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Russian ambassador's anger towards the media is unwarranted

The Tone Of This Statement Is Hardly In Keeping With Diplomatic Norms. Would It Be Unjustified To Construe This As A Threat To The Independence Of The Press?

Prothom Alo illustration

The Russian diplomatic mission in Bangladesh has instigated an unwarranted debate about the role of media here regarding Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which it actively attempts to pass off as a special 'military action'. The Russian ambassador Alexander V. Mantitsky in Dhaka this Sunday, in an open letter to the Bangladesh media, expressed his displeasure with the media coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. He said the western media is publishing biased news with hatred towards Russia and this is being echoed by sections of the Bangladesh media. This letter of his is not just unwarranted, but is a deplorable interference in press freedom and is reprehensible.

The Russian ambassador may not like the editorial policies of Bangladesh's news media, but he cannot accuse it of being filled with hatred. If the Russian narrative is not being reflected properly, his embassy can provide the media with a daily bulletin about the war. But we would like to remind the Russian ambassador about the Russia newspapers which were shut down after the military action began, when it was banned to refer to the military aggression in Ukraine as 'invasion' or 'war', and ask him to find out why those newspapers were closed down.

Take for example, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta of Dmitry Muratov, one of the two editors who won the Nobel Peace Prize this year. On 4 March, Novaya Gazeta declared that due to censorship, they were removing all content concerning the Russian military action in Ukraine, from their website. They said that since they were unable to give the actual news about the military action in Ukraine, they would instead focus their attention on the impact of the economic sanctions within the country, the crisis of medicines and social issues. A day before this, the independent TV channel Dozhd temporarily suspended their broadcast. Radio Ekho Moskvy, known to be liberal, was also shut down.

Alongside the closure of these free-thinking Russian institutions, several western media agencies also had to suspend their operations there. Many people are comparing the present clamp down on the media in Russia with the pre-Perestroika times, when it was not possible to publish anything outside of the government press statements. After the invasion of Ukraine began, a new law was enacted in Russia under which any so-called fake news against the Russian armed forces would result in a 15-year prison sentence. After the enactment of this law, Sergey Smirnov, chief editor of another newspaper that was shut down Mediazona, said a decision has been taken to completely uproot journalism and the place fixed for dissenters is the jail.

Referring to Russian support for Bangladesh during the 1971 Liberation War, the Russian ambassador Alexander Mantitsky said in his open letter that the people of Donetsk and Luhansk were facing the same problems that Bangladesh faced in 1971. Russian president Vladimir Putin declared these two regions of East Ukraine as independent states and on 24 February ordered the military action in Ukraine. There can be a detailed debate about comparing the insurgency of Donetsk and Luhansk with Bangladesh's war of liberation, but that is not quite relevant here.

The Bangladesh media is not dependent on the West or any foreign quarters. Bangladesh’s media has a long history of struggle for freedom of expression and editorial independence and this fight continues

Russia’s target is not limited to those two insurgent regions alone. This is obvious in the fact that its military operations are spread around an extensive area of Ukraine’s main territory. No matter how much Putin may say that their war is not against the people of Ukraine, all the videos of the war show how the Ukrainians are being killed, wounded, being driven from their homes, how government and private establishments are being razed to the ground and how property is being destroyed.

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It must be pointed out here that back in 1971, it was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) that lent support to Bangladesh’s Liberation war and Russia was just a part of USSR. Ukraine was the second largest state or republic of USSR. Ukraine can also claim to have been by our side during our liberation struggle. And the man who personally played a special role at the time was the Communist Party secretary general Leonid Brezhnev, who himself was a Ukrainian.

The ambassador in his open letter wrote, “I hope that through my open letter your readers will be able to get acquainted with an alternative point of view towards the developments in Ukraine.” The Bangladesh media is not dependent on the West or any foreign quarters. Bangladesh’s media has a long history of struggle for freedom of expression and editorial independence and this fight continues. We continue in our fight against all threats, direct and indirect pressure and prohibitions and it is totally unwarranted that any foreign state makes any unjust claims on the media.

The part of Ambassador Mantitsky’s letter which is particularly disturbing is, “I consider the biased approach of certain Bangladeshi media towards the situation in Ukraine and Russia’s actions there as a result of deliberate efforts by those forces that have always sought to undermine mutually beneficial cooperation between the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.”

The tone of this statement is hardly in keeping with diplomatic norms. Would it be unjustified to construe this as a threat to the independence of the press? It is natural for the parties involved in a war to support and have sympathy and cooperation for their own sides. Others may or may not support this. Even if a country’s government or a political party of a country gives it support, in a democratic system that does not mean everyone else in that country give their support. In Russia itself there is opposition to this military operation and there are demonstrations almost every day there against this invasion. Thousands of dissidents have been arrested, but the protests continue.

Till now Bangladesh has not given its support to either Russia or Ukraine, but has called for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. But the Russian ambassador’s letter seems to imply that Bangladesh’s relations with Russia depend on its support to Russia in this war. That is why he wants the Bangladesh media to give positive coverage, but that is contrary to the principles of objective and independent journalism. Our government at various times reacts strongly to objectionable comments of foreign diplomats on our internal affairs and we hope that it attaches equal importance to this clear threat towards the media.