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US Ambassador Haas clarifies remarks on visa restrictions amid Editors’ Council’s concern

In response to a letter from Sampadak Parishad (Editors’ Council) expressing concern over a recent remark about applying US visa policy on the media in Bangladesh, US Ambassador Peter Haas has reiterated his government’s commitment to staunchly defend press freedom and the “right of journalists and media outlets to exercise their right to freedom of expression,” reports UNB.

“That includes views critical of any government, including the United States. In fact, we welcome public reflection on any element of our policy,” the ambassador said.

Ambassador Haas said this in response to a letter from Mahfuz Anam, president of the Editors’ Council, Bangladesh, seeking clarification of the ambassador’s remarks during a recent interview with Channel 24 that media may also come under the purview of US visa policy.

“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,” said Peter Haas during the interview aired on September 24.

On May 24 this year, the US announced the visa policy for Bangladesh and on September 22, 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.

In the letter to Peter Haas on September 27, Mahfuz Anam said he was writing because some questions have arisen in his mind and in the minds of members of the Editors’ Council regarding the aforementioned comment on visa restrictions on media.

“Frankly, this remark has created confusion among us and hence our request for a clarification,” wrote Anam 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,” Anam pointed out that 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 case of media? What are the factors being considered?” — Anam asked in his letter.
Anam also said that 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, he wondered, how would the First Amendment values be reflected if the visa policy is 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.

Referring to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, he said 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.

“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.”

This includes anyone who takes measures to prevent the media from disseminating their views, US Ambassador Haas added.