During the last few days, the talk of the town was the arrest of 81-year-old Shafik Rehman, who at first, gained prominence as a journalist, but afterwards, turned into a politician; appearing as a script writer for BNP chief Begum Khaleda Zia, convening the international affairs committee of BNP, and heading a pro-BNP think-tank called G-9. According to police, the ground of the arrest has direct links to a conspiracy, hatched on the soil of the USA, to obtain extremely personal and confidential information from FBI database on Sajeeb Wazed to 'locate, abduct and harm' Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's son.
Upon investigation, a New York court sent three persons to jail for various terms including a special FBI agent and one Mahmud Ullah Mamoon, son of a US based BNP top brass. Further twist was unfolded with the revelation that some FBI documents with regard to movements, activities, and family members of Sajeeb Wazed reached the hands of a 'journalist in Bangladesh' and an exchange of $30,000 took place. Counting on this development in the US, the police in Bangladesh has started investigating a case on charges of attempting 'to abduct and murder Sajeeb Wazed' and found Rehman to have a direct link in the plot and arrested him in connection with the investigation into the plot.
One should not be oblivious to a plethora of attempts orchestrated in the past to wipe out the dynasty of Sajeeb Wazed. First, his grandfather, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the architect of our independence, was assassinated along with 17 of his family members at the hands of a group of disgruntled army officer. Second, as many as 19 life attempts were made on her mother.
However, apparently, in an desperate bid to brush off that plot, all the party leaders of the BNP including its chief put all their weights, (unworkable), to manipulate the public opinion; introducing Rehman as an innocent journalist, demanding unconditional release of their intellectual and branding the arrest as an assault on the freedom of speech. A number of pro-BNP intellectuals are also brining in the same echoes during the late night talk-shows and their ramblings cast slur on the victim - Sajeeb Wazed.
On the other hand, a journalist David Bergman, who once found guilty of contempt of court for demeaning the court through his blog post on the country's Liberation War in 1971, produced a news report, following the arrest, (US court documents 'clear' arrested British-Bangladeshi editor of plot to kill prime minister's son: lawyers), that calls into question the basis of arrest of Rehman and seeks to undercut the contention that the US court proceedings did evidence any substantial link between Rehman and the conspirators.
At the first paragraph of the story, two such extraordinary claims were made quoting the lawyer of Rehman: "Lawyers representing a leading British-Bangladeshi pro-opposition journalist arrested for involvement in an alleged plot to kill the prime minister's son claim that US court documents show he is the victim of a politically motivated smear campaign."
At all stages of an investigation and trial, a journalist should seek comprehensive coverage of all points of view of all sides (in the criminal process, accordingly, the position of the prosecution and position of the defence).
However, to begin with the narratives relayed by the lawyer on behalf of the accused clearly illustrates that the writer intends to set out a proposition before the readers; it appears that such presentation is meant to prejudice the verdict, as such, a deliberate effort to make a revulsion of public opinion towards the defence. It would be unworthy of a reporter to make any attempt to portray, in a news report, the arrestee as an innocent, through the eyes of his lawyer unless or until the verdict is delivered. On the pretext of relaying the voice of the accused, any attempt to oversimplify the position of other side is also unacceptable. Now that the investigators are working, I believe the ultimate verdict of the trial could define the fate of the claims placed in defence of Rehman.
None of us believes in an untrammelled right to free speech. We all agree there are always going to be lines that, for the purposes of law and order, cannot be crossed; or for the purposes of taste and decency, should not be crossed.
In reference to the recent recovery of a file form the house of the arrestee that contains confidential information on Sajeeb Wazed, another discriminatory approach was put in place. While the defence lawyer was quoted as saying "If the police found any documents, these would have been acquired in the course of Rehman's professional work as a journalist, and this is perfectly legal". According to media reports carried by national dailies, the seized documents detail the criminal conspiracy and do show clear evidence of plotting to abduct and kill Sajeeb Wazed. Such details on that matter were completely excluded in the report.
The media can be commended for starting a trend where the media plays an active role in bringing the accused to hook, it plays a vital role in moulding the opinion of the society and it is capable of changing the whole viewpoint through which people perceive various events, but they cannot be granted a free hand in the court proceedings as they are not some sporting event.
However, it was mentioned that an investigation carried out in this regard found the government defence unrealistic. In the midst of the trial process, that view could not be deemed to be the final word and a foregone conclusion on the matter. Days back, this writer also wrote an opinion in The Wire, claiming that the US court's findings conflict directly with the basis of the ongoing investigations against Rehman, as claimed by the government and Sajeeb Wazed himself. In the article, the writer appears as a judge and jury in this case to evaluate the merit of the further investigation.
Undoubtedly, Bergman puts in some startling claims. But an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof, as goes an old dictum. But at several parts here the extraordinary proof is always lacking, as evidenced in several interpretations carried by national media outlets.
The Society of Professional Journalists, a US forum, in its Preamble to its Code of Ethics says:
"Public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of journalists is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility."
"Balance and fairness are classic buzzwords of journalism ethics: In objective journalism, stories must be balanced in the sense of attempting to present all sides of a story. Fairness means that a journalist should strive for accuracy and truth in reporting, and not slant a story so a reader draws the reporter's desired conclusion," also reads a famous definition on the fairness of journalism.
Most of the media outlets in this country abstain from referring to the claims that were placed in The Wire article and also in the news story, whilst the pro-BNP intellectuals were preaching that reference at talk shows to portray Rehman as a 'victim of political vengeance' and linking the incident as a signal for the rise of the culture of intolerance in the country. Journalists who work with objectivity and ethics gain readers' confidence and earn credibility.
Since the credibility of the press is linked to its commitment to the truth, at times, news reports broke the walls between the realm of freedom of press and objectivity, as well as, the line between the comprehensive account of events and agenda setting was also blurred.
Tonmoy Ahmed is assistant coordinator (research) at Centre for Research and Information (CRI), and assistant secretary, central sub-committee, Bangladesh Awami League