Bangladesh PM is spared hard questions

Bangladesh PM is spared hard questions
India Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina after a meeting in New Delhi on October 5. Photo: AFP / Prakash Singh

Journalists at Sheikh Hasina’s press conferences fail to hold her accountable on pressing issues at home and abroad

By Faisal Mahmud 11 October 2019

Throughout her three consecutive tenures spanning more than a decade, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has never turned away from the news media. She has not flinched from any query thrown at her during press conferences, which she arranges on a regular basis after important local developments and foreign trips.

But it appears there is a particular reason behind this: The journalists attending – treating her as if she were royalty, far above the common people – hardly ever ask her questions outside of her comfort zone.

An accomplished politician and four-time Prime Minister, Hasina is also the eldest daughter of Bangladesh’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Over time a pattern developed in which journalists stopped trying to put her on the spot. Hasina’s latest press conference is a classic example of this practice.

Pressing issues

The meeting was arranged to brief the media about her latest visit to India and a trip to the United States to address the United Nations General Assembly.

Hasina went to India to attend the Indian Economic Summit arranged by the World Economic Forum. Even though her visit was not a bilateral meet between the two heads of governments, there was a scheduled meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It resulted in several memorandums of understanding being signed between the two countries.

The presence of Modi and Hasina on the same podium also raised the chance of a meaningful discussion on what is seen as the most important unresolved bilateral problem between the two neighbors – the sharing of the Teesta River’s water.

But, it seems, there was no discussion on it between them.

Moreover, Bangladesh allowed India to draw 1.82 cubic feet per second of water from the Feni river — a trans-boundary river that flows through both India and Bangladesh — for a drinking water supply scheme for Sabroom town in the northeastern Indian state of Tripura.

Although the quantity of this water is small, the symbolism is huge. Many in Bangladesh believed it showed that, as far as shared rivers are concerned, India gets what it wants while Bangladesh keeps on pleading.

Abrar Fahad, an undergraduate student of the prestigious Bangladesh University of Engineering Technology, certainly thought so and wrote a Facebook post about it. Because of this, he was brutally beaten to death allegedly by members of the Chhatra League, the ruling Awami League’s student wing. Fahad’s death sparked a nationwide protest and put the Awami League-led government on a hot seat.

Interestingly, the past few months, Hasina, who is also the chairperson of the Awami League, tried cleansing the notorious image of Chhatra League and ousted its president and general secretary for their involvement in corruption and malpractice.

In addition, since mid-September, as per the directions of Hasina, there has been a cleansing campaign going on in the Yuba League (youth wing of the Awami League). After the campaign began, sudden drives conducted by law enforcers unearthed a number of casinos illegally run by the leaders of Yuba League under the coverage of some popular sports clubs. A few were arrested and others remain at large.

These findings of the campaign have become the talk of the nation in the past month even though the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party termed them “eyewash.”

So in terms of issues, there was much to discuss at the October 9 press conference held at Hasina’s residence, Ganabhaban. Journalists there should have had a number of questions, the answers to which could have enlightened citizens who have otherwise been kept in the dark on these issues.

To be sure, questions on the issues were asked and answers were given. But any non-partisan onlooker would have a very hard time believing that they were witnessing a proper press conference.

A sham conference

When the question and answer session began at the press conference, the first question put to Hasina was about Fahad’s killing. Even though she was asked about the steps taken by the government after the killing, the journalist did not remind her that the accused belonged to her own party’s student wing. Instead, the journalist gave reference to a murder of a BUET student which had taken place some 17 years ago during the tenure of the BNP government.

In reply, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said the killing of students in universities was more prevalent during the previous government’s tenure. “A lot of our own activists and leaders were tortured and killed in many universities. After I came to power, the situation got better and now there is a better environment in the universities.”

About the steps taken after Fahad’s murder, she assured that maximum punishment will be meted out to those involved in the brutal killing. However, she questioned the development of a student movement that was triggered by the incident and asked if it was justified when the government was taking action against the offenders.

“Why’s this movement? The trial [of the defendants] must be held. It’s necessary to feel the pain of a mother or a father who lost their children. I understand it as I lost my father, mother and brothers,” Hasina said.

She was then asked whether she would consider banning student politics from the universities. She replied that the government will not interfere if any university decides to ban student politics. “Every university has its own committee and they will make the decision,” she said.

However, she denied the chance of banning student politics in general. “Should we ban politics because of a single incident? One such incident can happen. I came from a background in student politics. If BUET bans it, it will be their internal decision. We won’t interfere with it,” said the prime minister.”

Hasina also did not find any connection between the murder of Fahad and politics. “You are blaming student politics because of only one incident?” she asked and recalled the role of student politics played in Bangladesh’s history during the Language Movement and the Liberation War.

Replying to a question regarding Bangladesh’s benefit from the memorandum of understanding on sharing the water of the Feni River, and exporting LPG, she said, “Sheikh Hasina will never sell out Bangladesh’s interest.”

She added that the Feni River is situated on the border with India and both countries have the right to claim its water. “Sabroom in Tripura uses underground water which affects Bangladesh too. Under the agreement, Bangladesh will give 1.82 cusecs of water. How does it look if we do not share water when someone wants it for drinking?” asked the prime minister.

She also said the country has to give water if Tripura wants it because the locality helped Bangladesh a lot during the war of liberation from Pakistan in 1971. Besides, a small amount of water will be shared with India and that will not impact Bangladesh much, she added.

About the Teesta issue, the prime minister just said: “Discussions regarding the matter are going on and hopefully a decision on it will be reached soon.”

Regarding exporting Liquefied Petroleum Gas or LPG, the premier said, “No deal to export natural gas from Bangladesh to India was signed. An agreement was signed to process imported gas and export it to India.”

She chided people who question gas export from the country. “Those who are criticizing gas exports came to power by promising to sell gas to India,” she said.

Answering another question by a journalist on allowing India to use Chattogram and Mongla ports, the premier said, “No country builds ports to only use it themselves. Bangladesh will get more business and larger revenue if India, Nepal and Bhutan use these ports.”

When asked about the crackdown on casinos, Sheikh Hasina said the government would take action against all sorts of irregularities. “These irregularities had been prevalent for a long time, but nobody took action against them so far,” she said. “Those who are addicted to gambling should find an island where they can gamble as much as they want.”

Addressing the gamblers, the premier said, “Go to Bhasan Char and gamble after taking license and giving due taxes for it. There will be Rohingyas on one side of the island and gamblers on the other side.”

She was also asked about India’s National Registration of Citizens (NRC) at the press conference. Hasina said she met Indian Prime Minister Modi in New York during their visit to attend the UNGA last month. There Modi assured Hasina that the NRC will not affect Bangladesh.

“So far NRC has created no problem,” Hasina said without elaborating on the issue.

In between all these questions, journalists fulsomely praised Hasina for steering the country into the right direction, suffixing almost every query with an honorary title addressing her) such as “lighthouse for the people” and “symbol of hope.”

At one point, a veteran journalist suggested premier Hasina write an autobiography of her successful career. She replied, “Whom should I write it for?” All the journalists laughed.

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