Monday, February 20, 2012

Daily Star's attack on Al Jazeera

A respected Bangladeshi academic recently said to me that these days in Bangladesh it was not enough to simply voice ones support for the international crimes tribunal. In order to gain the approval of the more ardent ICT campaigners and government supporters, one must use the exact words, language and tone that they themselves use when they talk about it. There is an expected script, he said, and deviation from it invites harsh criticism, ostracism and sometimes worse.

I was reminded of this remark, following the Daily Star's front page article on Friday titled, 'Al Jazeera report draws flak', and its editorial the following day titled, 'Al Jazeera report speculative; provocative and motivated as well.'

The Daily Star article shows how even one of the country's more progressive and liberal newspapers - a paper that I respect (and once worked for) - is playing (at least on this occasion) a very unfortunate role in circumscribing even further what can or cannot be said about the tribunal.

Such an attack is particularly worrying in light of the Bangladesh parliament voting on Thursday last week (a day before the first Daily Star article was published) in favor of a resolution supporting the enactment of 'legal provisions to take action against those obstructing the war crimes trial.' It is close to being a disgrace that the media is itself playing a role in supporting parliament and the government in attacking independent journalism on the ICT.

In Bangladesh, it is now very difficult to write about the international crimes tribunal from a non-partisan independent position without being derided by 'tribunal supporters' as being 'pro-Jamaat', 'pro-war criminal', and much else beside.

Any word formulation, any slight tonal dissonance, that fails to live upto the expectations of the self appointed guardians of the International Crimes Tribunal - some of who now appear to be perched at the Daily Star, of all places - now risks vilification.

No doubt, there are ways the piece could have been more tightly written,  but the key point here is that  Al Jazeera piece did not criticise the need for holding the tribunal, and provides no solace to the Jamaat or the accused - but nonetheless it is accused of having done so, and is being inappropriately attacked. The local distributor of Al Jazeera in Bangladesh has been contacted by an intelligence agency and two government departments and is being pressured to stop the cable/satellite distribution of the Qatar based station!

The irony of course is that the two articles published in the Daily Star - and similar ones printed elsewhere - actually make the tribunals even more 'controversial', more subject to searching questions from anyone with an independent bent. 'Supporters' of the tribunal seem blind to how their censoring of different perspectives about the tribunal drives away the international community - let alone the independent minded Bangladeshis - from providing support that they would otherwise be willing to give.

Inevitably, such censorship provokes independent people to ask: why are the tribunal supporters going to such lengths to criticise independent journalists, and prohibit any comment about the tribunal that does not fall within the permitted narrow parameters? The hope, that many of us had, of a tribunal that would be perceived favorably around the world appears to be long gone.

The background
It is important to recognise that the Daily Star articles did not come out of the blue. Intelligence agencies had contacted a number of newspapers, including I understand the Daily Star, and told reporters that Al Jazeera had sent a special reporter to Dhaka as part of a Jammaat conspiracy to undermine the war crimes trials. The Daily Star did not take the bait at that time, but other papers did and put a totally fallacious story on its front page.

Papers, however, were it seems primed to find bias and conspiracy in the Al Jazeera news report. And, surprise, surprise, they duly did.

The Al Jazeera Report
What is it about this Al Jazeera 3 minute film - yes it was only 2 minutes 50 second film - which the Daily Star felt deserved a large front page article criticising the report, and then a subsequent editorial describing it as 'provocative and motivated'.

The script of the TV new report - which has now very unfortunately been taken down from the Al Jazeera website - was as follows:
Studio introduction
In Bangladesh, 89 year old Golam Azam the former chief of the Islamist party Jamaat I Islami is to appear in court on charges of crimes against humanity. He is accused of collaborating with the Pakistani army, and ordering the killing of millions during the country’s 1971 war of independence. Nicolas Haque reports.

Commentary (with pictures of Gholam Azam being carried up Tribunal stairs)
He can’t walk, he can’t really see nor can he really hear. Yet he has 10 armed police officers watching him at all times. 89 year old Golam Azam is not like other detainees. Up until 2000, He was the chief of the Islamist party Jamaat-I Islami.

Commentary (with archive footage)
The country’s war crimes tribunal believes he collaborated with Pakistan’s army, orchestrating mass killings during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence with Pakistan. Officials say 3 million people died in the 9 month long war.

Commentary (with pictures of Azam's son):
Azam’s son was 12 years-old when the war broke out. He clearly remembers his father’s role in it.

Interview with Azmi Azam, Gholam Azam’s son:
“He has his logics and arguments, which I don’t want to go into, for supporting united Pakistan but as I said he has not committed any crimes against humanity.”

Commentary (with pictures of Azam)
Jamaat was then a small but organized political party. In newspaper clippings, Gholam Azam is shown asking party members to support the Pakistani military forces in the name of Islamic brotherhood.

Commentary (with pictures of political rallies)
After the war ended the constitution declared all religious parties illegal. But 8 years later, this was amended. Jamaat quickly grew into the 3rd largest political party in Bangladesh. Over the years, joining forces with other parties from all sides, including the current ruling party.

Interview with Abdur Razzaq (Defence Lawyer for Jamaat)
“8 people were arrested, all of them are top ranking opposition politicians, 3 of them ministers and a few MPs…strange coincidence. ”

Commentary (with court pictures)
A recent hearing by the United Nations working group on arbitrary detentions concluded the detention of these men as arbitrary and in breach of international law.

Interview with Shafiq Ahmed (Minister of Law)
“This tribunal is not an international war crimes tribunal, this is a domestic tribunal. Those who have been arrested are facing trial, so it’s not an illegal detention.”

Commentary (with pictures of Sheikh Hasina)
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has made the prosecution of war criminals part of her election manifesto. Her government is determined to fulfill its pledge.

Commentary (with pictures of Gholam Azam)
This is just the beginning of the trial. If found guilty Gaulam Azam will face the death penalty.

Nicholas Hoque speaking to the Camera
Whatever the decision this court comes to, It will have dramatic consequences. It may bring justice to many but at the price of throwing Bangladesh into further political instability.
Before looking at whether the Daily Star has any legitimate arguments to stoke a controversy about this article, a number of points should be made:
  • this was a news item that was under 3 minutes long - in fact amounting to just 400 words. Subtlety and dense analysis is impossible in that very short time frame, and with so few words to play with
  • Al Jazeera's Nicholas Hoque has done other news item on the war crimes tribunal, primarily from the victims perspective, starting with an interview and accounts of how a woman's father was killed in 1971
  • doing a news item around the detention of Gholam Azam, is clearly appropriate. It was big news in Bangladesh. All the international news wires covered it. It was perfectly appropriate to use this as a peg to look at the issue of the war crimes tribunal.
  • again, there was nothing wrong in interviewing Gholam Azam's son. It is standard practice to interview family member of a person detained in custody - as long as what he or she might say is balanced by commentary or interview.
  • the film very clearly states twice that Azam is accused of involvement in mass murder: First in the introduction to the film, 'He is accused of collaborating with the Pakistani army, and ordering the killing of millions during the country’s 1971 war of independence' and then within the news piece, '.... he collaborated with Pakistan’s army, orchestrating mass killings during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence with Pakistan.' The allegations against him were stated clearly, with no hedging.
  • the film also states: 'In newspaper clippings, Gholam Azam is shown asking party members to support the Pakistani military forces in the name of Islamic brotherhood.' That is a pretty strong indictment of Gholam Azam.
  • the film also states: 'Officials say 3 million people died in the 9 month long war.' It did not say, that accounts vary from between 300,000 to 3 million, which would be closer to the truth. Does this make the Al Jazeera report a pro-government one? (I have written a separate post about the issue of numbers who died in the 1971 war).
Just from the above, can anyone credibly say that the Al Jazeera news item was biased? The report basically makes the following points;
Azam is an old man; his health is frail; his security is taken seriously; he was a leader of a major Islamic party; he is accused of collaborating with the Pakistan army and ordering the killing of millions; press clippings show him asking his party members to support Pakistani military; his son thinks he is innocent of violent crimes; his lawyer thinks that there is a political motive behind his arrest; a UN report found that detention of six of the accused was arbitary; the law minister disagrees; the trials were part of the Awami League manifesto; the prime minister is committed to the trials; the trials may bring justice but also create political instablity.
That is a perfectly reasonable summary of the situation of the tribunal, as set out in 2 minutes 50 seconds.

It would be just as easy for those on the other side of the argument to allege that this report was biased in favour of the government: the allegations against Azam was stated twice in graphic terms; a statement about the evidence suggested that he was guilty of the offences; and the piece over-exagerated the number of those who died in the war!

Bur remember what I said above: what Al Jazeera did not do was follow the exact script laid down by the zealous tribunal supporters, and therefore it must be censored!

The Daily Star Articles
Now what does the Daily Star find so problematic about the article. It has actually written two news items and one editorial.

1. First article: Ghulam Azam trial may cause political instability, says Al Jazeera

This article set the scene for the next two by prefacing its description of the Al Jazeera report with the following words: 'In a tone seemingly downplaying the need of the trial ....'.

It was not indicated what part of the Al Jazeera piece in fact 'downplayed' the need for the trial. As discussed, there is no part of the TV piece which in any way downplays the need for a trial.

2. Second, longer article: Al Jazeera report draws flak

Political instability: The article's main concern appears to be the very last phrase of the last sentence: 'Whatever the decision this court comes to, it will have dramatic consequences. It may bring justice to many but at the price of throwing Bangladesh into further political instability.' It quoted three respected people - whom are unlikely to ever had seen the piece prior to commenting.
  • Sultana Kamal, Executive Director of the human rights organisation, Ain-O-Salish Kendra is said to have told the paper: 'it was rather the failure to bring the war criminals to book that underlay political turmoil in the past. The trial of Ghulam Azam is crucial to establishing stability and the rule of law, she noted.' She is also said to have 'asked how Al Jazeera had  concluded that political instability would befall the country if Azam was tried.“They [Al Jazeera] must let us know the basis of their assessment. As a television channel widely viewed across the globe, they must have assessed everything before drawing such a conclusion,” she said.'
  • MA Hasan, a war crimes researcher is said to have held similar views to Sultana, and is quoted as saying: '“They [Al Jazeera] want to provoke instability in the country,” he observed, adding that the trial would rather bring peace, justice and sanity back to our society.'
  • National Human Rights Commission Chairman Dr Mizanur Rahman is quoting as saying, “It's audacious and a kind of provocation. This type of conclusion can inspire the opponents of the trial.”
It is perfectly legitimate for Sultana, Hasan, Mizan (all of whom I know and respect) to hold the view that is that the trials will bring greater stability to Bangladesh. But at the same time, they must surely appreciate - as the Daily Star should have before it proactively went out to put this article together - that it is also perfectly reasonable and legitimate to think that convictions of eight opposition leaders (many of whom were elected politicians in Bangladesh just five years ago) for involvement in mass killings with possible sentences involving the death penalty, might actually result in political repercussions in Bangladesh, including possible increased instability. And if, conversely, these men were to be acquitted (another possible conclusion of the trial), is it also not a perfectly reasonable conclusion that this would also have serious political consequences? Does anyone really need to explain that?

And how is Dr Hasan arguing that this comment by Al Jazeera itself will 'provoke instability in the country', when at the same time he is arguing that death penalty sentences for major opposition politicians will not?

Saying the blindingly obvious is now, in the words of Mizanur Rahman 'audacious', a 'provocation'  and can inspire the opponents of the tribunal.

The Daily Star tries to suggest in its piece that this comment about instability shows that Al Jazeera is not in favour of the tribunal. However, these are totally unconnected issues. The reason for holding trials is to hold to account those who were involved in war crimes in 1971, to stop impunity. Perhaps the trials might decrease political instability in Bangladesh, but that is certainly not the reason for holding them.

For Al Jazeera to argue that the trials might result in increased political instability is a perfectly legitimate viewpoint, and no way implies a position against the tribunal.

Motivated: The article's next suggestion is that Al Jazeera was 'motivated'.

In the article, Mirzan, the NHRC head, is quoted as describing the story as “ill-motivated”, and that it 'might have been trying to create confusion in the western world about the trial by raising doubts in the name of international law and standards. “Why are they raising questions about the International Crimes Tribunal, which is a domestic court trying only those accused of crimes defined as international crimes?” he asked.' .... “A political game is on here and those who do not want the trial are playing that game,” he said.

It seems from the article that the only reason why Mizan considers the report to be motivated is because it referred to the conclusion of a UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (that had just been made public) which criticised the detentions of a number of the accused of being 'arbitrary' and against international law.

Does the Daily Star and Mizan think that when journalists report the conclusions of a UN human rights document, the journalist is 'ill motivated'. Is it now impertinent for journalists to ask the law minister a question about a UN report? The UN report just came out in the week that Al Jazeera's new programme was going out: if the news item had failed to mention that, then that would really have been sloppy!

Azam's health: The third issue relates to the medical condition of Gholam Azam. The Daily Star article questions the accuracy of the reporting on Azam's medical condition. In relation to this, it should first be noted that the Daily Star article misquotes the Al Jazeera report claiming that it stated that Azam “cannot walk, cannot see, nor can he really hear.' This then allowed the Daily Star to quote ABM Abdullah, professor of medicine at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, as saying that “It's not true that he can't hear, walk or see.”

However the report did not say what is quoted. In fact it staid, 'He can’t walk, he can’t really see nor can he really hear.' 

My understanding is that Azam has lost a lot of his sight and hearing. Moreover, Abdullah does not suggest otherwise.

Now then lets take the 'can't walk' comment. It is clear that Azam cant walk up stairs by himself, otherwise I assume he would not be carried up to the tribunal in a wheelchair, which is what the film was showing at the time that these words were stated. The commentary that 'he can't walk' were stated at as Azam was shown to be carried up the stairs. It may well be the case that Azam can walk short distances without aid, and the absolute comment that he 'can't walk' may well be inaccurate to that extent. But in the context of Azam's general inability to walk, this can, I think, be excused.

False implications: The Daily Star article inaccurately implies that Al Jazeera was suggesting Azam's old age should make him immune from prosecution. The article states:
'Queried if Azam's age made him eligible for exoneration, the rights commission chairman said, “No legal system in the world considers the age of an accused as an exonerating factor in prosecution of crimes of humanity.”
And then:
On the former Jamaat supremo's age and health, Jahid Reza Noor said, “Al Jazeera should look at the Nuremberg trials. The age was not a matter there and it should not be so here.”
Well nowhere in Al Jazeera's piece is it argued implicitly or explicitly that because Azam is old and frail he should not be prosecuted. It is a fact that he is old and frail, and Al Jazeera mentioned that. Nothing else.

3. The editorial

This is the key part of the editorial.
Yet we can't but express our consternation over the Al Jazeera television channel broadcasting a report saying that the ongoing war crimes trial in Bangladesh will push the country into political instability. Focused on the trial of Jamaat chief Golam Azam, the report speculated 'dramatic consequences of whatever decision the court comes to'.

The channel report, quite clearly and irresponsibly at that, didn't feel the need to explain the basis for its coming to such an assessment. It therefore comes through as a deliberate and motivated attempt to put a spanner on the works of the trial on crimes against humanity in 1971 Liberation War with which Prof. Golam Azam is charged as one of the major accused, and creates a sense of uncertainty in the public mind.

The report is at best conjectural and at worst tantamount to playing into the hands of a campaign launched by the opponents of the trial to create confusion overseas. Coming from such a widely viewed television channel, Al Jazeera should have been cognizant of the implications of a broadcast like that. In the absence of such sensitivity on the part of the channel, the report exudes provocation and being helpful to those who do not want the trial held.

Actually, the essence of what the trial is all about is lost on the TV channel. It is about upholding the rule of law by bringing to justice the crimes committed against humanity some four decades ago. The sufferers of the heinous crimes have a right to justice. There are international regimes governing trials of similar crimes committed in other parts of the world by upholding the principles of justice and fair play. In Bangladesh, International Crimes Tribunal is operating as a domestic court trying only those accused of crimes defined as international crimes.
It is really difficult believe that the person who wrote this editorial had actually seen the Al Jazerra piece. One has to ask the following question about it
  • In what way is the Al Jazeera report, 'a deliberate and motivated attempt to put a spanner on the works of the trial on crimes against humanity in 1971 Liberation War with which Prof. Golam Azam is charged as one of the major accused'
  • In what way does is it 'playing into the hands of a campaign launched by the opponents of the trial to create confusion overseas.'
  • How is that the report, 'exudes provocation and being helpful to those who do not want the trial held.'
  • How is 'the essence of what the trial is all about ... lost on the TV channel.'
This editorial has created a fiction of a TV report, an 'Aunt Sally' which it then goes out to destroy. The Al Jazeera piece simply does not justify any of these comments.

And in conclusion ...
Why spend so much time on this, you may be asking. This is because it is important to stop the harmful and dangerous misrepresentation of journalism and journalists which is playing into the hands of those who want the ICT tribunal to be spoken about using a one dimensional script. As stated above, the Al Jazeera piece provided no solace to the Jamaat or the accused - but nonetheless it is accused of doing so. One can only imagine what the Daily Star would had done had Al Jazeera broadcast a piece that was actually critical of the tribunal?

One understands that for many Bangladeshis, the tribunal is an emotional thing. That campaigners feel that they have waited a long time for this trial to take place - and this is their last and only opportunity. Yet. stopping the publication of different perspectives and critical journalism about the Tribunal is NOT in the best interests of this tribunal


  1. An excellent analysis. I had wondered why the al-Jazeera piece had been taken down, but it was evident that pressure would have been put on the news channel internally in Bangladesh to suppress anything that might give a neutral view of the tribunal. I hope al-Jazeera with rise to the challenge it now faces in Bangladesh and continue to report independently, fairly and critically. The war crimes trials are already looking terribly unjust; without freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the process will truly be without hope.

  2. Glad David took the time to piece the various strands together, and what he has put up is 101 in journalism, particularly the investigative type. I suppose when it comes to 1971 we get emotionally carried away, and understandably. But we also need to be careful, particularly a newspaper of DS' repute, to go the extra length to be as objective and accurate as possible in representing the facts first, and then express opinion based on those facts.

  3. I applaud Mr. Bergman for writing such an objective and critical analysis of not only the controversial war crimes trial in Bangladesh but also the biased article published in the Daily Star. Given the fact that Mr. Bergman was one of the most active supporter of setting up a war crimes trial in Bangladesh to bring to justice those responsible for attrocities in 1971, his current views about and criticism of the trial process is a telling indictment that the trials have merely become, what promiment British Barrister and War Crimes expert Toby Cadman called, 'a political show trial'.

    Mr. Bergman rightly states that ''The hope, that many of us had, of a tribunal that would be perceived favorably around the world, appears to be long gone''. This is because the way the trials are now being conducted, it has become nothing less than a political witch hunt against the leading political opposition to the governing party.

    Mr. Bergan is also right in pointing out the demands made by pro trial lobbyists, either inside or outside the govt, about subscribing to a scripted comments about the trials. Anyone who does not comply, even though not critical of the trial process, are being criticised for not sticking to the script.

    The worrying scenario is that Al Jazeera, an internationally renowned network, has been criticised by the Head of Bangladesh's Human Rights Commission as being ''audacious and a kind of provocation'', simply for broadcasting an objective report that did not conform to their line. As Mr. Bergman mentioned, ''The local distributor of Al Jazeera in Bangladesh has been contacted by an intelligence agency and two government departments and is being pressured to stop the cable/satellite distribution of the Qatar based station!'' This is a classic example of a dictatorial police state who finds it difficult to accept any report that does not praise them for their unjustified actions.

    Finally, I urge Mr. Bergman to continue to write such objective articles to unearth the mission of political vandetta and bias that is now in full swing in Bangladesh, perpetrated by the govt and a large section of the media who has become nothing more than a govt poodle. Well done to Mr. Bergman for having the courage of his conviction and to be brave enough to be openly vocal about it.

  4. This is excellent analysis!!! no body is against the trial but question is transparency of the trial, whether it is fair or not because it is started as politically biased way of means.

  5. There is no freedom for oppositions at the moment in Bangladesh. So people cannot express themselves openly fear of arrest. I thank Al Jazeerah for this courageous new, because Bangladeshi news paper cannot show this news. One hand government and leftist are organising huge demonstration, where they police protection and also providing food etc. SO organisers can stay longer. Also there are report government student militia asking business money for shahbag demonstration if they don't give, there name will be as jamat shibir business.
    On the other hand, Jamat and other religios part do not have any right express themselves. If they go out government police fire live bullet and harshly bit them. Government minister encouraging public and police force bit Jamat and other Islamic people.
    Regarding War crime tribunal, yes every one support who committed crime they would be punished, But Jamat leaders were in Bandglesh since 1971. if they committed any crimes would have been punished that time, there were fresh evidence and witnesses. They were not punished, that means they did not commit any crimes. Hasinas dad punished those criminal who committed crimes during the war. Since then lot of anti-islamic writers wrote lots of books against islamic people/ islamic parties. They are jealous to see how people are returning to islam. Jamatand shibil is one of organised and educated party where 100 percent of literate and well behaved people. Day by day they increaseing.

    I have no problem with the trial, and I don’t think we need a trial. if Jamat leaders commits crime, we can punish them in normal court. Why do we need tribunal, Because government cannot bring any proofs and witnesses against them. The witnesses government brought against them are bad character and hearsay witnesses where did not see anything. Sometimes their statements contradict what they have already said. Most of witnesses were organised by government and paid lump sum. Some of them got freedom fighters certificate because they agreed to be witness against Jamat leader.
    One of prominent anti jamat person is Shahria Kabir. There was no proof he was freedom fighters, also allegedly he used to supply chicken to Pakistani armies during the freedom fight.

  6. Thanks David for the well-written post. As a liberal Bangladeshi I find it offensive that any time we criticize the partisan nature of the War Crimes Tribunal, or question some of their and the government's handling of the trials, we are branded as pro-Jamaat and Razakars. Is this the democracy we want to live in where any opposing or challenging viewpoint is threatened and censored by the government and all the major news outlets are acting as mouthpieces of the government?