US visa restrictions will apply to any Bangladeshi individual who takes measures to prevent the media from disseminating their views, US Ambassador Peter Haas has said while reiterating his government's commitment to defend press freedom and the rights of journalists and media outlets.
In reply to a letter by Mahfuz Anam, president of the Sampadak Parishad, seeking clarification of the ambassador's remarks during a recent TV interview where he said the media may also come under the purview of US visa policy.
Haas also said they encouraged press freedom and "that includes views critical of any government, including the US. In fact, we welcome public reflection on any element of our policy."
Referring to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Haas wrote 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, the Sampadak Parishad said in a press release.
"Equally as important, each of these institutions must be allowed to play their respective roles in the democratic election process," Haas said.
Haas said Secretary Blinken's statement was clear that the policy applies to "any Bangladeshi individual, believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh."
In the letter to Peter Haas on 27 September, Mahfuz Anam said he was writing because some questions had arisen in his mind and in the minds of members of the Parishad regarding the aforementioned comment on visa restrictions on media.
"Frankly, this remark has created confusion among us and hence our request for a clarification," Anam wrote in his email.
He said given the fact that the US government and the ambassador personally have always been steadfast advocates of free and independent media, the remark has perturbed them.
Referring to the US Ambassador's statement that visa restriction "is not based on anything else but their actions," Mahfuz Anam pointed out that the media's "action" is writing or broadcasting and asked if visa restriction will be based on what a journalist writes or broadcasts.
"If so, then doesn't it come under 'freedom of expression' and 'freedom of press'? How will it be used in the case of the media? What are the factors being considered?" he asked in his letter.
Mahfuz Anam also said, "The First Amendment of the US Constitution has always acted as a source of inspiration and emulation for him personally and for the media in Bangladesh. In that case, how the First Amendment values are reflected in implementing the visa policy when used against the media."
In response, Peter Haas wrote that the US will continue to support the freedom of the press and also speak out against, and apply US visa policy to those who seek to undermine the democratic election process in Bangladesh.
Earlier in an interview aired on 24 September, Haas said, "We are applying the policy in a balanced way against anyone regardless of whether they are pro-government, whether they are in the opposition, or whether they are law enforcement, whether they are in the judiciary, whether it's the media."
On 24 May this year, the US announced the visa policy for Bangladesh and on 22 September, it was declared that steps were taken to impose visa restrictions on Bangladeshi individuals responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh.