Hasina brushes aside allegation her government is curbing free speech

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has swatted away allegation of curbing free speech, pointing out that many critics talk freely in chat shows on TV.

“They are criticising the Awami League government by using the digital tools [introduced by the government],” she said in response to criticism of the government’s efforts to establish a ‘Digital Bangladesh’.

“They forget that it’s us who gave them the opportunity to talk,” she said, speaking at an event via video link from the Ganabhaban on Wednesday. The Awami League sub-committee on relief and social welfare organised the event to mark her return from exile in 1981.

“Did they have any opportunity to talk during the tenures of Khaleda Zia or HM Ershad? How much did they enjoy the right [to speak freely]?” she asked.

Hasina said her government issued licences to a number of TV channels and they are airing chat shows regularly. “No one has gagged them. They are always speaking, and at the end of their speeches, they say that they are being barred from speaking up.”

“I sometimes ask them to stop talking bitterly and speak sweetly.”

‘A BLESSING IN DISGUISE’

The prime minister recalled the obstacles her government faced to launch the Padma Bridge project after the Awami League returned to power more than a decade ago. Now Bangladesh is set to open the bridge to traffic in June after constructing it with its own funds.

Hasina reiterated the allegation that Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus was behind the World Bank’s refusal to fund the project because he was removed from the Grameen Bank as its managing director for legal issues related to his age.

She said the government had offered Yunus the post of Grameen Bank’s advisor emeritus, but he declined because he wanted to continue as the MD.

“But his age did not permit it. Dr Yunus sued the Awami League government and eventually lost the case, because the Grameen Bank law stipulates that a person can be [MD] until 60. He was 71 then.”

“Dr Yunus, (Daily Star editor) Mahfuz Anam, so did we hear – they went to America and visited the State Department. They sent email to Hillary [Clinton]. Hillary [made] the then World Bank president to block the funds for the Padma Bridge on the final day of his tenure.”

“It was a blessing in disguise. Why? Because we’ve proved that Bangladesh can build a Padma Bridge with its own funds.”

Hasina also came down hard on BNP Chairperson Khaleda for questioning the quality of construction materials of the bridge.

The prime minister defended the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant Project, saying it will be the most environment-friendly plant in Bangladesh. “And we won’t have gas forever. The plants powered by oil and gas are also costly. If we run out of gas, this nuclear plant will give us power.”

“It has been possible for Bangladesh to send electricity to every home because the Awami League government is generating electricity. Many spoke against rental power plants during the launch. Now they’re speaking against the Awami League government by using the electricity provided by the government.”