By Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury*
DHAKA. 5 October 2023 (IDN) — On 24 May 2023, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a “visa policy” on Bangladesh, enacted on 22 September 2023. US Ambassador in Bangladesh Peter Haas has documented that this “visa policy” shall also apply to the media members in Bangladesh. Anyone knowing 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, 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.”
Bryan Schiller later confirmed to 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 24 May, 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 speak out against and apply US visa policy to those seeking 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.
Ambassador Haas may have made the earlier statement as per directive from his superiors in the Department of State and later stepped back from it.
We don’t even 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 essential 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 to generate 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 fall into that 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 indeed 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.
In other words, 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 that Joe Biden or his administration favors freedom of 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 its tactics of gauging press censorship and suffocation of media in Bangladesh.
United States and First Amendment
United States and First Amendment
On permission restrictions on expression, Britannica says:
Despite the broad freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment, some historically rooted exceptions exist. 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 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 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 couldn’t 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 the 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 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 16 December 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 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;
- To protect national security, public order, 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 highly cordial and friendly. Bangladesh has been getting numerous forms of assistance from the United States, while bilateral trade between Dhaka and Washington is steadily growing.
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 should 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 incredibly 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.
*Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is an internationally acclaimed multi-award-winning anti-militancy journalist, writer, research scholar, and Editor, Blitz, a newspaper publishing from Bangladesh since 2003. He regularly writes for local and international newspapers. Follow him on X@Salah_Shoaib [IDN-InDepthNews]
Photo source: Blitz Weekly
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