone must surely remember law minister Anisul Huq's words, when he had said that the home ministry had instructed the police that no journalist was to be arrested under the Digital Security Act without investigations being completed. Why did the Tejgaon police not heed those words? Later, though, it was learnt that Samsuzzaman was shown to be arrested and taken to court in a case filed with the Ramna police station. So did the Ramna police station not know about the home ministry's directives? The arrest and imprisonment of Samsuzzaman proved that actually the law enforcement will apply the controversial Digital Security Act as the government wants.

Even more alarming and dangerous is that there is a blank space about what happened in the 20 hours after Samsuzzaman was picked up from his house at night. The CID and police do not admit to picking him up, but there are many witnesses. The home minister said that CID has released him after interrogation. So why was his family and relations not informed of this. There are Supreme Court directives that no arrest can be made at night without a warrant and the arrested person's family or lawyer must be informed within three hours of the arrest. If these directives are not followed in the case of a journalist, then one can only imagine how extreme such practice is the case of others. CID set him free on the road and the Ramna police picked him up from there. What sort of farce is this? How is this any different from unlawful abduction or enforced disappearance?

Once again it has been proven how the Digital Security Act has become the favourite tool of the government to repress criticism of the government and suppress free thinking. No matter how many times the ministers make promises about the Digital Security Act, it is proven time and again that these promises are not made to be kept, but merely to tackle opposition.

It needs to be understood that spending money is not enough to build up an image, the state policies and practices need to be democratic and humanitarian too

It was said that work was being done with the UN Human Rights Commission to iron out any flaw in the law. But this is just an excuse, as is evident from the statement made on Friday by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Their advice to the government was of no use and that is why they have called for the law to be suspended.

State minister for foreign affairs Shahriar Alam has rejected the reactions and the news headlines worldwide against Prothom Alo's journalist being picked up from his home at night and a case being filed under the Digital Security Act against him and the newspaper's editor. But there was no discussion on funds being procured by the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI), to have a 30 minute programme on 'Growing Bangladesh', broadcast from 27 March to 1 April on CNN. All of that has been lost in the criticism against the government's gagging of the media.

Earlier, too, another trade-based body of the government spent USD 45 million (USD 4.5 crore) on CNN for positive coverage in favour of the country. It needs to be understood that spending money is not enough to build up an image, the state policies and practices need to be democratic and humanitarian too.

Another thing, for those who still have trust in the Press Council, here is a small reminder -- by cancelling the declaration of the opposition BNP's newspaper Dinkal a few days ago, they have proven themselves to be nothing but a tool of the government. When the state establishes political control over these so-called independent institutions, it becomes necessary for the news media industry themselves to set up an alternative.