Media is called the fourth pillar of the state. But if a news media, enjoying the unfettered opportunity of free thought and independent existence, plays the role of opposition political party that nurtures communal and radical forces, it is a bad sign for democracy. It is observed with deep concern that the news, talk shows, reports and documentaries broadcast from the Bengali section of the German state media Deutsche Welle are directly or indirectly tarnishing the image of Bangladesh in one hand and providing unethical support to that kind of political parties in Bangladesh on the other hand. In particular, the documentary titled “Inside the Death Squad” aired by Deutsche Welle on April 3, 2023, is based on false and misleading information and amounts to opposition political propaganda. The documentary on the activities of Bangladesh's Elite Force Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), based on the information of a controversial website named Netra News, contains many wrong, misleading and controversial information as well as many contents that conflict with pure journalism.
1. According to the Deutsche-Welle-Act (DWG), “The programmes must not one-sidedly support a party or other political association, a religious community, a profession or community of interest.” And “Reporting shall be comprehensive, truthful and factual and shall be done in the awareness that Deutsche Welle programmes affect the relationship of the Federal Republic of Germany with other countries.” But the documentary "Inside the Death Squad" aired by Deutsche Welle presents the propaganda contents of a particular political party without proper verifications which are controversial, inaccurate and contradictory. Therefore, I believe that this is against the basic principles of Deutsche Welle.
2. Despite success stories, RAB has been heavily criticized by national and international bodies due to their heavy-handed operations and extra-judicial killings. But the DW documentary only mentions US sanctions on RAB and some of its officials. It was not said that RAB was formed in 2004 during past government on the recommendation of the United States. The US provided technical support to the force, including training, weapons, helicopters and supply of digital and ICT systems. But going through the documentary, it may seem that this force was established during the current government and all the misdeeds by RAB were patronized by this government.
At the beginning of the documentary, the murder incident of Ekramul Haque, a Ward Councillor of Teknaf municipality and Upazila Jubo League president (youth wing of ruling political party Bangladesh Awami League) was explained who was killed on Sunday May 27, 2018 during a country wide anti-narcotics drive by Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) in Cox's Bazar. But his political identity was concealed. Due to this incident, the United States of America on 10/12/2021 has imposed financial sanctions on RAB and six of its current and former officers, saying they were responsible for serious human rights abuses. Sanctions were mentioned, but the improvement of RAB’s activities and the US State Department’s praises on RAB were not mentioned. In the post-sanction era, the extra-judicial killings by RAB have nearly come to an end. Recently, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu made the remark that Bangladesh has improved significantly in its HR issue. He made this statement after a meeting with the Bangladesh foreign minister and other high officials in Dhaka on January 2023. In this context, the US diplomat mentioned a recent statement issued by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) that recognized “tremendous progress” made by RAB in reducing extrajudicial killings. The US annual human rights report said that “compared to 2021, extrajudicial killings have decreased in 2022. We can see that Bangladesh is trying its level best to overcome its shortcomings.” The top US diplomat’s recent statement on the issue of the country’s human rights situation has boosted Bangladesh’s morale to a great extent.
In this context, it makes no sense to bring the issue of Ekramul Haque’s murder again in a documentary. In addition, most of the information are outdated and based on ambiguous and non-verifiable sources. Besides, the interview of slain Ekramul Haque’s family was presented in a distorted manner. Later it was known from Ekram’s wife that the DW Bangla team have taken the interview by saying that they have come to collect the interview on behalf of the prime minister of Bangladesh. The interview conducted by the DW Bangla division is in extreme violation of honest and fair journalistic principles.
3. As showed in the documentary, two RAB commanders in disguise explained the murder process in a very dramatic fashion. This seemed to be very ambiguous. They were shown as whistleblowers. If they had committed those wrongs as explained, how they would have admitted it in such fashion? Security analysts have expressed doubts about their identity due to their unprofessional explanations and statements. They have presented excel sheet with number of murders but has not shown any source. It is well known that most of the list of disappearances and murders that the opposition party is circulating do not exist in reality. Countless cases of voluntary disappearances have also been published in newspapers.
Lots of sweeping comments were made in the documentary. For example, a shadowy figure claimed the murder was ordered by the home minister and approved by the prime minister. This is totally absurd that these grassroots level activities are ordered/approved from the Ministerial level or the head of the state. Publishing this kind of absurdities by state funded media institution could be tantamount to create bad relationship between Federal Republic of Germany and Bangladesh.
4. DW published the documents in cooperation with an obscure Sweden based blog site called Netra News (NN). There is no organogram or organizational structure of NN known to public. NN’s source of funding comes from a controversial source called National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which is heavily criticized by US citizens. According to Jeff Richelson (US Intelligence Community), the NED generally collects and provides budgets for media and other social platforms involved in any regime change activities influenced by the US administration in various countries.
The Netra News is alleged to be involved in spreading misinformation and disinformation about Bangladesh and privately sending fabricated information to the US Congress, Senate and other key policy makers on Capitol Hill.
Netra News is also at the forefront of a scare campaign predicting death of millions during Covid and it has also predicted a Sri Lanka type economic collapse in Bangladesh which has proved baseless. More details of their baseless, false and fabricated news reports are documented elsewhere. It is very unexpected and sad that Deutsche Welle would make such a weak documentary in association with such a controversial and obscure blog site.
5. The documentary includes interviews with Sanjida Islam Tuli, co-founder of Mayer Daak, which is closely related to the opposition party in Bangladesh. Tuli's brother Suman is a professional robber. A long-standing tussle of Tuli with the police to free members of a professional robbery gang from police stations and jails is well known. Suman, who has been claimed missing, is also accused of women scam. Many believe that he has voluntarily disappeared for this reason. Besides, Mayer Daak and some NGOs routinely publish various lists without proper investigation. For example, United Nations Human Rights Council's (UNHRC) working group recently published a list of 78 victims sourced from local organizations. However, 10 of the alleged “victims” were found already and many other “victims” have no verifiable identities. Interestingly, this is not the first time local politically motivated bodies supplied news on “atrocities” to outside world. One might remember the infamous motion in UK parliament by George Galloway, Jeremy Corbyn et. al., where allegations were made based on a completely false claim stating, “a massacre of peaceful demonstrators in Shapla Square, Dhaka, Bangladesh by security forces on 6 May 2013; further notes that the lowest estimates of the number of deaths runs to thousands”. This kind of unfounded claims are harmful in diplomatic relationship.
6. DW’s documentary is heavily based on a testimony from Nafiz Alam. The name Nafiz Alam has been known to law enforcement agencies since 2017. He was arrested for stabbing a schoolboy in 2017. After getting bail from the stabbing case, he was arrested as a suspect of a murder. It has been documented that, on the evening of January 6, 2017, Adnan Kabir, a student of class VIII in a local school was beaten and hacked by the opponent group in the playground. Mr. Alam was charged among the 9 accused. Again, Mr. Alam was arrested in 2021 for crimes including recording intimate videos with sexual partners, impersonating law enforcement officer, possession of various prohibited recreational materials. This background casts doubt on his testimony against the law enforcement agency in the first place. In addition, some of his allegations are too good to be true. For example, he presented the map of the building where he was allegedly tortured, which is not possible for an arrested person to know. It is very unfortunate that a state-funded news agency like DW has considered a career criminal Mr. Alam to give testimony for legitimizing their arguments.
As a democratic country, Bangladesh is strongly committed to promoting democracy and human rights. The US evaluation proves sincere efforts by taking remedial measures and necessary course corrections in recent RAB’s activities. But DW has not mentioned this in their report. DW report is very biased, based on vested interest of some actors. DW needs to follow full holistic approach in their report.
DW is state-owned organization. The DW Bengali section, with the active interaction of some journalists, has been continuously creating too many negative reports, smear campaigns to tarnish the image of present Government of Bangladesh. Some of the Bangladeshi born journalists are distributing their own political ideologies and beliefs. They have established a cooperation with Netra News whose members are actively involved in publishing misinformation and disinformation on Bangladesh. Their target is to somehow bring pro-Islamist Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) into power at any cost and empower pro-jihadist Jamaat-e-Islami and other radical Islamic forces in the country. At the start of the documentary, it was stated that all those killings and abductions were ordered by home minister under the guidance of the head of the state. And at the end of the documentary their comments and suggestions are regarding the upcoming general election of Bangladesh. These clearly indicate their intentions of tarnishing the image of present Government and providing undue and unethical support to the opposition parties, which is against the very core principles of DW. Hopefully, Deutsche Welle authorities will investigate the matter and take appropriate action against those concerned to ensure the objective and impartial image of the media.
Dr. Mazharul Islam Rana works as Senior Researcher .