[Sushanta Das Gupta, UK]
Reporters Without Borders has released their 2008 Annual Report on Bangladesh. Among their major concerns this year are the rise of the military government, the lack of freedom of press, threats to media personnel and the torture of journalists:
Bangladesh – Annual report 2008
Area: 144,000 sq km.
Languages: Bengali, English.
Head of state: Iajuddin Ahmed.
A drop in the number of physical assaults and death threats was eclipsed by dozens of cases of arrests, maltreatment and censorship committed by the army against independent journalists. The interim government and the military put an end to political disorder but at the price of serious violations of press freedom.
There was a sharp decrease in the number of journalists physically attacked or receiving death threats from political militants and criminals. On the other hand, arrests increased markedly, with almost 40 cases in 2007. And the army, the real power in the country, committed serious press freedom violations aimed at silencing independent journalists. The government constantly stated that the media had a role to play in the fight against corruption and social injustice, but these good intentions were confounded and, in a new development, self-censorship began gradually to be applied to political issues. “Some asserted that the media was becoming the parliament in the absence of a government formed by elections. Others welcomed the emergence of a fourth estate. But one thing in the media was missing: critical articles on the current administration, clearly demonstrating the existence of censorship and self-censorship”, the Bangladesh Centre for Development, Journalism and Communication (BCDJC), a Reporters Without Borders partner organisation, said in one of its recent reports.
Censorship imposed at every political convulsion
A state of emergency was declared on 11 January and the country’s TV and radio were ordered to stop broadcasting their news programmes for two days. When the government faced student demonstrations at the end of August, it banned stations from broadcasting talk shows and political programmes. Army intelligence services officers summoned editorial heads and threatened them with draconian criminal proceeding, including under Article 5 of the State of Emergency Regulations. CSB News and Ekushey TV were ordered by the Press Information Department not to broadcast “provocative” reports and commentaries. A management figure at ATN Bangla told Reporters Without Borders, “The ban on talk shows is a disaster. While there is no parliament, political broadcasts are the best way for citizens to comment on the government’s decisions.”
Privately-owned television stations, which enjoy growing popularity in the country, were the main target of crackdowns. The government in September ordered the suspension of CSB News whose management had allegedly forged a document to obtain a frequency in October 2006, and police closed the station, but the decision was probably linked to the broadcast of footage of opposition demonstrations, in defiance of warnings from the authorities. According to the Daily Star, members of the government even accused the station of inciting students to demonstrate in Dhaka.
The written press did its best to resist pressure from the authorities. Mahfuz Anam, editor of the privately-owned Daily Star, said in an editorial in January, “As long as we have not received a written order from the government, we will consider them illegal (…) Friends of democracy never silence the press, it is only done by dictators. The people of Bangladesh will never accept dictators”. But in September, the management of Prothom Alo was forced to apologise and to sack the deputy editor of its humoristic supplement, Aalpin, under pressure from conservative clergy after cartoonist Arifur Rahman drew a sketch which included wordplay on the name Mohammed, gently poking fun at the habit of people in some Muslim countries of putting the name Mohammed before their usual name. Police arrested him and seized all copies of the magazine, which was accused of “hurting the people’s religious sentiment”. The copies were ritually burned in front of one of the capital’s mosques.
During the year, privately-owned dailies, such as Prothom Alo, Inqilab, Amader Shomoy, Jugantor, Daily Star and Shamokal were also victims of judicial harassment. The newspapers had to employ a large number of lawyers to keep their editors and journalist out of prison in the face of around 100 defamation suits.
Journalists tortured by members of the military
Several journalists were tortured for investigating the security forces. Tasneem Khalil, journalist and blogger (tasneemkhalil.com), was detained and tortured in May after openly criticising the army for the spread of extra-judicial killings. The Human Rights Watch consultant and contributor to CNN was forced to flee the country. Jahangir Alam Akash, correspondent for the newspaper Sangbad, and for CSB News and German radio Deutsche Welle in Rajshahi, who had been investigating the ‘execution’ by the army of a student leader, was arrested by soldiers on 24 October. He was released on bail on 19 November and spoke about the hell he had lived through at an army camp. “Officers and soldiers tortured me for several hours: electric shocks, blows to my legs. I couldn’t walk for a week,” he said.
Police, acting under emergency laws, arrested two journalists in March in Moulvibazar in the north-east, after local politicians laid a defamation case against him. A correspondent for the Daily Star, Asduzzaman Tipu, spent one month in prison after being falsely accused of extortion.
No fewer than 15 journalists were arrested on the same evening when a curfew was imposed in August and around 30 others were beaten by police and soldiers deployed in the capital. The chief news editor of the privately-owned Baishakhi TV, Anis Alamgir, was beaten up by soldiers, while a photographer with the daily Dinkal was seriously injured by police. The authorities apologised by nobody was punished for the assaults.
On the other hand, the anti-crime struggle allowed the arrest of suspects in the murders of journalist Gautam Das in 2005 and of Shamsur Rhaman in 2000. And several politicians, including Shahidul Islam, former member of Parliament from the Kushtia region, responsible for attacks on journalists in 2006, were taken into custody.
Although weakened, Jihadist groups continued to threaten journalists. An Islamist group threatened an attack on the Jatiya press club in May and in April extremists sent a letter containing death threats to a journalist on the daily Bhorer Kagoj, in Chittagong in the south-east of the country.
Finally, even though no journalist was killed for their work in 2007, the authorities did not fully clear up the circumstances of the death in March of Jamal Uddin, correspondent for the news agency Abas and local newspaper Dainik Giri Darpan, in Rangamati in the south-east, whom the authorities said had committed suicide. The president of the Rangamati press club said the journalist’s body bore marks of blows all over his body, which had been found lying at the foot of a tree, with a rope around his neck.
Reporters Without Borders has also published the Worldwide Press Freedom Index 2007. Bangladesh ranks 134th amongst 169 countries.
The International Media have shown growing concern over the recent rise in human rights violations in Bangladesh. One thing is evident, that no matter how much secrecy the military government tries to impose over its violation of human rights, the world is hearing about it. Because of the ready availability of information due to the internet and other channels of communication, we can now learn about the misrulings and outrages committed by this military government.
Sushanta Das Gupta is the Editor, E-Bangladesh.