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ZAFAR SOBHAN
DATELINE DHAKA

Zafar Sobhan is editor of the Dhaka Tribune, a daily newspaper.

Round two of the Yunus story

Dr. Muhammad Yunus (File)

t was only a matter of time. If we thought that our Prime Minister's bizarre vendetta against Bangladesh's only Nobel laureate was an embarrassment we could keep hidden from the outside world, we were sadly mistaken.

On 5 January, the Economist weighed in with a piece on L'affaire Yunus, "Saint under siege," quickly followed by a blog entry on the NYT website by columnist Nicholas Kristof asking: "Is Bangladesh trying to take over Grameen Bank?"

The proximate cause of this renewed interest was a second broadside issued on 4 January by the scandal sheet that started it all, bdnews24.com, charging Dr Yunus with a conflict of interest over a deal between Grameen and a packaging company owned by his family members.

As with its first breathless expose, the latest salvo shows signs of what is fast becoming bdnews' trademark: slipshod, unprofessional and incomplete journalism, tendentious and quite possibly defamatory innuendo, and a wilful, obtuse misunderstanding of facts that would be straightforward if not for the site's palpable desire to humble Dr Yunus and cut him down to size. Of course, the financial imperatives for a seldom visited news portal hemorrhaging cash and kept afloat only by the deep pockets of its billionaire owner (coincidentally a senior figure in the ruling Awami League), are easy to comprehend. The site needs traffic and nothing generates more clicks than yet another scurrilous expose of Dr Yunus.

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Now that the PM has turned her guns on Dr Yunus none but her most dedicated and devoted sycophants feel safe.

Why the government persists in this increasingly vindictive witch-hunt (and there is no doubt that the anti-Yunus campaign has been enthusiastically supported, if not orchestrated by the ruling party) is a more difficult question to answer.

ut more important than the question of why the government has chosen to target Dr Yunus is the toll that this campaign is taking on the government's reputation, both inside the country and outside.

Inside, it has created a climate of unease, as all but hard-core AL backers and those who despise NGOs take note of the ease with which apparently anyone can be targeted for falling foul of the ruling dispensation. As long as the PM contented herself with the destruction of only her political Opposition, most (perhaps ignobly) were happy to turn a blind eye. Now that she has turned her guns on Dr Yunus none but her most dedicated and devoted sycophants feel safe.

Even more problematic is the fact that the government is involved in a high wire act with respect to the long overdue war crimes trials. In addition, the government has also initiated legal action against a number of senior Opposition leaders, including the son of the former PM, Khaleda Zia.

The danger is that conducting a witch-hunt against Dr Yunus will so damage the credibility of the government that when the government's political opponents who are accused of war crimes or of other serious wrongs (and all of the accused are opponents of the government) complain that they are being rail-roaded, people are more likely to give their claims credence.

If the AL wants to bring war criminals and Opposition leaders to justice, there needs to be confidence in the government's fairness and impartiality, and targeting Dr Yunus does nothing to instil this confidence.

The second concern is for the impact this witch-hunt has on the Prime Minister's and Bangladesh's reputation overseas. The Prime Minister has taken pains to project herself internationally as a shrewd and sober stateswoman, a steady hand on the tiller, someone you can do business with.

The last thing she needs is to be exposed as a delusional, vindictive and petty tyrant, more interested in settling scores than in governing her country (incidentally, that is the BNP critique of her) in the Economist and the NY Times. And the last thing that Bangladesh needs is to be portrayed in the foreign media as some kind of banana republic, ruled by the whim and whimsy of an all powerful Prime Minister, where one's fortune depends solely on the capricious goodwill of the government. That's really going to bring the foreign investors pouring in and turn Bangladesh's image around.

 
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