Connecting Regions of Asia.

Investigating AL Jazeera Investogation On Bangladesh

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In a Facebook post (Feb 4), my brief take on the much talked about Al Jazeera documentary (“All the Prime Minister’s Men”) was:

“It is something that could have been part of an important conversation, but merely ended up being a cheap sensationalisation of some majorly unsubstantiated claims based on heaps of unrelated information, false insinuations, and deliberately omitted contexts.” (Link: https://bit.ly/3jP3sfv)

You wrote to me, asking what I meant by that. Since this relates to a matter that is now subject of public debate, I thought it would make sense to respond in a public thread. I hope you would not object to such a public nature of engagement. First of all, thank you for your willingness to discuss the AJ piece. I hope this will shed some light on some of the whats, whys, and hows of the documentary that many like me are curious about.

I have noted your assessment of the documentary in an interview (Link: https://bit.ly/3tXKFTQ) where you attested the claims made in the programme as “well substantiated.” So, I decided to watch the documentary for a second time just to be sure that we are referring to the same work, and found myself in agreement with you regarding its “sleek production quality” at least. It indeed gives the feel of watching a “thriller”, as you rightly described. With regard to its content, however, I wish I could share your glowing verdict. Regrettably, the artistic liberty the makers took so abundantly in its treatment of “facts/evidence”, did not quite make up for the journalistic rigour which the documentary generally lacked.

Before elaborating why I found this documentary unsubstantiated, let me make a few things clear. I believe, every country, not just Bangladesh, needs a space for introspection on certain fundamental matters. These are, for example, power (and its abuse), influence (and its peddling), civil liberties (and its suppression), privacy (and surveillance), probity, integrity, transparency etc. While conscientious journalism serves as a catalyst for advancement, careless ones hinder it, as the latter kind diverts the very agenda of discourse that the media is supposed to engender. That, in my opinion, is a disservice, when well meaning journalists and commentators in Bangladesh are constantly negotiating the critical lines between speaking truth to power and protecting their liberty in the face of laws that muzzle. Poorly substantiated pieces like this AJ documentary, unfortunately, make their work more difficult, shrinking further the remaining space of legitimate enquiry. It is that lying shepherd boy’s tale all over again who falsely cried ‘wolf’! Only this time it is the tale of one shepherd boy’s false calls rendering other genuine calls less action worthy.

As a starting point, AJ’s investigation imputed the following three points that directly concerns how the current Army Chief of Bangladesh discharged his legal duties:

— That he had (allegedly) been in contact with his two (allegedly) fugitive brothers.

— That he (allegedly) failed to report his (allegedly) fugitive brothers to the authorities when they visited Bangladesh at least on one occasion.

— That one of his two (allegedly) fugitive brothers is now (allegedly) using a false identity obtained (allegedly) with his assistance.

These alleged actions and omissions, if supported by adequate facts and evidence, would undoubtedly establish breaking a number of laws, not just by the Army Chief himself, but also by certain other bodies and persons entrusted to uphold these laws. If that is the case, the person(s) responsible for such gross disregard of law must be held to account, and credit will be due to AJ’s investigative team at least for this important expose. However, since the airing of the AJ documentary, the press office of Bangladesh Army (ISPR) issued statements (Links: https://bit.ly/3k3XN5v and https://bit.ly/2Zmonx8), which brought us in a crossroads with two contradictory set of claims by AJ and the ISPR. Contrary to AJ’s claim, ISPR statement (dated 16 February) insisted that the brothers of the Army Chief were no longer fugitives at the times mentioned in the documentary as their sentences were fully remitted by then.

At this stage, as a viewer, it is difficult to ascertain the veracity of claims made by either party (i.e., AJ and BD Army). Remissions of the “fugitive” brothers’ sentences are also surrounded by considerable confusion as it is unclear whether proper procedures have been followed in processing them. We can only hope more information will come to light. As such, I will limit my discussion to the other claims raised in the documentary and weigh whether it stands on its own merit as a credible, objective, neutral piece of investigative work.

So, let us look at some of the aspects of the Al Jazeera documentary:

1. Sensationalised

The AJ piece labelled its work with an ambitious hashtag #DhakaMafia, implying some kind of ongoing widespread crime spree of grave magnitude carried out by powerful overlords with roots in Dhaka and beyond. In reality, the only reference to any actual serious crime the documentary successfully makes is that of one solitary murder that happened quarter of a century ago. Apart from that, the piece also reveals one instance of alleged identity fraud, a whole lot of bragging by one Ahmed brother, and subjective opinions of individuals too questionable to be taken seriously. Taken together as a whole, these can hardly justify such a provocative label.

2. Unsubstantiated

The programme talks about (alleged) influence-peddling, and money-laundering by the Ahmed brothers. It, however, failed to establish, or even draw attention to, any substantial proof of these. All we see is one generic comment on ‘money layering/laundering’ made by an “expert” who appeared engrossed in highlighting sections of an obscure document but stops short of making any direct reference to any specific piece of evidence. All we see are some company names without reference to any really incriminating financial transactions. All we see are some unconnected shots of a closed down shop, a failed restaurant venture etc — ventures not so uncommon among budding business enthusiasts. All we see are some references to shares and properties, and a modest flat accessible through a narrow and dark stairwell in a suspiciously downmarket locality where the mafia kingpin brother of an Army Chief is supposedly living the life of his dreams in not so evident luxury! As intriguing as they sound, they just do not add up. Because, when crimes, its proceeds, and laundering of money are alleged in an “investigative” piece, it is a reasonable expectation that a specific trail of that money will be specifically presented to the audience. Laundered or not, money always leaves some trail, even more so when it involves such a considerable sum to justify a full-length documentary! Unfortunately, AJ’s investigation did not meet that minimum standard. In other words, the AJ piece did not deliver what it promised (or claimed) in the documentary, and none of us became wiser. However, issues concerning money, no matter how they have been raised, simply cannot be ignored just because some documentary has failed to substantiate them. Authorities in Bangladesh and Hungary must still investigate the individuals named, which include an important public servant, in order to ascertain whether their legitimate earnings are consistent with these purchases of shares, properties, and businesses mentioned in the programme. This is important also for the sake of clearing their names, if deserved.

3. Inconsistencies in the hypothesis

Are the Ahmed brothers really as powerful as the way AJ tried to portray them? For instance, Joseph, one of the brothers, served around 20 years in jail before he received Presidential pardon, only months before his sentence was fully served. Interestingly, of the 20 years he served, at least 14 were during the Awami League’s rule. One wonders, why Joseph had to languish these many years in prison when the Ahmed clan supposedly had the regime in their clutches? Also, how come the other two brothers could not manage similar pardons for themselves if they were really fugitives as AJ claimed? Or, why did they have to live as fugitives in foreign lands for more than two decades when they had such a hold over the PM of Bangladesh? Ironically, AJ’s claim of the brothers being fugitives clearly contradicts AJ’s key hypotheses on Ahmed clan’s power base, as they are mutually exclusive. On the other hand, if the BD Army’s claim of the brothers’ current non-fugitive status is true, then AJ has no story at all. However, one may counter argue that the brothers’ power base is proven by the fact that they too somehow managed to get their sentences remitted in the end (i.e., according to the ISPR statement). Unfortunately, the AJ documentary neither explored nor established any of these two possibilities, leaving only inconsistencies to the core hypotheses the documentary was built on. That in itself is still a major failing of a documentary that boasts of investigative journalism as it chose to describe the brothers as “fugitives” throughout the programme without sufficient inquiry.

4. Lack of objectivity

In the name of “sting operation”, the AJ team entraps one of the Ahmed brothers, and goads him to brag. That he does, relentlessly, like any other tea-stall braggadocio. As viewers, we get to hear how he keeps Bangladeshi ministers and agencies in his pocket, how his Army Chief brother is the one who actually runs the country, and how no Government Military Contracts can proceed without his approval, etc. Sadly however, the AJ documentary fails to show a single piece of evidence linking actual wrong-doing to all these bragging. Did this mafia-kingpin brother of the Army Chief actually succeed in acquiring a single contract using his family’s “big influence” over the Bangladesh government? The AJ programme does not tell us that except making some sweeping insinuations, letting the viewers’ imagination run wild. In reality, there was absolutely no evidential substance in the programme to implicate or incriminate this Budapest-based kingpin, his Army Chief brother, or the Prime Minister of Bangladesh relating to award(s) of any such government contracts. Still the AJ team saw it fit to sensationally refer to the PM in the very title of the programme. Not only is such lack of objectivity unbecoming to AJ as a globally operating broadcast media, I doubt such reportage could be considered objective in any universe. Because, all we get to know from the programme is that the PM of Bangladesh has an Army Chief who happened to have a prolific bragger for a brother! In the end, all these amounted to is — if I rephrase Shakespeare — nothing but a tale, told by some adventurers, full of sound bytes and sensationalised footage, substantiating nothing! Nothing.

5. Anti-Semitic spin

I must admit, I was particularly interested in the part on Spyware purchase by the BD government. In the AJ programme, however, it was not clear what concerned its creators more. Was it the use of Spyware and snooping per se? Or, was it the purchase of Spyware that is Israel-made? Surely, the makers of AJ documentary do not have any qualms about using leaked private conversations (read: fruits of snooping), as is evident from their use of the clip of Army Chief’s “leaked” conversation. This brings us to the second possibility, i.e., origin of the Spyware being their main concern. Interestingly, while narrating this, AJ categorically highlighted three very specific points: (i) that Bangladesh is a Muslim majority country; (ii) that the Spyware tool was made in Israel; and (iii) the non-existence of diplomatic relations between Bangladesh and Israel due to the latter’s treatment of Palestine. Separately, these three pieces of information may appear innocuous, but presented together they constitute something sinister and grotesque. It was an unmistakably anti-Semitic spin emphasised in the story which could not have been inadvertent. Were the makers of the documentary trying to stoke some kind of anti-Semitic sentiments among the population in the ‘Muslim majority country’ in question? What were they trying to achieve through such incitement? These are pertinent questions, because it matters how a story is packaged and presented.

6. Double standards

While we are still on the subject of surveillance and snooping, it may interest you to know that many of us have consistently been raising concerns against use of any form of surveillance, eavesdropping, hacking, and breach of privacy — regardless of them being carried out by State or private entities. It so happens that I was against surveillance when it was carried out against political actors, journalists and activists by the military controlled Caretaker Government of Bangladesh between 2007 and 2008, contrary to the support for the repressive regime by some of the so called pro-democracy liberals at that time. I was against such snooping practices in 2012 (i.e., the Skype incident), when communications among actors associated with the justice process at the International Crimes Tribunals (ICTs) were intercepted and leaked (read: fruits of snooping) by a privately operating foreign intelligence/security outfit, which led to compromised security of ICT personnel, activists, researchers, and even protected witnesses of the Tribunals. Ironically at that time, some pro-rights liberals, including you, decided to write in favour of that invasive breach of privacy and security! I mentioned these two instances to demonstrate the double standards even well-meaning actors have demonstrated at times, and AJ’s treatment of the ‘snooping’ story seems no different from that. Incidentally, I have been consistently vocal against purchase and use of the very surveillance tool that the AJ programme reported on, even years before this AJ report (here is an example: https://bit.ly/2NkPuFO ). This is why it is strange to witness yet another journalistic venture against surveillance and snooping where the stance of the actors had been rather selective and chequered, despite their occasional reportage on the subject.

7. Journalistic ethics and standards

I was shocked to learn that there were at least two instances where the documents shown by AJ appeared to have been altered and manipulated. A number of bloggers have already written on this issue alleging suspected forgery of documents shown in AJ’s documentary, so I will not repeat those exposes here. Moreover, the ethically dubious process in which some of the voice-over artists were hired by AJ for the programme is now coming to light. A number of them hired by AJ through agents have already commented on how they now feel betrayed for being duped into the project under questionable and misrepresented pretexts. I refrain from commenting further on this issue, leaving it to the aggrieved individuals to decide whether to go public or avail legal redress. I doubt such misrepresentations would meet the minimum ethical benchmarks applicable to participants even in an undergraduate level project, let alone in a multi-million dollar “truth seeking” venture of a global enterprise such as AJ. Furthermore, most horrifying was AJ’s unscrupulous use of footage from a marriage celebration where men and women unrelated to the documentary were shown dancing in groups. AJ failed to adhere to the minimum standard of decency and sensibility by not blurring the faces of those clueless family guests caught on camera, making them unwitting participants in its globally circulated piece on a gossipy scandal! Apart from constituting glaring breaches of journalistic and broadcasting ethics, this also constitutes an appalling breach of privacy of these individuals. Since when have standards fallen so low in “investigative journalism” for such lapses of judgement to be acceptable?

8. Misogyny to misnomer

I found the title of the programme “All the Prime Minister’s Men” lacking in taste. The Prime Minister of Bangladesh happens to be a woman. As such, it is hard to overlook the misogynistic dimension in coining the title. Catchy but unfitting, it is also a glaring example of fallacy of the excluded middle. The programme makers, obviously, attempted to style their piece after “All the President’s Men”, the stellar political drama based on the Watergate Scandal of the 70s involving President Nixon. One cannot fault the AJ makers for having the ambition to seek their Watergate moment in Bangladesh, but unfortunately for AJ — PM Sheikh Hasina is no Nixon (a genocidaire), AJ is no Washington Post, and its team of collaborators and contributors in the piece are no Woodwards or Bernsteins! Considering the content and its treatment, perhaps a more fitting title for the programme would have been, for instance, “The Ahmed Brothers,” or “Bragger of Budapest”. But none of these titles would fit the sensationalist approach AJ seemed to be pursuing, would it?

9. State-sponsored counter-espionage and national security concerns

It was apparent from the AJ documentary that its investigative team somehow managed to obtain a detailed travel itinerary of the BD Army Chief, using which they followed him around across different countries. This involves a level of surveillance carried out by the AJ team with the Army Chief as its target. One may attempt to argue “public interest” to justify such surveillance. But the same can also be viewed as an espionage activity if we consider the nature of the media outfit and its surveillance target in question. AlJazeera happens to be fully funded and owned (although via a private foundation) by a sovereign country – the State of Qatar. Imagine an entity directly backed by a sovereign country carrying out surveillance against the Chief of Army of another sovereign country! It is not my place to argue counter-espionage here, but there certainly are some explanations the State of Qatar owes to the Government of Bangladesh. I found it disappointing that this particular aspect of the whole documentary was not raised in any of the statements so far issued by the Government of Bangladesh, but it should have, as it may concern important national security issues. Citizens of Bangladesh also, I believe, have the right to an explanation here.

BEFORE I WRAP UP . . .

Do we need a robust and independent media to speak truth to power, and to initiate constructive dialogue? Yes we do. Does the AJ programme contribute positively towards achieving these goals? Unfortunately, no. Because:

First, credibility and integrity of “whistleblowers” and informants matter in any story, but the AJ piece demonstrated poor judgement in its choice of both. The whole story is from the standpoint of a “whistleblower” with quite a shady past (e.g., alleged fraud, impersonation, drug abuse to name a few), built on the logorrhoea from an informant introduced to the viewers by AJ itself as a “fugitive” overlord who is a braggadocious “psychopathic mafia”! Neither inspire confidence in their integrity or credibility.

Second, independence, objectivity, and neutrality of a media platform matter. It is not my intention to dig for motives, but AJ, despite its claims of editorial independence, has earned a reputation of being cavalier in selectively picking its stories, subjects, targets, and approaches which simply cannot be ignored when discussing their content. More importantly, these concerns do not seem unfounded when the programme’s glaring imbalance in presentation, instances of omitted contexts (at least four I detected), and manipulated content (e.g., misrepresenting parts of Army Chief’s leaked conversation) are taken into consideration. These imbalances, omissions and manipulations are so critical to the core narrative of the documentary that had that not been the case, the whole message and interpretation of the story would have changed, beginning with the programme’s provocative title, one would assume.

Third, neutrality and objectivity of investigators and contributors in a programme matter. In the past we have seen you presenting yourself as someone concerned about “lack of international standards” in the trials of people alleged of international crimes. But here interestingly, you have not only failed to acknowledge the apparent “lack of international standards” in AJ’s investigative journalism, you have also actively participated and contributed in the AJ programme and defended it unquestioningly. Take the instance of the murder of which the Ahmed brothers were convicted of. You did not see fit to explore some relevant aspects of that murder and its trial which constituted the centre of gravity of the whole AJ documentary. My intention is not to argue that the brothers are innocent, but there indeed were important questions that needed to be asked. For example, the political circumstances surrounding the murder, veracity of the dying declaration etc. Instead, you bought wholesale the AJ’s story on face value. It is rather surprising to see you, the person who once wrote some thousand pieces of blogs and articles in favour of mass murderers and genocidaires of 1971 in the name of “due process” and “international standards”, is now so ready to accept and endorse the AJ version of one single murder (i.e., by Ahmed brothers) without question.

I must reiterate that I still believe that investigative journalism, if carried out competently, can do real good. There are important lessons to be learned from this whole documentary saga, not just by the Government of Bangladesh, but by Al Jazeera and its team too. I hope the above makes my position on the AJ piece clear. Thank you for taking the time to read this.

Courtesy – bdnews24.com

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