Bloggers, the general, and the media
Earlier this year, Bangladesh experienced an extra-constitutional change in government. The Economist called it a coup that dares not speak its name. Initially, this de facto coup brought respite from a months-old stalemate between the country’s rival political parties. But soon, the technocratic regime that was installed by the army started arresting top politicians on corruption charges. The regime declared cleaning up corruption as its main priority. I discussed the impact of this anti-corruption drive on the economy in the last post. This post is not about economics. No, this is about raising questions, questions that should be raised by people far more qualified than the bloggers who have been raising them this week.
· Gen Moeen U Ahmed, the chief of Bangladesh army, and his brother Iqbal U Ahmed are both on the board of directors of Trust Bank, violating Bangladesh Bank regulations that state “not more than one member of a family will become director of a bank. For this purpose family members shall include spouse, parents, children, brothers and sisters of the director and other persons dependent on him/her.”
· In November 2006, while Gen Moeen was Chairman, his brother was reappointed Managing Director of Trust Bank. This appears to violate the Bangladesh Bank regulations which state that the above “restriction shall apply to appointment/reappointment of the directors”.
· Gen Moeen had an outstanding loan amount from Trust Bank well in excess of the Taka 500 it appears he is allowed to borrow as a member of the board of directors according to Bangladesh Bank regulations. The regulations state: “the total amount of the loan facilities extendable to a Director or to his relatives should not exceed 50% of the paid-up value of the shares of that bank held in Director’s own name.” General Moeen owns 10 shares of Trust Bank worth Taka 1000 before the IPO, as specified on page 23 of Trust Bank’s prospectus.
These violations of the banking regulations were completely avoided by the mainstream media in Bangladesh. While the bloggers were discussing this, what did the daily newspapers in Dhaka report? They reported on the General’s visit to Britain and America (here are some footages of what the General has said — judge for yourself who’s running Bangladesh). On Friday 19 October, well after the ‘bankgate scandal’ broke on the net, here is what the country’s major vernacular dailies printed as their lead. And in the country’s premiere English language daily, a sorry excuse of an op-ed piece had this:
When we see Moeen speak on issues in seminars and public forums we see a “think tank;” when we see Moeen distribute relief materials to flood victims, we see a man with “charitable disposition;” when we see Moeen in army uniform, we see a smart soldier and a “true patriot.”
Journalism without fear or favour? I hope the late SM Ali is not too disturbed in his grave.
And still, there are reasons to be hopeful. After it broke in the internet, the General was asked about the issue by reporters from ATN Bangla, a TV channel. Then major newspapers reported the General’s explanations. Here is how the Daily Star chose to report it. Out-of-context? You be the judge.
Is this the end of the creeping dictatorship? Far from it. To paraphrase Churchill, it’s not even the beginning of the end, but it surely is the end of the beginning. Bloggers, the citizen journalists, cannot be stopped from asking awkward questions.
And the General seems to be making an effort in answering concerns, and that’s commendable. Now, let’s get a few things straight.
First, I am not calling the General corrupt. For all I know, his explanations are genuine and there is no shenanigan whatsoever. Everyone’s innocent until proven otherwise. Of course, the General has a different standard of justice for those under arrest for corruption. ‘They are known to be corrupt. Show me an honest person under arrest, and remember, you have to prove that they are honest’ — that’s what the General says in one of the footages I’ve linked above. There is no denying that the General is running the show in Bangladesh — to pretend otherwise is nonsense. Will the General rethink his view on justice?
Second, will the media rethink its responsibility? I asked the editor of a major Bangla daily earlier this month about press freedom in today’s Bangladesh. He said a lot of things without answering the question. My brother mentioned something LK Advani said about the Indian media during their Emergency — the media was asked to bend, they chose to crawl. Ours seem to have taken supplication to a new low. How long before this changes?
Third, the General has been telling an ‘honest man vs corrupt politician’ story for a while now. And at least among the expatriate bhodrolokes this narrative has resonated so far. Even if the General is telling the truth, this incidence should make it obvious that unless things change, he is likely to end up not different from the other military rulers that came before him.