Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Sukharanjan Bali, the BBC and Bangladesh’s media

By David Bergman

When New Age decided to go ahead and publish its story based on a statement given by Sukharanjan Bali in which he confirmed his abduction from outside the gates of the international crimes tribunal, the paper knew that there would be many within the government and the media - at least those parts of media which put politics above journalism - who would do everything to try and discredit the story. 

After all the story brought together two of the most sensitive issues facing this current Bangladesh government.

First, the disappearance of individuals by law enforcement agencies - which according to human rights organizations number over 70 since this government came to power (though some have returned).

And secondly the international crimes tribunal which, though operating with a significant deal of public support since it was established in 2010 has also been subject to criticism and the occasional scandal.

So we were prepared for more than just a few brickbats.

However, it was a surprise that it would be the BBC Bangla service which would be the trojan horse for the attacks, writing a misleading – and one has to say rather biased - article on its website which was then copied by the likes of the Daily Star, Prothom Alo and Jonokhonto and has formed the basis of most of the establishment media news reporting here in Dhaka.

All journalism should of course be subject to critical review – and none more so than an article making such a serious allegation as the one made by the New Age article. But whilst it is difficult to control the partisanship of parts of the Bangladesh media, one would certainly expect something rather different from the BBC’s Bangla Service which is controlled by editorial guidelines requiring neutrality, objectivity and fairness.

The BBC Bangla service published two articles – one replacing the other - following the publication of the New Age story. It is important to note that these were both news stories, not comment or analysis.

No mention of HRW statement
Both BBC articles barely refer to the New Age report and do not quote at all from the statement given by Bali quoted in the report.

Moreover neither of the two articles refer at all to a Human Rights Watch press release published after the New Age report which supported the paper’s claim that Bali claimed that he was abducted.

The international human rights organisation’s press release stated that: ‘Bali, a Bangladeshi national, claims he was abducted by the Bangladeshi police from the entrance to the ICT courthouse, detained in Bangladesh, then forced by Bangladeshi security forces across the border into India, where he claims he was detained and tortured by the notorious Border Security Force (BSF) before being held in Kolkata’s Dum Dum jail.’

At the very least one would have expected the Bengali Service to have referred to what is in effect confirmation of New Age’s story and to have perhaps even asked Human Rights Watch what was the basis of their claim. Instead, the BBC ignored it.

Anonymous intelligence agency source
In both articles, the BBC quotes from an anonymous intelligence agency source - which is apparently uncorroborated - to make a claim about how Bali supposedly got his statement out of prison.

The BBC's first report stated: ‘However, through a source from West Bengal's intelligence BBC reporter Amitabh Bhatyashali came to know that the Dum Dum prison authority has already interrogated Mr. Bali and Mr. Bali informed the prison officers that he sent the statement through a prison guard by alluring him with money. The intelligence sources informed further that according to Mr. Bali, that prison guard went to the border and handed it over to a smuggler.’ Similar wording was used in the second article that replaced the first. Only the second BBC article is currently online.

Prison guards, money and smugglers gives an impression that the whole process was rather murky, even corrupt and illegal. Moreover it in effect accused Bali of what must be a breach of prison rules, and perhaps even a criminal offence.

It is notable how the article states that the BBC journalists says that he ‘came to know’ this information, rather than for example stating that the intelligence agent ‘claimed’ that this is what Bali supposedly said to a prison guard – giving what was apparently said by the intelligence agent a particular authority.

BBC's rules on use of anonymous sources
The BBC have pretty strict rules on the use of anonymous sources as for obvious reasons it only wants to publish content that is credible and sufficiently supported by evidence - not statements by people whose credibility is questionable and who have a particular interest in a newspaper telling a particular story.

The BBC's editorial guidelines state that ‘Any proposal to rely on a single unnamed source making a serious allegation … must be referred to Director Editorial Policy and Standards and Programme Legal Advice.’ In considering whether the source should be relied upon the Director of Editorial Policy is required to consider, inter alia: (a) whether the story is of significant public interest; (b) whether the source is of proven credibility and reliability and in a position to have sufficient knowledge of the events featured; (c) whether there are safety concerns (d) whether a response to serious allegations has been sought from the people or organisations concerned; (e) and whether there are any sensitive and personal issues

Was the use of the anonymous source ever raised with the relevant Editorial and Legal people within the BBC? I doubt it. But if it was, it is difficult to see how the BBC officials could have authorized its use.

First, this was not just any old anonymous source but an anonymous ‘intelligence agency’ source. The BBC must know well how unreliable such sources can be and how they are, in general, an unreliable foundation of credible journalism without proper corroboration. Intelligence agency sources around the world are known to be highly unreliable, and this is certainly the case in South Asia. And remember here, this is what an intelligence agent says that a prisoner supposedly said to a prison official. 

Secondly, the source was making a serious allegation against Bali, a vulnerable person in jail whom the BBC was not in a position to seek a response .

No smugglers, no prison guards, and no money exchange
What the intelligence agency person is claimed to have said also contradicts what New Age stated in its article. Why therefore did the BBC reporter not contact New Age for a response? If it had, the paper would have confirmed to the BBC that in obtaining the statement there were no smugglers, no prison guards, and no money exchange involved.

Bali's confession
The second BBC article had a much stronger headline, ‘Nothing regarding the Kidnap is there in the records of Sukharanjon Bali, the missing witness.’ The core of the article are quotes from the police's First Information Report and Bali's guilty plea in court.

However, these records are ones which the New Age report had also referred to and quoted from.

The New Age report stated: “On April 3, Bali was sentenced to imprisonment in a Kolkata court for 105 days imprisonment after pleading guilty for illegal entry into India under the country’s Foreigners Act 1946…. The first information report drafted by the Indian police on December 24, 2012 states that police officer Kuldeep Singh had ‘observed suspicious’ movement in the fields near the Indian border in Swarupnagar and that when challenged Bali had ‘fled away.’ When apprehended, the FIR states that Bali had told them that ‘he was coming from Bangladesh to meet his brothers.’”

So the New Age article clearly points out that there was a difference between the statement Bali gave to New Age, and the allegation set out in the FIR drafted by the police to which he pleaded guilty.

However, the way the BBC writes its article gives the reader the impression that these documents are something entirely new to the story, failing to credit New Age with having referred to them in its original report.

As a result the BBC gives the reader the strong impression that the original New Age article had failed to appreciate some crucial piece of evidence.

This certainly is the way a host of Bangladesh media interpreted the story. The Daily Star had a headline ‘Bali was not forced to flee: says BBC report quoting his confession to Indian magistrate’.

And Jonokhonto’s article has a first paragraph which reads, ‘This means, the allegation of abduction of Sukharanjon Bali, witness of the case against convicted Jamaat leader Sayeedee, by the law enforcement agency has been proved to be false.’

Context for confession
As long as appropriate context and background is provided, it was of course perfectly legitimate for the BBC to focus on the police FIR and the court documents and to consider how these relate to Bali’s statement to New Age, but perhaps if the BBC wanted to do that it should also have enquired a little further about why Bali may have pleaded guilty to the offense.

Bangladeshis in Bali’s position - that is to say those detained for illegal entry into India - are generally advised to plead guilty to offences under the Foreigners Act so that they can serve a short sentence and be repatriated. His guilty plea should therefore be seen within that perspective – a context entirely missing from the BBC story.

Moreover, the BBC article does not refer to what Bali himself stated to New Age about his initial detention by the Indian police. The New Age report quotes him as saying, ‘They tortured me and asked me what I had been doing there. I tried to narrate the course of events that had taken place till I was handed over to the BSF. They probably did not find my answers satisfactory and I was beaten even more profusely.’ Perhaps the BBC could at least have referred to that.

Not fair and neutral
Unfortunately, both BBC articles are not fair and neutral news reporting. Perhaps it was unintentional, but nonetheless in its omissions the articles appear one-sided and an attempt to discredit the New Age article and the statement given by Sukharanjan Bali.

In Bangladesh, the BBC's Bengali service has quite a revered status, but on this occasion it has certainly slipped up. It should acknowledge this, and work to regain the independence and integrity that we all know it is very much capable of providing.

In order to do so, however, the BBC must recognise that in the context of the international crimes tribunal, its job, whatever the personal views of the reporters, must not be to 'protect' the process, but to properly report on it and the issues surrounding it.

As for the Daily Star and Jonokhonto and other similar media in Bangladesh.

One would hope that even as they may support the International Crimes Tribunal editorially (as New Age in fact does), they can ensure that their news reporting on the tribunal - including even on contentious issues like those concerning the abduction of a witness - is done fairly.

And when it comes to the question of the abduction of Sukharanjon Bali himself, they should consider a a bit more what Bali himself had to say – rather than simply relying on the Bangladesh and Indian police and intelligence agencies as authoritative versions of what happened.

(This is a longer version of an earlier post)

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