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Post Editorial : Vincent, RSF & Bangladesh

Vincent, RSF & Bangladesh

Dr. Abul Quashem Joarder


Vincent Brossel is certainly not a known name in Bangladesh, nor is RSF to majority of the people. However, to a section of media people, Reporters Sans Frontiers is not any new name. We all know about this rather timid organization, which in some cases raise its voice in favor of repressed journalists and media workers in Bangladesh and elsewhere. Before I listened to rather an old Voice of America program that set put on air on March 31 this year, I might not even discover a very nasty, dirty and anti-Semitic face of RSF and Vincent.

It was a program on VOA’s ‘On the Line’ show with Eric Felton as the host. Although the topic was Press freedom in Southwest Asia, but in fact, entire content or major segment of it was about Weekly Blitz editor Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury. Before I comment on the matter, it is important to put the entire transcript of it for the readers:

Host: This is On the Line and I’m Eric Felton. Journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is scheduled to appear in a Bangladeshi court on charges of sedition. His supposed crime? Writing articles calling for religious tolerance and Muslim-Jewish reconciliation. The U-S House of Representatives passed a resolution calling on Bangladesh to “immediately drop all pending charges against [Mr.] Choudhury.”

Members of the U-S Congress first got involved when Mr. Choudhury was jailed for attempting to attend a writers conference in Israel. Bangladesh law prohibits travel to Israel. U-S Congressman Mark Kirk urged Bangladesh to set Mr. Choudhury free:

Congressman Kirk: "We did and long talks with their then ambassador, here and meetings with their interior minister when he was in Washington, hosted him at a lunch here in Congress. It was all very nice and polite but just saying, you are going to hear a lot more about Shoaib Choudhury. We are going to make him into a poster child, not necessarily reflecting well on Bangledesh unless you release him."

Host: Bangladeshi authorities freed Mr. Choudhury on bail in 2005. But Congressman Kirk says he is still being prosecuted:

Congressman Kirk: "The hardliners that have lost the battle to keep him in jail, so he’s out, but insist that the trial go forward and that Shoaib Choudhury be convicted of sedition."

Host: Congressman Kirk says that how Mr. Choudury is treated will say a lot about the direction in which Bangladesh is headed:

Congressman Kirk: "It will be a signal whether Bangladesh is going to rapidly descend into isolation and intolerance. Which will, in the long run, mean lower incomes for Bangladeshis and greater deprivations and a disconnection from the world."

Host: Congressman Kirk says that it is every bit as important for U-S officials to speak up about human rights abuses now as it was during the Cold War:

Congressman Kirk: "When I was a staffer 22 years ago, my predecessor in office who I worked for, John Porter, founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. We did so largely taking up completely hopeless cases of “Refusniks,” Soviet Jews, and other dissidents who were up against the KGB and the entire Soviet empire. That looked completely hopeless as we worked on those cases. But now, all of those people are free, many of them have moved to other countries. And it taught me a lesson that you should never give up."

Host: Mr. Kirk says that Muslims are no less deserving of freedom and human rights than anyone else:

Congressman Kirk: "When someone comes forward and says because we are an Islamic society or because we are a Muslim community we simply can’t tolerate free speech and we should not let anyone travel to other countries, I take a very dim view towards that and realize that hopefully history is not on their side."

Host: The European Parliament has also passed a resolution calling the prosecution of Mr. Choudhury “particularly shocking.” But his is not the only case. At least seven other journalists in Bangladesh have been charged with sedition, several for having written about discrimination against religious minorities.

Joining us to talk about press freedom, religious freedom, and the state of human rights in Southwest Asia are: Ahmad Tariq Karim, former Ambassador of Bangladesh and senior advisor at the IRIS research center at University of Maryland; Akbar Ahmed, a former High Commissioner of Pakistan to Great Britain and author of the book: “Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization” and joining us by phone from Paris, France: Vincent Brossel, director of the Asia - Pacific Desk of Reporters Without Borders. Welcome.

Tariq Karim, tell us a little bit about what is the context of what is going on right now in Bangladesh, the context for this prosecution against Mr. Choudhury?

Karim: Well, I think you have to place it in the context of when this arrest was first made. And as you rightly pointed out, he is not the first case and not the only case. There are at least six or seven others who were -- journalists, who were arrested and who have been charged with sedition. We had in place, a government in the last five years which was a coalition government with an Islamic party as a major coalition partner, a couple of Islamic parties and I think to quite an extent the agenda of the government and the direction was driven by the perception of these Islamic parties who have a network. The case of Shoaib Choudhury has gained prominence because he’s found champions here in Washington, D-C and in Europe and elsewhere to voice the concerns about his incarceration for seventeen months. He is out now, this case is to be heard sometime, it was supposed to have been heard in January and I think it was postponed then. I think that in Bangladesh right now we have internment government, which is trying to fix things, put back broken institutions, fix them and then put them back on the rails, they got derailed. And their attention right now is focused on getting those fixed, getting the broader picture in. And I think this case will, and the other cases, will be dealt with and disposed of pretty soon, that is my hope.

Host: Akbar Ahmed, what is your sense? The case of Mr. Choudhury is it something that is just an issue for Bangladesh or does it reflect issues that are broader to the region?

Ahmed: Eric, very much broader, I would put this in the context of what is happening on the globe after nine-eleven. I would link this with the Islamaphobia here in the West which feeds in the Muslim world which includes the great countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan, and other Muslim countries, the sense of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism. In this case you see a riff of both. I know that after nine-eleven when I was invited to the Washington Hebrew Congregation Synagogue and I took lots of very distinguished Muslims with me including the then Pakistan Ambassador who was a class fellow of mine that there was a headline in Pakistan saying, “Akbar Ahmed sole Muslim voice wanting dialog with the Jews”. This was straight after nine-eleven. So, this is feeding into the hatred, misperceptions, distortions that exist today and the case of Choudhury himself, because he is a journalist, very often battling against states which have a lot of patronage -- these individuals battling with great integrity and courage and then feeding into this larger prejudice in society. To tackle a case like this, Eric, we have to go to the roots.

Host: What’s your sense of how the case of Mr. Choudhury is playing out?

Brossel: Yes, I’m very agreed with the two other guests. I think that the case of Mr. Choudhury is one case among many others and the fact that his was found a lot of support in the US and Europe is for different reasons. One of the reasons was that his case is relative to Israel. And it was very shocking for many people that he was just put in jail because he was trying to travel to Israel which is something that I can do when I want and you can do when you want. But, for many countries Israel is not a country, is not a state, it’s just the enemy. So, Mr. Choudhury maybe was a little bit nave and he thought that he can go there, he can meet some writers and journalists and he found that finally it’s a crime, it’s a sedition crime. But, in Bangladesh mostly the problem for the journalists is violence coming from the political parties and it is very difficult for a journalist to be a correspondent for a national newspaper in many provinces. They face a lot of danger and violence. So, the case of Mr. Choudhury is very important but at the same time is not, maybe, the most representative case of press freedom relations in the country.

Host: Tariq Karim, you have this issue that Mr. Brossel raises of violence. We’ve seen a number of newspapers attacked in Bangladesh and perhaps the government not responding as quickly as police standing by. We also see in this case with Mr. Choudhury that federal prosecutors in Bangladesh have said that they want the case dropped and yet it hasn’t been dropped. How much control does Bangladesh have over these things at this point?

Karim: The basic point is, I think, this case as well as similar cases are tied up with the broad structure of the state and the institutions of the state. Unfortunately, in Bangladesh the political culture has been one of, I described it as a zero- sum culture, intolerance – complete intolerance for the other, whoever the other is, irrespective of what their agenda is. And as a result of that, each party, which has come in power, successive party, regardless of who, they have tried to use the institutions of the state to put down the other. This case falls within that rubric. Intolerance for the other has actually weakened our state institutions. It has made inroad into institutions like the judiciary, the institutions which uphold and enforce the rule of law, the administration, the bureaucracy, even the election commission and other bodies. We need to get that back to the middle range, get that back standing solidly on the middle grounds. That attempt is being made now, it will take some time but I think if these institutions are insulated from tampering by political parties and are insulated from politicization, then, you will have respect for the rule of law and human rights coming in as a whole. Right now, when institutions are used to put down the other, human rights gets trampled on the way.

Host: Akbar Ahmed, this issue of zero-sum game notion where the success of one group is seen as always coming at the expense of another group rather than everyone in society rising together in some way. How do you address that issue? How do you get around that mindset that the success of another group is always somehow a detriment to ones self?

Ahmed: It is zero-sum Eric, my fried, Ambassador Karim is absolutely right. Again, look at it in the global context, especially after nine-eleven. You are with us or against us. This has sort of become a kind of global philosophy today. It is reflected from Washington, it is reflected from the capitols of the Muslim world, from Islamabad, from Dhaka and so on. And the tragedy here is that very often the person who gets ground in between these positions, the superpower position and the local government which may also be as repressive and oppressive in its policies, is the person who is somehow trying to make some sense out of it and moving along what Ambassador Karim calls the moderate or the middle part. The thing that we have to look out for, Eric, and emphasize all the time [is] that the core values that we talk about in Christianity, and Islam, and Judaism, in Hinduism, and all the great faiths; compassion, knowledge, acceptance: these are in danger of being lost. Because when you have these defined hard positions across the line or this side of the line, then what you see really is that you see someone who is “the enemy” and that enemy today is to be demolished. Everything is being seen through the lens of security, terrorism, hard realpolitik. Very little is being seen in terms of compassion, reaching out, acceptance. And the tragedy for us in South Asia is that some of the founding fathers of this sub-continent. The extraordinary leaders, whether it is a [Mahatma] Gandhi, whether it’s a [Jawaharlal] Nehru, whether it’s a [Muhammad Ali] Jinnah. These people were really, in some senses, larger than life figures representing the attempt to reach out and try to create these bridges, which are just collapsing around us.

Host: Vincent Brossel, in our interview at the top of this show Congressman Kirk said that how the Choudhury case plays out will be some indication of where things are going in general in Bangladesh. Do you agree with that?

Brossel: Yes, maybe. I think it is important to monitor the case of Mr. Choudhury because it is a high-profile case and obviously if he is sentenced for this crime of sedition it will be very bad news. But, I think we have to see it in the larger picture. There are many different problems in Bangladesh and I think now the government is trying to improve the state government, but at the same time we have to be very careful that the interim government respects all the commitments to press freedom. For example, two weeks back one of the main publishers of the country from the Janakantha Daily was arrested. It is not very clear why he was detained. So, yes, we have to follow all the cases. It is not a problem of one case is more important than the others. The most important is to see that the government is committed to this very important universal value of press freedom. And I can tell you that many other journalists are in trouble and they know that if the interim government fails they will be more in trouble because the chaos can come again and the political parties, as it was mentioned, can start again this very primitive and stupid fight that the journalists have been facing for so many years.

Host: Tariq Karim, in the case against Mr. Choudhury, one of the charges that’s been brought against him is that in his writings he has offended the sentiments of Muslims in Bangladesh. So it seems to be not only a question of press rights, but the question of religious freedom and how religious sensibilities can be processed in court. Has that been a big issue in Bangladesh?

Karim: Actually, I would question that particular premise because that’s what the prosecution case brought out, but I’ve seen writings within Bangladesh which have questioned that and even elements within the government saying that that has actually no sound basis. That particular case was brought, I think at the pressure or instigation of a particular party, which was in coalition with the government at that time. It’s interesting that recently Choudhury interviewed the leader of an Islamist party Khilafat Andolan, who actually placed himself on record stating – and he circulated this in an e-mail to all over, I got a copy of that – that Bangladesh should not prohibit travel to Israel because after all Jerusalem is home to one of the three holy places in Islam. And he cites instances from the days of the Prophet when even the Prophet would go to places prohibited and perform the pilgrimage. So that, I think, whether it reflects all society, I think that would be incorrect to say. It reflects perhaps a sector or segment of society which is not really representative of Bangladesh. Bangladesh you must not forget is inheritor of the Sufi type of Islam. It’s what I describe as the “soft version” of Islam. It’s inclusive. It’s based on the teachings, of the jurisprudal teachings of Imam Abu Hanifa. One of his basic concepts was, that, “I may be right, but I am cognizant that my opponent may also be right and I may be wrong. That defines the sort of Islam that we’ve had. In between in the last, let’s say, couple of decades or more, we have had an intrusion of a harsher interpretation of Islam, a different vision coming in. And it’s also become a sort of zero-sum game in so far as the intrusion has come, because they are intolerant of any other interpretation or vision of Islam other than their own. And that’s the Whabbi Deobandism influence which is coming. You tow the line, you are either with them, or you are not in Islam, mostly. And that is in a sense what’s going on even in the political sphere, is a struggle for the heart and soul of how Bangladeshi Muslims define themselves.

Host: Akbar Ahmed, we’ve seen a similar struggle going on in Pakistan, where there’s been no small amount of sectarian violence, Sunni-on-Shia [and] Shia-on-Sunni. What can be done in the region to try to find some accommodation within the Muslim community for other Muslims?

Ahmed: A very important question Eric, not only in the region, but again globally. I would say because I just got back from a detailed travel of the Muslim world – we went to the Middle East, South Asia, Far East Asia, and I had some young American assistants and students with me – this is the book you referred to, “Journey into Islam.” We have three broad categories of Muslim leadership today in the Muslim world. One, the mystic, Sufi, Universalist. Their philosophy is “sulh-i-kul,” “peace with all,” a very strong element within Islam. Secondly the traditionalists: the orthodox, who say “you’re either with us or against us – Islam in danger – we are being attacked”. And thirdly, the modernist version: synthesis with the West. And these three models are in play. And you in the West need to understand it isn’t a monolith as it is depicted in the Western media. It is these three models in play. Now if you want rationality, if you want modernity, you need to promote one kind of model, if you want mysticism, humanism, you need to promote another kind of model. But right now what you’re seeing is the pendulum swinging towards the traditionalist, orthodox, aggressive model and the more the pressure on Islam, the more the perceived pressure on Islam, the stronger becomes the traditional, orthodox, because then the individual can go to society and say, “Look: The Prophet is being abused and attacked in the West. Islam is being abused and attacked in the West. Supporters, we will stand up for Islam.” And therefore the case of Choudhury, or any case like this becomes directly involved in the post-nine-eleven world.

Host: Well, let me ask Mr. Brossel in Paris: when people in the West speak out on behalf of someone like Choudhury, is that perceived as an attack? Is there a downside to the quest to speak out for people who are being abused?

Brossel: I mean, I think it’s important to speak out when there is a journalist or even a human rights defender or any person in danger just because they’re trying to do something peacefully and what Mr. Choudhury tried to do was very simple and very genuine. So, it’s important, but I think we don’t have to make a generalization just with one example. Obviously if he’s in jail, if he’s being tortured, if his life is in danger, we have to speak out. And the fact that some Congressmen defended his case was very important. But I think that we have to see that the Bangladesh society is very complex and a very dynamic society. And it’s not, we don’t have to think that because he has been in trouble all the society must be guilty of this. I think that the journalist community is very strong. There are very good newspapers and journalists are very committed. They do wonderful work despite all the pressure from the militant groups and from the political activists and even sometimes from the police. So we have to speak out about all these things. I mean, press freedom is in danger in Bangladesh because violence and the impunity and the intolerance are very strong, but at the same time the journalist community is fighting very hard and there is a hope. And we’re going to have to defend this hope.

Host: I’m afraid that’s all the time we have for today. I’d like to thank my guests: Ahmad Tariq Karim of the University of Maryland; Akbar Ahmed of American University and joining us by phone from Paris, France: Vincent Brossel of Reporters Without Borders”.

Now, it is appropriate to say a few things especially on the comment of RSF chief Vincent Brossel. He said in his beginning comments that Choudhury [the case] is one case among many others and the fact that his was found a lot of support in the US and Europe is for different reasons. One of the reasons was that his case is relative to Israel. First, let me clarify that none of the journalists in Bangladesh are or were facing blasphemy and treason charges except Shoaib Choudhury. Here I am surprised to see that the so-called defenders of journalist’s rights are completely unaware of ground realities in Bangladesh. Secondly, Brossel tries to say that Choudhury’s case attained Western attention because it is related to Israel. This is a shameful comment by Brossel! Mr. Choudhury is facing charges for confronting radical Islam and no doubt, there are bad elements everywhere who would love to divert the issue to different direction, as RSF man did.

Unfortunately, for years, RSF has turned extremely anti Semitic if not from its very inception. Presently, it is even not well represented in many of the countries, which is another reason for bog bosses like Brossel to remain nave on many of the facts in countries like Bangladesh. Mr. Brossel brought the issue of Daily Janakantha editor, who had been detained by the interim government in Bangladesh on specific allegation of land grabbing and other criminal activities. Before mixing the case of a land grabber with a genuine fighter of freedom of expression and religious freedom, Vincent Brossel should have at least gone through many of the facts.

Unfortunately, many of the so-called defenders of human rights are becoming increasingly anti Semitic and anti-Israel for reason unknown. We knew about a few of such organizations before and possibly Reporters Sans Frontiers is the newest inclusion in the list of these dirty, nasty and unscrupulous elements. Shame on you Vincent Brossel!

Weekly Blitz does not necessarily share the opinion expressed in this writing.
Posted on 15 Aug 2007 by Root


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