With 145 journalists assaulted or targeted with death threats, four other arrested and one reporter murdered, Khaleda Zia’s (photo) country shows by far the highest incidents of violence against members of the press. Reporters Without Borders and the BCDJC denounce the impunity which endangers freedom of expression.
Bangladesh- with 145 journalists assaulted or targeted with death threats, one reporter murdered, 16 news rooms or press clubs brutally attacked and four journalists detained by the authorities in scarcely over eight months- is by far the country with the highest incidents of violence against members of the press. "Not a single day goes by without the press reporting an assault or death threat against a journalist," stressed Nayeemul Islam Khan, Advisory Editor of the daily Ajker Kagoj. This endemic violence against news media professionals is endangering press freedom. Paradoxically, however, this South Asian country has never enjoyed a greater plurality of information sources. The print and electronic media-especially television-have actually been enjoying very rapid growth over the last five years.
A Reporters without Borders’ (Reporters sans frontières - RSF) fact-finding team stayed in Bangladesh from 3 to 10 March 2002, where representatives had the opportunity to meet with journalists, managing editors, human rights activists, lawyers, the Minister of Law, Justice, and Parliamentary Affairs, the Principal Information Officer for the government of Bangladesh, and families of murdered journalists. Their mission was carried out with the Bangladesh Centre for Development, Journalism and Communication (BCDJC), a member of the RSF Network.
"The issue of safety in general has now reached dramatic heights," affirmed a European diplomat based in Dhaka. For example, the criminal tactics now being used in politics are said to have cost the lives of 280 people in the month of February 2002, alone. Nothing seems to be able to stop the attacks especially against members of the press. They are even influencing the way in which the national and local press are treating issues of critical importance to the country, such as corruption, collusion among politicians, organised crime, and inter-faith crimes.
The perpetrators of 90% of the assaults have been identified as political militants, mafia groups, offenders, and police officers. According to Monjurul Ahsan Bulbul, Executive Director of Media Watch, a Bangladeshi organisation defending freedom of the press, this violence can be attributed primarily to the principles of loyalty and protection that are governing relations between the political class and the mafia groups. "When these small-fry mafioso’s are under the protection of local politicians or bureaucrats, they think they can get away with anything, especially assaulting journalists. It is always hard to say whether the attacks have been ordered by the politicians or initiated by the perpetrators themselves," explained Monjurul Ahsan Bulbul. In his opinion, the violence broke out anew in October 2001 because these lawless gangs were able to continue committing their crimes with total impunity just by switching their political allegiance.
This complicity between political officials and mafioso’s is exemplified by the death threats made against Rafiqul Bahar, a journalist with Prothom Alo in Chittagong (in south-eastern Bangladesh). On 26 February 2002, this daily’s first page carried a photo of the Minister of Home Affairs, Altaf Hossain Chowdhury, taken at a public meeting. Behind him were two well-known gangsters who were being sought by police for several murders, but who were enjoying the protection of local authorities. A red circle had been drawn around their faces. A few days later, on 4 March, Bahar received a package containing a shroud. "This was a direct death threat, later confirmed by phone calls on the journalist’s cellular phone and in a written message," related the Editor of this independent newspaper. Showing no concern for the journalist’s safety, the Minister of Home Affairs then questioned the reporters’ professionalism, but did not say a word about the offenders who had been standing beside him. In the same vein, the president of a local branch of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) issued a warning to journalists who circulate "deceptive news."
Yet the Bangladeshi media landscape has never been more diversified. According to the Ministry of Information, the country has 294 national and local dailies. The newspaper with the largest circulation is the Dainik Jugantor, with 270,000 copies. The second largest in terms of circulation is Prothom Alo, with over 220,000 copies, followed by the Dainik Ittefaq, with nearly 200,000 copies. Among the 10 largest-circulation newspapers are Dainik Janakantha, Dainik Inqilab, Bhorer Kagoj and Ajker Kagoj, but these do not include an English-language daily. Bangladesh also has two conventional television stations-one public and one private-several cable and satellite television stations, and two radio stations. Within the last five years, the print media has also been upgraded. As RSF’s correspondent Saleem Samad pointed out, "Journalists are better trained and braver now. When they investigate transparency of civil and military bureaucracy, and democratic accountability of elected representatives, which makes them more vulnerable. The political class-especially the local one-are unable to accept these positive changes."
Aside from the self-censorship that can be attributed mainly to the brutalities committed against members of the press, Bangladeshi media are not subjected to government censorship. However, the country’s successive regimes never actually liberalised Bangladeshi radio waves. Other than the national radio station, there is only one private radio station, Metro Wave, which does not broadcast political news. Bangladesh is one of the most advanced countries in South Asia in terms of the plurality of its information sources. But the intentionally violent attacks on journalists are threatening the press freedom acquired in 1990. It is the Bangladeshi government’s duty to help the country break free of this escalating cycle of violence by refusing to tolerate a system that protects the criminals responsible for these assaults.
More than 145 journalists attacked since Begum Khaleda Zia took power
Since October 2001, when Begum Khaleda Zia, the leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, took power, RSF and the BCDJC have recorded 145 cases of journalists who have been attacked or have received death threats. The new regime’s supporters have committed more than half of these crimes?03 cases. Moreover in the last eight months, at least 16 press clubs or news rooms have been brutally attacked. In the countryside, journalists and their families, in particular, live in constant fear of reprisals. Political militants, mafia groups and armed gangs do not hesitate to kill or harass those whom they consider their adversaries. On 3 January, for example, Abdus Sabur, a Dainik Dinkal correspondent in Rajshahi, was warned that his "legs and arms would be broken" if he did not leave town within three days. On 9 April, some thugs with iron bars beat up Kismat Ali, a freelance reporter in Ranisankayl. That same day, a mafia group assaulted Faisal Ahmed Bablu, a correspondent with Dainik Runner in Satkhira, breaking his left leg. In early October 2001, a dozen journalists were attacked by supporters of the new regime. Arup Rai, a Prothom Alo correspondent in Agoiljhara, was found unconscious after being beaten by members of the Jatiyatabadi Chattra Dal (JCD, a student branch of the BNP).
Aside from the political vengeance wreaked on journalists who had close ties with the previous government, Reporters without Borders has noted that these attacks usually occur right after the publication of articles written on "sensitive subjects." In Bangladesh, especially in rural areas, it is dangerous to write about extremist groups (religious or political), corrupt officials, war criminals, or mafia gangs involved in smuggling, drug trafficking, or racketeering. Most Bangladeshi journalists are aware of these risks and therefore have no other choice than to practice self-censorship.
In some regions, reporters need to take precautions before writing about certain controversial local subjects. For example, in the southern part of the country, it can be dangerous to write about shrimp farming. The industry bosses can be sensitive to criticism, especially since the authorities and political parties are always trying to take advantage of these very profitable businesses. In November 2001, the Bagherhat Press Club filed a complaint after receiving death threats from members of the "shrimp business." Moreover, some correspondents, notably Nasim Ali of the Ittefaq, also in southern Bangladesh, have been threatened or assaulted for having exposed log-smuggling operations in the country’s national forest reserves. To defend themselves, the journalists formed the Rainforest Journalist Forum.
According to Prothom Alo’s Editor, these constant threats have had serious repercussions on how news is being handled. "There are whole regions inside the country that are not being covered, or only being partially covered, because there is so much violence there. Our correspondents are being hindered, or are too intimidated, to write about sensitive subjects."
Bangladeshi national dailies are often obliged to dispatch a reporter from Dhaka to investigate controversial subjects. In March, the Prothom Alo Editor Motiur Rahman sent out a journalist from the head office to Manikganj. The local correspondent felt that it would be too dangerous for him to write the article himself, as his inquiry concerned activities involving the Speaker of the Bangladeshi Parliament and his son. Despite these precautions, the local correspondent had to stay in hiding for several days, and the Parliament President’s supporters ordered that part of the print run be confiscated.
Editorial office staff members in Dhaka also have to intervene to protect their correspondents when the latter are being threatened in rural areas. Shamsuddin Ahmed, an Editor with United News of Bangladesh (UNB), told Reporters without Borders: "We frequently have to intercede with political party leaders in Dhaka to ask them to put an end to the pressures on our journalists. Recently, our correspondents in Lalmonirhat and Bagherhat were threatened, respectively, by militants of the Awami League and an official. We had to intervene for several weeks to stop those threats."
The role of the police in these assaults
Relations between the police and journalists, particularly crime reporters, are very paradoxical. The police are the journalists’ primary source of information but they are also the instigating cause of many types of abuse. The Dhaka Crime Reporters Association has noticed that relations between the police force and its own members have been deteriorating. "At the end of February, we had to take action as a group for several days in order to obtain the release of one of our association’s journalists whom a policeman had arrested without cause," pointed out Shankar Kumar Dey, the group’s President.
In the past, most of the abuse perpetrated by police forces took place during street demonstrations. Recently, however, there has been an increased number of targeted assaults and harassment. In February 2002, for example, a Matribhumi daily reporter was treated roughly and arrested by a non-commissioned officer in Dhaka. What is more, several journalists have informed RSF that police officers have been acting increasingly overcautious, even hostile, when registering complaints about assaulted journalists, particularly when the charges accuse prominent government officials.
Role played by organised criminal gangs
"They are our worst enemy. Mafia groups are increasingly well-organised and never hesitate to threaten or assault anyone who stands in their way," affirmed an official of the Dhaka Crime Reporters Association. "They always react very quickly whenever our newspaper prints an article about their activities. They call and threaten us on our cellular phones. I would not be at all surprised if some police officers were giving them our telephone numbers." Hooligans have already attacked and wounded the President of the Dhaka Crime Reporters Association on three different occasions. All journalists in Dhaka agree that the situation is even more complicated outside of the capital. "In many rural towns, the interests of the mafioso’s, and those of political militants, police officers and even journalists can become entangled," concluded this Association’s Vice-President, whose membership includes over 300 journalists in the capital.
In south-western Bangladesh, after years of an armed conflict, some extreme left movements-those of the Purba Bangla Sharbahara Party (PBSP) in particular - have turned into mafia organisations. The local correspondents who report these excesses have been a constant target for assault. This part of Bangladesh, where eight journalists have been killed in the last six years, is definitely the most dangerous area for media professionals. The most recent case to date is that of Harun-ur-Rashid (photo) , a journalist working with the Dainik Purbanchal local newspaper, who was murdered on 2 March 2002, the day before the RSF team arrived in Bangladesh. This 44-year-old journalist was shot down on the outskirts of Khulna, about one kilometre from his home, while leaving his newspaper’s office on a motorcycle. Bullets perforated his lungs. Khulna police immediately arrested three suspects, all of whom had a motive linking them to the crime. The first was a PBSP member; the second, a BNP member whom the journalist had implicated in an extortion case; and the third was one of the journalist’s neighbours, who had been arguing with him over a certain piece of land. Although aware that he was in danger, the journalist had never asked for police protection but had always been accompanied by a friend or colleague when travelling from one place to another except on that particular night.
The Police Commissioner in Khulna assured RSF that every effort would be made to identify and arrest the guilty parties. Altaf Hossain Chowdhury, the Minister of Home Affairs, had come to Khulna on the previous day to meet the victim’s family, his colleagues and the local authorities. The Minister promised that he would see to it "that the guilty hang" and to provide the family with financial aid. Harun-ur-Rashid’s oldest daughter told RSF that, in her opinion, "justice had to be rendered," and warned them not to completely rely on the authorities’ promises.
After having gathered several testimonies, it is RSF’s opinion that Harun-ur-Rashid’s murder is linked to his articles on organised crime in the region. His special relationship with the Bangladesh Communist Party (which has now pulled out of the armed struggle), and his frequent contacts with police, made the reporter an ideal target for members of the PBSP. The Police Commissioner assured RSF that the details provided by the journalist, among other sources, had made it possible for them to arrest the PBSP militants. Although this armed group has denied any involvement in the murder, police investigators contend that, less than a month after the homicide, seven suspects-most of whom are PBSP members-had been identified and are being actively sought. On 20 April, in the city of Jessore, the police arrested Moktar Hossain Baby, a PBSP member and the primary suspect in the murder of Harun-ur-Rashid.
Solutions for ending the violence
These assaults against journalists can only be stopped through a deliberate effort on the part of the government and the political parties. But realistic steps can be taken to prevent such violence. For example, the Dhaka Crime Reporters Association is planning to set up an emergency hotline that journalists who have been assaulted or arrested may call. This organisation, which has very frequent contacts with the police, has offered to immediately intercede, along with the police forces, as soon as a journalist has been arrested or assaulted.
For its part, the Mass-Line Media Centre, a media development organisation, has been defending the cause of journalists working in remote districts of southern Bangladesh since 1996. "We need to make local authorities understand that articles by rural correspondents about human rights and the problems associated with their application must be tolerated," commented Kamrul Hassan Monju, the group’s Executive Director. He complained about the constant pressure being exerted on journalists by political parties and the police. "Some journalists have endured the whole gamut of abuse: direct threats by telephone, indirect threats against their families, and assaults," attested Kamrul Hassan Monju, who has trained over 700 reporters.
Most of the people interviewed by RSF feel that there would be less violence perpetrated against journalists if the media would more actively support their reporters when they are threatened. Many journalists work on a non-contractual basis and, as a result, their editorial staffs do not feel compelled to assist them when they are threatened or attacked. "A journalist working in remote areas who is vulnerable to pressure or assault needs to be able to count on the support of his editorial staff and colleagues. If not, he can easily fall prey to criminals or political militants," explained Saleem Samad, RSF’s correspondent. The latter also pointed out that the more these journalists unite and mobilise as a group (mainly through press clubs), the fewer assaults and threats there are. Which explains why, at a meeting in Dhaka between RSF, the BCDJC and a dozen journalist organisations, attendees emphasised the importance of mobilising the profession to bring an end to violence. "Some national media journalists ordered the murder of reporter Shamsur Rahman. Asked one participant, "Given this context, how can our profession appear strong and united enough to take a stand against its enemies?"
Independent media under constant pressure
On numerous occasions since Khaleda Zia took power, the private media have been treated like veritable enemies of the government. In Dhaka as well as in remote districts, journalists have been threatened or prevented from working by militants, senior executives, or elected members of the parties in power.
Journalists of the most main private media were prevented from entering the Parliament building on 22 March during deliberations on a new bill on "public safety." Anti-riot police officers and guards posted around the building blocked the journalists from entering. The majority of the reporters were only allowed into the building after the Parliament’s press relations manager interceded on their behalf. Crews from the Ekushey TV, ATN News and Channel-i News private television stations, however, were denied access to the Parliamentary session.
The new regime is focusing their attention on the Manabzamin, Janakantha, Prothom Alo and Jugantor newspapers. Huge quantities of libel suits have been filed against these publications’ managing editors. "If I were to answer every magistrate’s summons, I would be spending all my time travelling around the country," commented one Prothom Alo editor Motiur Rahman.
In the last ten years, Kazi Shahed Ahmed, Managing Editor of the Ajker Kagoj, who has spent over 500 days standing before the country’s magistrates, has had to hire some half-a-dozen lawyers to defend him. He has had to respond to 86 complaints, often filed in remote districts. Now he is militating for such complaints to be heard solely in the town in which the newspaper is being published.
Atiqullah Khan Masud, Editor and Publisher of the Dainik Janakantha, confirmed to RSF that he has been feeling the regime’s pressure since October 2001. "They seem to think that we oppose them because, for them, you are either pro-BNP or pro-Awami League, but I assure you that we are independent," he told RSF. "What is certain, is that relations between my newspaper and the government have been deteriorating very quickly. We wrote an article about the Minister of Finance and Planning’s son. Since then, they have successively withdrawn government advertising, put pressure on multinational and national companies to stop their advertising as well, and shut down the newspaper’s electricity on some false pretence. They are trying to corner us, but it’s not going to work," exclaimed Atiqullah Khan Masud. In November 2001, the government did, indeed, stop buying advertising space in the Dainik Janakantha. In an editorial printed on the daily’s front page, the staff affirmed that this decision had come from the highest level of the government. Moreover, in early January, the government reduced the number of copies of the Dainik Janakantha, Dainik Prothom Alo, Dainik Jugantor and Dainik Sangbad that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had previously sent to the country’s embassies. Finally, on 16 January 2002, the electric company shut off the power that it had supplied to Dainik Janakantha newspaper’s printing press (photo) in the capital. As one of the electric company’s employees expressed it, the order to do so "came right from the top." For its part, the newspaper contends that it was given no notice and had paid its latest invoices.
Correspondents in rural areas suffer even more, because political militants are well aware of their party affiliations, and those of their families. For example, BNP supporters have accused Ahsan Habib, a correspondent of the UNB news agency, the Dainik Janakantha newspaper and of the Ekushey TV television station in Rajbari (south-west of Dhaka), of being an Awami League sympathiser. The journalist admits that his close relatives are favourable to the formation of an opposition party, but is worried about the consequences for himself and his family should the nationalists return to power. "Some BNP supporters already tried to kill me in 1992. They went so far as to beat my mother. Today, they are not any different. I cannot write any article on problems related to crimes, particularly communal violence, or they will kill me. A Dhaka reporter had to come here to cover the situation in Rajbari. I am too closely watched to do it myself," explained Ahsan Habib. The journalist confided that he was forced to go into hiding for a few days in India, after the October elections, and that he was directly threatened by militants during a press conference held by a local BNP parliamentarian. "I take every possible precaution when conducting my investigations but there are still two wards of the district that I cannot enter because it is too dangerous. Even the police told me that they could not ensure my safety there."
In addition, the government continues to use advertising contracts as a means to exert pressure against the press. Since 1988, the year in which General Hussein Muhammad Ershad created the Department of Films and Publication (DFP) to centralise the distribution of state-controlled advertising, all of the media have been under unrelenting pressure. Each successive regime continued using the DFP, despite on-going protests from the Bangladesh Sangbadpatra Parishad (BSP, publishers association), which opposes the use of advertising contracts as political tools. In this context, Alhaj Liaquat Ali, editor of the local daily Purbanchal, told RSF that the authorities also use advertising as a weapon at the local level. "When you consider that the government is spending huge sums in the yellow press (mass-circulation tabloids reporting state-condoned news), which no one reads, and then cuts back on its official advertising in local publications that criticise it, you will get a better idea of how important the DFP? political role really is. And it is not the multinationals?contracts, concentrated in one or two national press titles, that are going to save us," added Alhaj Liaquat Ali.
Finally, Metro Wave, the only private FM radio station, has not been transmitting any political news since January 2002. The reasons behind this reversal are not very clear but whatever they may be, the government, for the time being, is refusing to grant any new licences for private radio stations. When Metro Wave was created in 2000, Bazlous Satter, the station? former radio journalist had been permitted to broadcast "positive news." But the subject of politics was banned from the radio waves. From July 2001 to January 2002, the authorities allowed Metro Wave to offer news programmes. However, the station? management decided, early in 2002, to stop carrying this type of programming, blaming the decision on equipment problems. Questioned several times by RSF? representative about this lack of freedom on the air waves, some officials claimed that the advertising market was too limited to justify granting any new licences. However, a government spokesperson assured RSF that the five pending radio licence applications may be considered in a future session of the legislative assembly.
Taking a tougher stance against foreign journalists
The Dhaka government often perceives the foreign press as an adversary that cannot be trusted. The authorities reacted very violently to the publication in the Far Eastern Economic Review magazine of an article by Bertil Lintner on the rise of pro-Islamist movements in Bangladesh: the magazine was banned, demonstrations were orchestrated by the government and the Prime Minister requested a secret service investigation into the status of the FEER journalist? stay in the country. The National Security Intelligence was specifically charged to identify all persons whom he had met. After this article appeared, the government also lobbied for stricter control over any issuance of press visas. As a result, a Ministry of Information source confirmed to the Bhorer Kagoj daily that the government had decided, on 18 April, to limit to one month all visas issued at the airport. The secret services were also instructed to more closely monitor foreign journalists entering the country with tourist visas. Lastly, Bangladesh embassies are now required to submit to the Ministry of Home Affairs all visa requests on behalf of foreign journalists. Before these new measures had even been adopted, Salahuddin Akbar, Director of the External Publicity Wing at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had explained to RSF that all foreign television crews must be accompanied by an official representative of the Ministry of Information while staying in the country. Akbar very strongly criticised foreign journalists who abuse the privilege of a press visa to investigate subjects other than those mentioned in their application to his department. "In their authorisation request, journalists must tell us the subject that they plan to investigate. Too often they try to gather information on other subjects without bothering to tell us anything about it," stressed Akbar.
The Ministry of Home Affairs officials on duty at Dhaka International Airport are very particular about the content of imported foreign publications. According to one Ministry of Foreign Affairs representative who preferred to remain anonymous, "Everything is checked and they can block a publication without even having to tell the Ministry of Information about it."
Pressure on private television stations
In less than two years, one private conventional television channel, and three cable television channels, have appeared in Bangladesh. There are so many preconceptions against independent television stations among political circles that obtaining a broadcasting licence was a very hard task for these newcomers. And obtaining government permits to broadcast news bulletins is even more of a challenge. Consequently, only the BTV state-controlled channel and Ekushey Television (ETV) private channel were authorised to broadcast news bulletins during the September 2001 election campaign. According to the BNP, the coverage provided by BTV and ETV was favourable toward the regime. Since then, within a few short months, the private television stations have earned a good reputation. But although ETV, introduced in April 2000, has solid financial backing, Channel-i has only very limited resources. Director and Head of News Shykh Seraj is quite comfortably with his station? "small-scale" status and advocates an independent and accountable editorial policy. "We have only one camera in the studio yet we treat all news as objectively as possible. We are very careful not to play with our viewers?emotions and try to show the positive side of the more controversial subjects." Channel-i, with its team of thirteen journalists, most of whom were recruited from the print media, covers only 40% of the national territory, but has a fairly large viewership in urban districts. "Our future is not yet secure. The advertising market is very limited and now there are several of us fighting for a good ranking," admitted Shykh Seraj. "Let us hope that all these new stations can stay the course." Channel-i executives interviewed by RSF representative assured them that they were not afraid of political pressures, although they bluntly admitted that some do exist. "The leading parties harass us to try to make us cover their activities. And when a politician does not see his face in our news bulletin, he complains. What I really think is that Bangladeshi politicians are not prepared to deal with today? news-oriented television programming," commented Shah Alamgir, Channel-i? Chief News Editor. One of the station? journalists had to change his cellular phone number because he was receiving so many complaints. On a more serious note, a Channel-i news crew in Chittagong was kidnapped for several hours by BNP supporters. The journalists had been reporting on a hospital? unsanitary conditions while covering the Prime Minister? visit to this major south-eastern city.
Apparently, this liberalisation of the air waves did not occur under the most transparent of circumstances. The ETV station is now in danger of losing its broadcasting licence following a decision made by the Dhaka High Court, in March 2002. A complaint filed by two university professors and a journalist with close ties to the BNP, induced magistrates to rule that the station had obtained its licence under illegal conditions during the Awami League? administration. The station is therefore expected to be shut down. The ruling was suspended after the station? lawyers filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, which must render its judgement on 20 May. This ruling could threaten one of the most vital achievements of the country in recent years, in terms of its plurality of information sources: a private conventional news-broadcasting television channel.
BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami supporters would not be disappointed if this BBC-supported station?hich they believe to be a mouthpiece for the Awami League?ere to disappear. During the 2001 election campaign, demonstrations were even held in front of the station? head office in Dhaka against what the protestors considered their biased news coverage of political events.
The government has also attempted to ban a large number of foreign satellite and cable television channels on the grounds that they are "offensive to the moral values of Bangladesh". On 19 May 2002, the Information Minister announced that, following an agreement with cable operators, 13 foreign TV channels had been banned, including HBO, Star Movies, MTV, and AXN. In the face of a public outcry and strong reactions from other operators, the authorities decided the following day to suspend the ban, with the exception of that on the two music channels?MTV and Channel V. The government’s Information Secretary said the ban was justified by the "growing number of complaints from sensible people in our society."
Take-over of state-controlled media and the Press Council
Within just a few days after Begum Khaleda Zia assumed power, she replaced the Managing Director of the state-run press agency, BSS. Its new Managing Director, Amanullah Kabir, was put in charge of reorganising the agency. In less than six months, the new management had dismissed some twenty journalists who had been appointed to their posts under the previous administration. In the words of former Managing Director Haroon Habib, this "political vendetta was a first in the history of the agency." The station? management invoked financial problems as justification for this decision.
On 3 April the conflict hardened after the police blocked a group of dismissed journalists and accompanying union leaders from entering the BSS offices. Four days earlier, the former reporters had started a hunger strike at the Dhaka Press Club. One free-lance journalist claimed that such practices were not unprecedented among state-controlled media, particularly in view of the fact that the dismissed journalists were active members of the Awami League or of its student branch.
Similarly, as soon as the new regime was in power, it named a member of the BNP to head the Press Council. Because there is no regulatory agency between the media and the Bangladeshi public, RSF considers that it would have been advisable to restore this institution? authority and autonomy. The Press Council was created in 1979 to defend the profession? ethics and to protect Bangladeshi citizens from exploitation by the media. But for the last twenty years, the Press Council has not once taken a stand. Transformed into a tool controlled by successive regimes, and incapable of enforcing any of its infrequent decisions, the Press Council has protected neither the country? press, nor the citizens. In appointing a sympathiser, Khaleda Zia? administration has done nothing to safeguard the institution? independence and credibility. This problem was raised during a meeting between RSF and some executives of the Dhaka Press Club, an institution that boasts 600 members. The journalists acknowledged the Press Council? weakness and inability to "penalise media offenders that abuse their freedom."
Rising assaults attributed to Islamist movements and the Islamist press
The fact that Khaleda Zia’s government includes Jamaat-e-Islami (Islamist Party) ministers has raised fears that a concerted effort will be made to convert the country’s population to Islam. The fact that a party has assumed power whose leadership, at least in part, has been accused of participating (along with the Pakistani Army) in the massacres of 1971, has produced some very strong reactions from intellectuals and journalists who are actively protesting against the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of these crimes. Nonetheless, there have been fewer exactions by the militants of the Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamist parties than had been anticipated. According to RSF’s survey, at least five journalists were victims of reprisals by Islamist militants. On the other hand, the extremely violent statements that have been made against journalists by certain leaders, particularly Parliament member Maulana Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, are very disturbing. For example, on 23 March, the latter stated: "The blood of journalists who cannot tell the difference between Muslims and Islamist should be analysed to see if they are true Muslims."
Shahriar Kabir: "a traitor"
Islamist parties have tended to direct their considerable wrath, in ways that are sometimes very violent, at journalist and human rights advocate Shahriar Kabir (photo). They are objecting to his investigations and campaigns opposing the brutal acts perpetrated on religious minority groups, notably the Hindus. Kabir was arrested in Dhaka airport on 22 November 2001, while he was carrying written testimony and video tapes of refugees in India who claimed that they had been assaulted in Bangladesh. Kabir was accused of "treason"—a charge that can incur the death penalty. On 20 January 2002, after his release on bail, Islamist leaders expressed violent criticism of the journalist and demonstrations took place in several of the country’s cities.
As a result, on 5 February 2002, a passer-by was killed and several others wounded, in the explosion of incendiary bombs thrown by fundamentalist militants protesting the journalist’s presence in the city of Chittagong (in south-eastern Bangladesh). Over 300 demonstrators gathered in front of the local Press Club in the city where Kabir was addressing dozens of journalists, intellectuals and human rights activists. Also in February, Sayeedi, a Parliament member representing the Jamaat-e-Islami, stated at a public meeting in Kushtia that any "person that would help the traitor Kabir should have his tongue torn out." Similarly, in Pabna, on the eve of Kabir’s visit, two Jamaat-e-Islami leaders announced that the journalist was "banned" from the city. Under police protection, Kabir managed to enter the city in order to interview victims of political and religious attacks.
The Islamist press is just as venomous as Jamaat-e-Islami’s leaders. Proof of this is evident in the slanderous campaign—if not direct incitement to murder—launched by the Inqilab daily against Shahriar Kabir. Some of the paper’s editorial writers were very happy about his arrest. They accused him of being a "traitor," of having "sold out to India" and urged their readers to demonstrate against his release on bail. Worse still, the newspaper, founded by Maulana Mannan (a former agent with the Pakistani army identified by several human rights organisations as a war criminal) published some of Kabir’s private e-mails, which obviously had been intercepted by Bangladeshi security forces and forwarded to the newspaper. For his part, Kabir spoke out against what he called "this Taliban press" who has declared him to be a murtad ("an enemy of Islam"). "If I am killed by one of these Islamist, the Inqilab newspaper shall bear the responsibility," he told RSF. "In the 4 March issue alone, there were three vindictive articles about me, all of them equally vicious. I’m afraid that my name sells a lot of papers. Worse yet, the police are working hand-in-hand with these terrorist journalists. During my interrogations, the investigators brought up accusations published in the Inqilab," Kabir added.
Several observers expressed concerns about the diatribe of hatred spread by the Inqilab newspaper. "They already managed to set off riots in Bangladesh during the brutalities in India, in 1990. As soon as the religious violence began in India, as it recently did in Gujarat, we were all dreading backlash from the Inqilab," explained the President of BCDJC. Some call this paper an "aggressive daily," others an "Islamist rag".
Kabir is also being harassed by the authorities. "A police car is constantly in front of my house. I never asked for it," the journalist pointed out. In fact, the authorities have even attempted to cancel the human rights activist’s release. The latter has decided to fight back. On 14 March, he filed a complaint after police confiscated his passport at the time of his arrest. Kabir also requested to be present at the viewing of the videotapes seized at the Dhaka airport. Lastly, he brought a libel suit against the Inqilab. Explained Kabir, "The threats being made against me will continue as long as assaults on religious minorities are tolerated. This regime despises me because I have always insisted that the 1971 war criminals should be put on trial—while some incumbent ministers and Parliament members are murderers."
"The government is determined to break the spirit of those reporters who loudly and clearly report that religious groups are being targeted for violence in this country. While in custody, I discovered that the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami have mutually agreed to cover up the massacres being perpetrated against the Hindus," stressed Kabir. "For the first 15 days of my incarceration, they kept me from reading any newspapers. There were 210 of us being held in a single, unsanitary cell. They treat you like a dog, no matter who you are," the journalist informed RSF.
In Dhaka, the Jugantor daily was also targeted by means of an aggressive campaign led by the Islamist Bangladesh Khelafat Andolon movement. On 29 March, dozens of militants demonstrated in front of the newspaper’s offices after the latter published a novel by writer Shelina Hossain, who is considered to be anti-Muslim.
Local Islamist leaders in rural districts are also targeting journalists. At the end of May 2001, a mullah from Chapainawabganj lodged a complaint against Shaukat Ali, a correspondent with the town’s Dainik Sonardesh regional newspaper, accusing him of "extorting money." The journalist had written an article on a rape committed by this mullah. It was six months before a woman lawyer from the Bangladesh Society for the Enforcement of Human Rights, a legal aid organisation, was able to obtain the journalist’s acquittal and release. Indeed, the local police, responding to pressure from the mullah, had refused to release him on bail, citing the Women and Children Repression Act, 2000.
Twenty-odd laws: all designed to repress freedom of expression
"The government already has an imposing legal arsenal that it uses to justify the arrest of journalists, and the parliament may soon adopt an even more stringent new law. Considering these tactics, we need to ask ourselves what this regime’s actual agenda really is," anxiously commented Saleem Samad, a media watchdog researcher. In point of fact, in early April 2002, the Parliament examined a bill introduced by ruling party member Mohammad Abu Hena, which would make it possible to sentence any journalist found guilty of committing libel against a member of Parliament to a severe prison term. Tapping into the "contempt of court" concept, the majority party is striving to create a "contempt of Parliament" law, whereby journalists could receive prison sentences of from two to seven years, and fines ranging from Euro 1,500 to 8,000.
This private member’s Bill, now dubbed the "Special Privileges and Powers Act 2002," shows to what extent the country’s politicians are trying—by every possible means—to prevent members of the press from doing their job. As Shafiqur Rahman, the President of the Parliamentary Journalist Association, put it, under this law, journalists "will not have anything left to report, and no reason to even attend a Parliamentary session." The Bangladeshi Parliament, which has been going through an obvious crisis for years due to the fact that the opposition refuses to take their seats among the other members, is employing a ludicrous method to keep the press away. The above-mentioned law stipulates that those who are not members of Parliament or Parliament civil servants shall be deemed "strangers" who shall be prohibited, under any circumstances, from making any reference to "sensitive" issues under discussion within the Parliament’s deliberation forum. All, or virtually all, members of the press vigorously protested against this bill, which they consider to be contrary to the country’s Constitution that guarantees press freedom. One opposition leader went so far as to nickname this bill the new "black law." The Special Privileges and Powers Act of 2002 has not yet been passed but it is already an alarming testimony to just how opposed the government majority is to uncensored coverage of its activities. Proclamation of such a law would be a major blow against freedom of the press.
Bangladeshi authorities are doing nothing to simplify the task of journalists who are investigating corruption cases, and specially access to information in government departments. In fact, the Official Secrecy Act, 1980 gives government representatives the right to prevent access to official information. Journalists are constantly complaining about the fact that the police are indiscriminately applying this law. "First, they keep us from accessing the information, then they offer to let us get it, in exchange for a bribe. A high-ranking official from the Ministry of Home Affairs even claimed, at a recent press conference, that baksheesh (tips) was the population’s way to contribute to the civil servants’ remuneration. We are not the most corrupt country in the world for nothing!" exclaimed a reporter from the Dainik Janakantha.
In Bangladesh, as in numerous Asian countries, journalists can be sued for "contempt of court"—a crime introduced by British settlers in 1926. "This omnipresent threat forces us to practice self-censorship and to make concessions. It also creates a sort of permanent blackout on decisions rendered by the judges," commented a press correspondent assigned to the Dhaka High Court. "Like all journalists in this country, we have to face tremendous pressure from bureaucrats, mafioso’s and judges. This problem is not new. From one regime to the next, we have to deal with the same criminal tactics in politics," explained SM Rezaul Karim, President of the Supreme Court Reporters Association (SCRA).
This pressure increased after Matiur Rahman Chowdhury, editor of the newspaper Dainik Manabzamin, was sentenced by the High Court to a month’s imprisonment for "contempt of court" on 20 May 2002. The journalist’s wife, Mahbuba Chowdhury, also an editor on the paper, was given a fine. The charges brought against the journalist were that he had published extracts of a telephone conversation between former President Hussain Mohammad Ershad and the President of the Supreme Court, Mohammad Latifur Rahman.
During the past few years, journalist organisations have had to deplore the enactment of a dozen laws aimed at arresting or silencing members of the press. Although the Public Safety Act of 2000 (a law extending temporary detention terms that has been improperly used on at least two occasions against journalists) was abolished under Khaleda Zia’s regime, it was replaced by the Law and Order Disruption Criminal Act. This new law requires the police and judicial authorities to complete their inquiry and the trial of persons accused of "breaking the peace" within forty days. According to local human right organisations, security forces will be tempted to abuse this law in order to arrange for the arrest and conviction of the regime’s opponents and journalists prone to criticism. Similarly, the Special Powers Act of 1974 (under which any person suspected of "anti-state" activities can be detained for 90 days without being charged) has been used by Bangladeshi security forces, namely to arrest and detain journalist Shahriar Kabir. According to a lawyer, Saira Rahman Khan, an executive member of the human rights organisation ODIKHAR, the security forces are also abusing Article 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedures which authorises the police to arrest any person on the grounds of mere suspicion.
A Bangladeshi jurist confided to an RSF representative that the authorities have at least 25 different legal texts at their disposal that they can invoke to arrest a journalist. Nonetheless, RSF is pleased with the initiative taken by Barrister Moudud Ahmed, the Minister of Law, Justice, and Parliamentary Affairs to form a committee for the purpose of drafting an amendment to existing press and freedom of information laws. News media professionals are directly concerned by this reform. During an informal meeting with the Minister, RSF requested that prison sentences for press-related offences be permanently revoked from Bangladeshi laws. The Minister did not commit himself on that issue, but did confirm to RSF’s representative that this legal reform should be finalised by the end of the year 2002. BCDJC President Nayeemul Islam Khan’s comment to RSF was: "Assembling a committee to carry out press law reform is a commendable political move. Let’s wait and see what comes out of it."
The opposition’s attacks on freedom of the press
The last six months of the Awami League regime have proven to be a very trying period in terms of press freedom and, above all, journalists’ safety. The symbolic case of journalist Tipu Sultan, who was mutilated by the henchmen of Parliament member Joynal Hazari, mobilised hundreds of journalists and spearheaded an unprecedented solidarity campaign in support of a member of the press. Likewise, the murder attempt on Dainik Janakantha reporter Prabir Shikder provoked very strong protests.
Most of the crimes attributed to supporters of Sheikh Hasina’s regime have gone unpunished. What is worse, Awami League leaders have never stopped backing those criminals.
Since the election rout of 1 October 2001, some members of the Awami League—particularly its student branch—have been brutally assaulting members of the press. For example, on 17 December, some opposition militants repeatedly hit with a stick Khandaker Mehboobur Rahman, a correspondent with the Ajker Kagoj daily in Bajitpur, Kishoreganj (north central of Bangladesh).
Sheikh Hasina’s local party leader personally took part in the assault. However, in the past seven months, RSF has only recorded two press freedom violations directly imputable to the Awami League, a meagre number compared to the 86 cases imputed to militants of the ruling parties. The Awami League is now portraying itself as a victim of repression. Dozens of its militants may, indeed, have been arrested, assaulted or killed but it can in no way claim to have a positive track record in terms of defending journalists’ freedom and safety.
Gross misconduct and political pressures taint investigations into the murder, or attempted murder, of three journalists
On 16 July 2000, Shamsur Rahman (photo), a journalist with the Dainik Janakantha daily and broadcaster of the Bengali-language service of the British BBC radio station, was shot twice (once in the chest and once in the head) and killed in the town of Jessore (in the western part of the country). Two unidentified individuals broke into his office and shot him at point blank range. The 43-year-old journalist had written numerous articles about the criminal activities of the armed gangs and organised criminal groups that plague the region. In March 1999, he had already escaped one murder attempt in Jessore. During the weeks that preceded his murder, the journalist had received anonymous death threats by telephone.
"It is such a humiliation for me and my children to see those who ordered my husband’s murder walking free in the streets of Jessore," said Shamsur Rahman’s widow (photo). Despite the tireless efforts of Mrs. Rahman, her sons and some of the victim’s colleagues, no suspect is presently in custody and the trial has not yet begun. What is worse, government officials have decided to cancel the initial police inquiry. Twenty months after the journalist’s murder, all of the work done so far by the police has failed to bring any results.
Yet the investigative report sent to judicial authorities in May 2001 had nonetheless identified 16 individuals suspected of "murder" and of being "accessories to murder". Most of them were arrested and later released on bail, in July 2001.
The decision made by Khaleda Zia’s regime to re-open the case, against the Rahman family’s will, has allowed the prime suspects—including a large number of journalists from Jessore—to continue lobbying efforts to eliminate their names from the police investigative report. As a result, Mizanur Rahmand Tota, Bureau Chief of the newspaper Inqilab, was freed after spending 16 months behind bars. Several testimonies named Mizanur Rahman Tota as an accomplice of the two killers to go-ahead to break into Shamsur Rahman’s office. Coincidentally, the Inqilab journalist had an office in the very same building.
Later on, in October 2001, after the BNP regime had assumed power, the Ministry of Home Affairs announced that a series of police inquiries into the murders of journalists were going to be re-opened. This decision represents a major setback for the Shamsur Rahman case. Furthermore, the government has done nothing to obtain the extradition from India of one of the two individuals identified by police as the killers. Salim Reza is reportedly being held in a New Delhi prison. In June 2001, there was a rumour that Indian authorities planned to escort Salim Reza to the border. Some of Shamsur Rahman’s relatives and friends consequently travelled there, but Indian officials informed them that no extradition request had been submitted by the Dhaka government on behalf of this Bangladeshi citizen.
Today, as they have done for almost two years now, Shamsur Rahman’s widow, daughter and friends (photo) are demanding justice. They also claim that their safety is no longer assured since the government, in July 2001, withdrew police protection. This decision was made at the very moment when most of the suspects were being released on bail. Mrs. Rahman confided to RSF, "My daughter is in danger."
Judicial authorities do not seem inclined to make any progress in the case. As a matter of fact, Kazi Munirul, the Jessore District Court’s Public Prosecutor to whom police had forwarded their investigative report, had declared that he favoured re-opening the case. It so happens that Kazi Munirul is also in charge of the BNP’s Jessore district, and had close ties to some of the suspects identified by the police.
In light of this situation, and of the fact that all the work done by the police is being called into question by political and mafia interests, the family sent the government a letter in which they asked for police protection and a reversal of the decision to re-open the case. Shamsur Rahman’s widow also suggested that RSF should try to find a legal expert who could "help" the prosecutor—provided that he agrees—to build his case and prepare for trial.
RSF requests that the Ministry of Home Affairs immediately withdraw its decision to re-open the case, and that the suspects identified as a result of the initial police inquiry be once again arrested, charged and judged by a court of law. It is also essential that the government obtain from the Indian authorities permission to extradite Salim Reza, one of the two alleged killers.
On 22 April 2001, an attempt to murder Prabir Shikder, a correspondent with the Dainik Janakantha newspaper in Faridpur (west of the capital), was made by three unidentified individuals while Shikder was riding his motorcycle in downtown Faridpur. His assailants threw incendiary bombs at him, shot him three times at point-blank range and, before running away, struck him with a machete. Prabir Shikder was taken to Dhaka’s orthopaedic hospital, where surgeons had to amputate his right leg due to irreversible gunshot injuries.
"Since day one, I have been saying loud and clear that the person behind this murder attempt is a businessman, Musa-bin-Shamsher. But in his investigative report, the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) officer did not even mention his name on the list of suspects. This is why I have asked that the police reinvestigate the possible involvement of Musa-bin-Shamsher and of his partner," Prabir Shikder explained to RSF. According to Prabir Shikder, the fact that the name of the person who allegedly ordered the assault was not mentioned in the investigative report can be directly attributed to the political pressure being brought to bear on the police.
In the hours immediately following the murder attempt, a Faridpur police officer was put in charge of the inquiry. The first error made by the investigators was to ask the assaulted journalist’s brother-in-law to sign a "First Investigation Report" (FIR), a document serving as a complaint filed during the first hours of the investigation. Unfortunately, Shikder’s brother-in-law was unaware of the exact circumstances of the assault and did not check to see whether the name of Musa-bin-Shamsher was, in fact, mentioned in this document. Prabir Shikder’s other family member’s were all standing at his bedside in the Dhaka hospital. Based upon this initial deposition and testimonies gathered, the police conducted a swift and vigorous investigation that led to the arrest of two offenders: Shahidul Islam, 27, and Mohammad Rahman, 24. On 28 April, a third suspect, 26-year-old Hafizur Rahman, also known as Nobel, also confessed that he had taken part in this assault. Hafizur Rahman thereby acknowledged that he was a member of the Nuru armed gang. He and his accomplices were allegedly contacted by Hafizur Rahman Hafiz, a businessman linked with Musa-bin-Shamsher. While at the home of Musa-bin-Shamsher’s brother, the gang allegedly was paid the sum of 500,000 Taka (slightly more than Euro 9,000) to kill the journalist. The investigators consequently focused their efforts on the Musa-bin-Shamsher lead, all the more so since the media were accusing the businessman as having organised the murder attempt. The police even searched Musa-bin-Shamsher’s offices and home in Dhaka.
But after two weeks of investigation, the file was transferred to a Dhaka CID agent. This decision, which was politically motivated and officially announced by the Police Commissioner of Faridpur on 7 May 2001, caused the case to take a radically different turn. According to Prabir Shikder and several other journalists, the pace of the inquiry then slowed down considerably. Maula Bakht, the Police officer based in Dhaka, was put in charge of the inquiry. He questioned the victim twice and the journalist repeated on both occasions that he was certain that Musa-bin-Shamsher had ordered this assault. But when the investigative report was forwarded to the magistrate on 10 September 2001, it did not even mention the names of Musa-bin-Shamsher and of his partner, Hafizur Rahman Hafiz. The journalist’s lawyer, Manik Majumdar, who had access to the file, confirmed that the investigator had omitted vital parts of the victim’s deposition and of the inquiry’s initial findings. The lawyer also stressed that the investigator had focused his efforts on a criminal and racketeering lead, rather than the "journalist" lead. Prabir Shikder admitted that he had, indeed, been writing articles on organised crime since 1991, but specified that he had never received any threats after they were published. It is worth mentioning that, 15 days before his assault, Prabir Shikder had written an article in which he implicated Assistant Police Commissioner Maula Bakht in some cases involving extortion of money.
Why is Musa-bin-Shamsher the prime suspect? In March 2001, Prabir Shikder wrote three articles for the Janakantha on individuals suspected of having committed crimes during the Bangladesh War of Independence of 1971. The first article concerned Zakaria Kalifa, a comparatively older man of simple means living in a village on the outskirts of Faridpur. While he was, in fact, involved in the 1971 massacres, he appears today to have been incapable of having organised this murder attempt. The second article concerned Abul Kalam Azad, who has since become a television anchorman. This intelligent and poised man interprets the Koran on the private ETV television channel. According to several testimonies, Abul Kalam Azad never reacted to the article and is mainly interested in detracting people’s attention from his past crimes. The third article implicated Musa-bin-Shamsher, a wealthy entrepreneur from Faridpur whose business activities notably consisted of transporting members of the Bangladeshi work force to the Persian Gulf countries. Known for his close ties with certain criminal groups, Musa-bin-Shamsher also has political connections, since he is the brother-in-law of the Minister of Health of the Awami League, which was in power at the time of the assault.
Prabir Shikder asserted that he received death threats after the article appeared on Musa-bin-Shamsher. Initially, a rumour circulated in Faridpur about threats that the journalist was said to have received, then some of Prabir Shikder’s colleagues contacted him to ask him to be "prudent" when implicating certain individuals in his articles.
RSF was able to meet with Mustafa Kabir, the officer-in-charge of the inquiry, and with Khairul Bashar, the chief of the Faridpur district police. Both confirmed that the police were working on the case without hindrance. On 27 April, the Faridpur journalists nonetheless decided to take yet another stand: this time, it was a hunger strike to protest the investigation’s slow progress. Indeed, since 13 December—the date on which the journalist’s lawyers filed the petition to re-open the case—Mustafa Kabir, the officer recently put in charge of the inquiry in Faridpur, has interrogated Prabir Shikder only once. According to several observers, Mustafa Kabir was reluctant to re-open the inquiry because, if he were to mention the names of Musa-bin-Shamsher and Hafizur Rahman Hafiz in his report, he would contradict the version already established by a higher-ranking officer. On 7 March 2002, Mustafa Kabir told RSF that the new investigation would be completed within one month. But the latter is currently frozen for reasons that are no doubt related to the political protection enjoyed by Musa-bin-Shamsher. Finally, over the past few months, some of the suspects in this case have been murdered. For example, on 13 March 2002, the body of Siddique Shiekh (also known as "Jacky"), whose name is mentioned in the initial police report, was found floating in a river near Faridpur. Already, in February 2002, Jahangir Hossain Labu, who was suspected of having taken part in the murder attempt, had been found dead, with his throat slit. The police have yet to establish a link between these murders and the Prabir Shikder case.
RSF requests that the police officer in charge of re-examining the potential implication of Musa-bin-Shamsher and Hafizur Rahman Hafiz in the murder attempt gain the full support of the authorities. In the opinion of the organisation, the new report should be forwarded as soon as possible to the Faridpur magistrate, and the police should re-arrest any suspects whose names appeared in the initial report. Finally, the trial must start on the earliest possible date.
On 25 January 2001, several masked individuals abducted Tipu Sultan, a correspondent with the UNB private press agency, in Feni (in the south-eastern part of the country). The journalist related the sequence of events for RSF: "They abducted me right in the middle of the street in Feni. Once they got me in their car, they called their boss, who happened to be the Feni member of Parliament, Joynal Hazari, and asked him what they should do with me. I did not hear his answer, but I can guess what it was now. They drove me to an empty lot where they hit me with iron bars and baseball bats. Hazari’s men left me for dead there." Tipu Sultan was found lying unconscious, with both hands and legs broken. Witnesses corroborated Tipu Sultan’s version of the facts: the aggressors have close ties with Joynal Hazari, the parliamentarian representing the Awami League (the ruling party at the time of the assault), and some of them are militants with the Bangladesh Chattra League (the student branch of the Awami League). The parliamentarian, who had complained several times about Tipu Sultan’s work, denies any involvement in this assault. From January to July 2001, the Feni police department, known for their support of Joynal Hazari, did not initiate any inquiry. There were hopes that the expiration of the terms of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and of Parliamentary member Joynal Hazari, in July 2001, would spearhead substantial progress in the inquiry and in the trial of the perpetrators of this murder attempt.
Indeed, in August 2001, the interim government decided to have both the police and the army raid the district of Feni to quash the mafia activities of Joynal Hazari and his men. The parliamentarian’s home was searched and some of his relations were arrested but he managed to escape and is now hiding out, supposedly in India.
Despite any effects that the change of government may have had on Feni and the rest of the country, the investigation has been stalling since October 2001. Tipu Sultan is not very optimistic about the likelihood of his ever seeing the guilty arrested. Only one of them, Farooque Hossain Mridha, a journalist with very close ties to Joynal Hazari, is being held in a Feni prison while, according to recent testimonies, other suspects—who were incriminated by Tipu Sultan in his disposition—have switched their political allegiance and now work for the BNP’s member of Parliament. Consequently, in an investigative report published on 24 March 2002 by the Dainik Janakantha, journalist Fazlul Bari claimed that some of the suspects had joined the ranks of the BNP. The district’s Police Commissioner is said to have deplored the fact that "journalists have always provided negative coverage of the Feni situation."
Furthermore, certain administrative formalities have been blocking any progress in the investigation. Since December 2001, an official of the government run orthopaedic hospital in Dhaka is dilly – dallying to provide the journalist with a medical certificate mentioning that he was admitted with injuries and operated upon. This document is needed in order to resume the inquiry on the basis of the new complaint filed by Tipu Sultan. The latter asked RSF: "Is this a politically motivated effort to prevent me from obtaining justice, or is it just a question of administrative delays?"
Tipu Sultan was able to return to Feni in February 2002, after a year of absence. Ever since his assault, the journalist has felt threatened. During a visit in his hometown, he met with the police officer in charge of the inquiry and gave him the names of a dozen individuals that he had identified at the time of his assault. Despite the fact that Inspector Gaffar has promised to pursue the investigation, Tipu Sultan is worried that his superiors will not back up the police officer were he to implicate some of the new parliamentarian’s men in the case.
The new national and local authorities seem to be taking the same path as did the Awami League regime, which covered up the identity of the person behind this murder attempt throughout its term. However, Tipu Sultan and his supporters have managed to overcome the first legal obstacle that had been impeding the investigation: in 2001, a legal tactic had enabled parliamentarian Joynal Hazari’s followers to block the investigation by filing their own complaint against the opposition. Furthermore, several sources contend that the officer in charge of the inquiry was a member of the Feni deputy’s inner circle. Policemen were even seen escorting Hazari’s henchmen when the latter visited the homes of Tipu Sultan’s relatives to threaten them with retaliation. Today, the new investigation that Tipu Sultan had so eagerly desired has begun, but the police seem to be in no hurry to bring it to a successful conclusion.
RSF requests that the officer in charge of the inquiry forward the results of that investigation, within two months, to Bangladeshi judicial authorities. In the organisation’s opinion, the main suspects identified by Tipu Sultan must be arrested and interrogated by police. The authorities should also request the Indian Government for their aid in arresting the individual who ordered the murder attempt and is allegedly hiding out in India—Joynal Hazari.
Conclusions and recommendations
Journalists are the first to publicly condemn the criminal tactics used in politics. They are also the first to pay for the privilege. In Bangladesh, at least 145 of them have been assaulted or have received death threats since the Alliance led by the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami assumed power. The nation’s political system, paralysed by the opposition’s boycott of the Bangladeshi Parliament, is another source of violent attacks against members of the press. "Prior to 1990, we were being forced to accept a single-party system. Now, we are being asked to elect a single party. This has an impact on the press because journalists are compelled to choose which side they are on," stressed Motiur Rahman, Editor of the Prothom Alo newspaper. Trapped within this binary system, media professionals are trying to cover the country’s difficult situation as best they can.
All of those involved in safeguarding press freedom are pessimistic as to any possible improvement in terms of journalists’ safety. "All the Ministry of Home Affairs does to stem this violence is issue policy statements and make paternalistic gestures," asserted Prothom Alo’s Editor. "In this country, politicians make a point of appearing side-by-side with victims, but in reality, they are conspiring with members of organised crime. They are creating a Frankenstein that will ultimately devour them," commented Alhaj Liaquat Ali, Editor-in-Chief of the Purbanchal regional daily.
In light of the serious rule violations committed by the national and local authorities in the Shamsur Rahman, Tipu Sultan and Prabir Shikder cases, RSF considers that the regime, and, more precisely, the Ministry of Home Affairs, is responsible for the fact that these journalists’ killers and aggressors have gone unpunished. Such a climate of impunity perpetuates violence against members of the press. And, as many journalists interviewed by RSF have stressed, "it is impossible to work with a gun aimed at our head."
Recommendations to the Bangladeshi authorities:
1. RSF asks that the ruling parties order their followers to stop all assaults against the press;
2. RSF reminds the government of their international commitments to the protection of human rights, notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment;
3. RSF requests the repeal of all emergency legislation that provides for imposing prison sentences on journalists based upon what they write, following procedures contrary to the standards of international justice;
4. RSF suggests that a special section be created within the Ministry of Home Affairs to monitor the processing of complaints filed by assaulted journalists;
5. RSF requests that the wishes of the family of murdered journalist Shamsur Rahman be complied with, namely that no revision of the inquiry be made and that the trial should ensue as soon as possible;
6. RSF requests that every possible resource be made available to the investigators and magistrates to ensure that the Prabir Shikder and Tipu Sultan cases may be properly examined and tried;
7. RSF requests that the new provisions governing the issuance of press visas to foreign journalists be rescinded, as they are seriously hindering their work;
8. RSF demands that the "sedition" charges that have been brought against journalist and human right activist Shahriar Kabir be lifted;
9. RSF demands the elimination of all political and financial pressures now being exerted upon members of the independent media, notably the Dainik Janakantha.
Recommendations to the European Union, United States and the donor community
1. RSF requests that any aid provided to the Bangladeshi government be made dependent upon the respect of freedom of expression;
2. RSF calls upon the United States and European Union representatives in Bangladesh to publicly condemn the arrests and assaults of journalists that are still being perpetrated by militants of the ruling parties or by the police;
3. RSF recommends that organisations defending freedom of the press be actively supported.
Recommendations to Bangladeshi Journalists
1. RSF condemns any incitement to violence by the media.
2. RSF also condemns the occasionally virulent way in which some media with close ties to the government negatively comment about those publications and prominent individuals who peaceably criticise the authorities;
3. RSF condemns the support given by some journalists to organised groups implicated in the assaults or murders of their colleagues;
4. RSF recommends that members of the press cover events rigorously and objectively, given that the use of political tactics by the press may compromise any efforts to quell the political violence.
|Comments from the Principal Information Officer, Fazal M. Kamal.
First up, it is apparent from a general reading of the draft that in some parts some people succeeded in duping you with inaccurate, exaggerated, incorrect and unverified assertions and claims. In addition, a lack of understanding as well as a lack of knowledge of the backgrounds of some persons and events on top of a lack of appreciation of our societal, political and cultural complexities have, regrettably, led RSF to jump to a number of unsubstantiated conclusions (confusions?!).It’s not particularly the RSF mission’s failing; it’s the way things are. Many of the incidents mentioned in the report, as you’re aware, occurred before the present alliance administration took office. Therefore it’s not fair to recount those in a report that is supposed to be looking at incidents that happened since the new government came into existence. One prime instance of duplicitous "information": Government advertisements to Jonokontho have NOT been stopped, even in today’s edition of the paper there are government ads. There have been NO pressure put on transnational or national companies by anyone in the administration or anyone even remotely connected to it to stop their ads to this paper; and if the truth be told, its power connection was not cut off by the government; power to the owner’s corporate headquarters was disrupted by the electricity supplying authority for non-payment of outstanding bills as was claimed by the power company. Another example yet: When the previous BSS (the state-run wire service) managing director claims that "political vendetta was a first in the history of the agency" he is telling something which doesn’t coincide with the truth. What’s more, he himself was appointed to that position by superseding a number of journalists in that organization and during his watch more personnel were appointed (who were mostly active members of the then ruling party) violating the organigram of the news agency causing financial difficulties to the agency, and the present management is working strenuously to bring back discipline---both financial and others---to the outfit. One more inaccuracy: The Department of Films and Publications was NOT created in 1988; it was formed in 1976. What’s more, if anyone takes the trouble of checking whether newspapers highly critical of the administration are receiving government ads or not will awfully easily find out, just by going through the daily editions of such papers, that they, in fact, are being given government ads in profusion. It’s extremely regrettable that this obvious fact was missed by the mission. Put simply, the administration has NO policy whatsoever, in operation or on hold, to utilize government ads to coerce opposition news publications. I’ll conclude producing instances by pointing out that there is no evidence whatever---and this should be self-evident to even a casual visitor to this country---that the administration "perceives the foreign press as an adversary that cannot be trusted." This is highly inappropriate, incorrect and unfair to an administration which has always cooperated with journalists both foreign and national. Foreign books and magazines are openly and amply available, and there are absolutely NO restrictions on their import or circulation. And about one Bertil Lintner, the less said the better. Anyone who is a genuine news person will realize what Lintner’s piece was,and it wasn’t journalism. At best it can be described as some bizarre type of pamphlateering! And that number of the magazine even used the photograph of an innocent person on the cover in such a way as if he were a bloodcrazed radical of some sort. I don’t want to go on even though I can because more than sufficient opportunities are present in the report. All I want to emphasize by underscoring the above points is that the least we should expect from a report on any subject is that it will be accurate, will have the facts rather than the warped views of some interested persons thus transforming the report into one of dubious quality, and that it will be fair. Also to be noted is that it is in our---that is, professional journalists like us---own supreme interest to see to it that the media is free and remains so. After all, we have struggled for a free press over many years and we have succeeded to a very great degree. Consequently, we would not want to circumsribe that freedom and that right in any way even when we temporarily work for the government. We personally know the value of our successes and we are keenly aware of the sacrifices that had to be made to achieve those.We shall not fritter away our rights and freedoms under any circumstances.