In 2009’s political thriller, State of Play, Helen Mirren – in character as the editor of the fictional Washington Globe newspaper – gives a street-smart definition of news.
When one of her prized reporters refuses to file a sex-scandal story about a congressman, a rival newspaper gets the scoop instead and goes to print. Mirren is furious.
“Why the hell couldn’t we print that? A waitress comes forward with a sex scandal with a congressman. Great! That’s a page one story. The congressman denies it, that’s another story. And then one of them cracks, that’s another page one story. Meanwhile people are reading about it and they are reading us. That sells the bloody newspaper,” said Mirren, explaining how the news cycle works.
The secret detention and disappearance of a person — be it a well-known one or an ordinary person — is news. If all of a sudden that person reappears, that is also news — as is the case if the person is not released. If she or he speaks up and hints at a state sponsored abduction, that’s big news. If a spokesperson from the state denies such claims, that’s news as well.
And on and on. The very term “enforced disappearance” entails pages of stories and hours of broadcast time.
However, in Bangladesh, a South Asian democracy of 180 million people, the media don’t seem to think so. Enforced disappearances here have become almost an “accepted reality,” and the media appear to be decisively nonchalant about such cases.
Historian Dr. Anwar Hussain believes both government-imposed restrictions and self-censorship plays a role in the lack of coverage of enforced disappearances in Bangladesh. Hussain, who was formerly the editor-in-chief of a national Bangladeshi daily, said, “Media here is anything but independent. That’s why I had resigned.”
According to Hussain, most of the enforced disappearances are suspected to be state sponsored, and the government naturally “doesn’t want these to be reported.”
Selective (and Harmless) Coverage
According to the data of legal rights advocacy group Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), at least 310 people disappeared in Bangladesh between 2014 and 2018, based on the news reports. Of them, 44 were found dead, 33 returned alive, and 45 were later revealed to have been arrested. The rest still remain “disappeared.”
Odhikar, another rights advocacy organization, says around 435 people disappeared between 2009 and May 2018.
There are some exceptions. Most Bangladeshi media houses report a “disappearance” when it happens, but without delving in-depth. An 82-page, meticulously fact-checked report titled “We Don’t Have Him: Secret Detentions and Enforced Disappearances in Bangladesh,” produced by U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), was released globally on July 6 last year. Most of the Bangladeshi mainstream media houses published excerpts of it in the front pages and television channels allotted primetime space to cover it.
Just hours after the report was released, Bangladeshi Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan claimed it was a “smear campaign.” He told local media: “Whom will you say disappeared? Many businessmen went into hiding failing to repay their loans in this country. Some people went missing after developing extramarital relationship.”
Newspapers published that rebuttal on their front pages and news channels broadcast it during primetime too.
So news about enforced disappearance does get published and broadcast after all in Bangladeshi media. The problem, however, is that the original report was not produced by local journalists, rather a foreign consultant hired by Human Rights Watch.
News about other enforced disappearances has gotten front page and primetime coverage as well. After academic Mubashar Hasan went missing and eventually resurfaced on a highway, 44 days after he was abducted by unidentified men, both events were picked up by the media. Most outlets covered the story with due importance.
However, the reporting on Hasan’s story in Bangladeshi media failed to comply with the basic “five Ws and one H” model of reporting. While answers to “what,” “where,” and “when” were there, “why” and “who” were left to the imagination of readers.
The question of “how” meanwhile raised a more pressing query — how can a citizen be abducted in broad daylight and then be returned without raising any alarm with law enforcement? Hasan’s whereabouts during the 44 days he was missing would have been great journalistic piece, but no media house delved into that.
Interestingly, during the same time a diplomat named Maroof Zaman was abducted as well. He is still missing, but no news of this missing diplomat has been published in the media in the last six months.
Shabnam Zaman, the daughter of Maroof Zaman who now lives in Belgium, told this reporter that no media outlets seems to care about her missing father. As a family, she said, “We have been trying to get updates about him from the law enforcement but they are not cooperating.”
The Underlying Problem
Political columnist Afsan Chowdhury has one possible explanation for the lack of coverage: “Enforced disappearances instill a great fear and a chilling effect,” he said. Chowdhury pointed out that reappeared persons — who could be the most valuable sources in finding the underlying reasons behind enforced disappearances — remain “abnormally tight-lipped” about their experiences.
This became more evident after the Farhad Mazhar incident.” Mazhar, a poet and social activist, claimed he was forced into a minibus by three men while walking near his home in Dhaka in July 12. He was found about 16 hours later in a town more than 120 miles (200 kilometers) from the Bangladeshi capital.
Mazhar, a government critic, basically alleged that he was the latest in a wave of activists and opposition figures to be abducted. He also said he would not be silenced by the ordeal and promised to continue to campaign against human rights abuses. Yet he too fell after that initial announcement.
Another problem is that in Bangladesh, no criminal laws have yet recognized enforced disappearance as an offense. If the dead body of a disappeared person is found, then one can proceed under penal code.
The International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance, adopted by the United Nation in 2006 ensures that the “perpetrators of enforced disappearance –no matter whether it is a state authority or not — can be tried.” Bangladesh, however, is not yet a signatory of that convention.
Faisal Mahmud is a Dhaka-based journalist