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Biden administration attempts to suffocate freedom of press in Bangladesh

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Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is an internationally acclaimed multi-award-winning anti-militancy journalist, writer, research scholar, and counterterrorism specialist. He regularly writes for local and international newspapers.

On May 24, 2023, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a “visa policy” on Bangladesh, which came into enforcement on September 22, 2023. US Ambassador in Bangladesh Peter Haas has on-document said that this “visa policy” shall also be applicable to the members of media in Bangladesh. Anyone having knowledge of the US Constitution’s First Amendment is aware, that it clearly says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”.

Surprisingly, while the US ambassador in Dhaka has earlier said, “media in Bangladesh may also be listed in the newly implemented US visa restrictions policy along with the ruling party, opposition parties and law enforcement agencies”, which was later confirmed by Bryan Schiller who told Blitz “We have imposed visa restrictions under the policy known as ‘3C’ against members of law enforcement, the ruling party, and the political opposition.

As we made clear when we announced this policy on May 24, the policy applies to any Bangladeshi individual believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh.

Actions that undermine democratic elections could include vote rigging, voter intimidation, the use of violence to prevent people from exercising their rights to freedom of association and freedom of peaceful assembly, and the use of measures designed to prevent political parties, voters, civil society, or the media from participating in the electoral process or expressing their views”, in the latest statement, Ambassador Haas has practically made a 180-degree turn on his previous on-document statement about bringing members of Bangladesh media under visa sanctions.

In the latest statement he said, the US will continue to support the freedom of the press and also speak out against, and apply US visa policy to those who seek to undermine the democratic election process in Bangladesh.

Referring Secretary of State Antony Blinken, he said the holding of free and fair elections is the responsibility of everyone — voters, political parties, the government, the security forces, civil society, and the media.

“Equally as important, each of these institutions must be allowed to play their respective roles in the democratic election process”, Haas said.

It is impossible for anyone to know if Ambassador Haas made the earlier statement as per directive from his superiors in the Department of State and later stepped back from it. We even don’t know, if that statement was a part of spreading fear among the members of the press community in Bangladesh and compelling them to listen to the dictations of the US authorities.

It is important to mention here that, for any act of statement of a diplomat, authorities concerned in the respective foreign ministries of the country can be held responsible. In this case, we can always expect a statement from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Of course, the US preserves the right to refuse the visa of any foreign national, as a visa is a privilege – not a right. In this case, the US and every other country reserves the right to refuse a visa to anyone. But, when this visa is weaponized and used as a tool for generating fear amongst any individual or community, it certainly can be seen as a wrongful act. In this case, what the US ambassador in Bangladesh has done can possibly fall into the same line.

As journalists, we always believed America, being one of the oldest democracies in the world always firmly ensures freedom of the press and freedom of expression. But our confidence surely got dented when we came to know before the 2020 presidential election in the United States, state machinery, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other intelligence establishments in the country had played a partisan role by suffocating newspaper reports centering crimes and corruption of Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden, as they believed such news would jeopardize the prospect for Biden in winning the election.

Meaning, that state machinery in the United States was used to suffocate freedom of the press and expression, which directly went against the country’s First Amendment. In recent times, the Biden administration has also been trying in numerous ways to silence media that publishes neutral views and, in most cases, exposes irregularities within the administration.

While the Biden administration is boasting of defending a free press, we are witnessing how the same administration is using its force to silence publications of news and views in the Russian or Chinese media, while it is granting patronization to Ukrainian, Taiwanese, and anti-China and Russian propaganda machines. When the Biden administration says they are countering fake news or disinformation, they do not act when any media outlet in the world says “Vladimir Putin is dying” or “Russia is losing the Ukraine war” or – any fake news that goes against China, Xi Jinping and other members of the administration.

We are already aware – a section of the US social media giants have already started removing news items unilaterally by labeling those as “fake news” – which actually can be seen as a fresher bid of censoring anything that goes against Joe Biden and the Democratic Party, as bigwigs in the White House are frantically trying to corner their political rivals – including Donald Trump and Republican Party (GOP).

With these examples, we can no longer say – Joe Biden or his administration is in favor of freedom or the press and expression. Instead, knowing the very recent statement of the US ambassador in Bangladesh – what we surely can sense – America is trying to export is tactics of gauging press censorship and suffocation of media in Bangladesh.

United States and First Amendment

On permission restrictions on expression, Britannica says:

Despite the broad freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment, there are some historically rooted exceptions. First, the government may generally restrict the time, place, or manner of speech, if the restrictions are unrelated to what the speech says and leave people with enough alternative ways of expressing their views. Thus, for instance, the government may restrict the use of loudspeakers in residential areas at night, limit all demonstrations that block traffic, or ban all picketing of people’s homes.

Second, a few narrow categories of speech are not protected from government restrictions. The main such categories are incitement, defamation, fraud, obscenity, child pornography, fighting words, and threats. As the Supreme Court held in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), the government may forbid “incitement” – speech “directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action” and “likely to incite or produce such action” (such as a speech to a mob urging it to attack a nearby building). But speech urging action at some unspecified future time may not be forbidden.

Further explaining the First Amendment, The Chandra Law Firm says: “The First Amendment to the United States Constitution primarily protects our right to free speech, against government interference. Without the right to free speech and free expression, we are not Americans. None of our other rights would matter if we weren’t able to speak up to protect them.

It also protects freedom of religion, the right not to see the government establish an official religion, the freedom of the press, the freedom of the media to communicate and receive information, the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and the right to petition our government for a redress of grievances”.

According to American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “The freedom of the press, protected by the First Amendment, is critical to a democracy in which the government is accountable to the people. A free media functions as a watchdog that can investigate and report on government wrongdoing. It is also a vibrant marketplace of ideas, a vehicle for ordinary citizens to express themselves and gain exposure to a wide range of information and opinions.

The rise of the national security state and the proliferation of new surveillance technologies have created new challenges to media freedom. The government has launched an unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers, targeting journalists in order to find their sources.

Whistleblowers face prosecution under the World War One-era Espionage Act for leaks to the press in the public interest. And in the face of a growing surveillance apparatus, journalists must go to new lengths to protect sources and, by extension, the public’s right to know”.

It further said, “When press freedom is harmed, it is much harder to hold our government accountable when it missteps or overreaches”.

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, the UN General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on December 16, 1966. ICCPR Article 19 states:

1.   Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.

2.   Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

3.   The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:

  • For respect of the rights or reputations of others;
  • For the protection of national security public order, or public health or morals.

Although the United States had vehemently opposed Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971 and openly supported Pakistani occupation forces, following independence and the emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign nation, the United States has not only recognized the country – the US-Bangladesh relations have turned into extremely cordial and friendly.

Bangladesh has been getting numerous forms of assistance from the United States while bilateral trade between Dhaka and Washington is on steady growth. There also are excellent relations between the people of the two countries. Considering this decades-old relationship, the US administration should not undermine the existing friendship with Bangladesh and needs to refrain from taking any steps or playing any role that would seriously hurt the spirits and sentiments of the Bengali populace.

Senior members of the US administration need to note, that we Bengalis are extremely emotional and hospitable by nature. We always respect our friends. At the same time, we never bowed down to any hostile attempt of any nation under any pressure or circumstance.

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Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is an internationally acclaimed multi-award-winning anti-militancy journalist, writer, research scholar, and counterterrorism specialist. He regularly writes for local and international newspapers.
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