[Saleem Samad, Canada]
Press freedom has always been a far cry in Bangladesh. Despite 15 years of rule under so-called democratically elected governments of Khaleda Zia and Shiekh Hasina. Both of them did not enough to punish the perpetrators of the press. Thus the heads of state along with other elected leaders were dubbed by New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) as “democra-tators”.
Bangladesh, a year under de facto military rule has kept themselves in power by exercising emergency rule and trimmed the constitution to fit thyself.
Therefore, press watchdogs and human rights group does not expect the military installed interim government will attempt to free the press, so long as emergency rule exist.
Paris based press watchdog Reporter Sans Frontieres (RSF) has published their 2008 annual document, and Bangladesh press freedom report described as appalling.
“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.”
Blanket censorship was imposed by the military backed government caused immense damage to independent newspapers, private radio and television channels. The credibility of news sources published by newspapers and broadcast were questioned. Sources of most news were attributed to state security agents for feeding the media, as part of misinformation campaign.
The private television channels took much of the brunt’s of the emergency. Couple of TV channels blacked out on the screen, after their owners were arrested for alleged corruption, evading taxes, and money laundering. While CSB channel in October 2007 was knocked out of the air for improper registration and having forged documents.
In addition the private channels were barred from broadcast of the popular talk shows live. The authorities imposed so-called media guideline, which the channels bosses were asked to swallow, as they have seen fates of other TV channels.
Reporter Without Border (RSF) in a summary on Bangladesh that there is…
“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.”
Apparently, there is no incident of murder of journalist in 2007, but the interim government did not take any steps to ensure justice to nearly a dozen journalists silenced for their pen in the last 15 years. Rather the families of the deceased journalists were so frustrated that they have given up all hopes to get any justice from the justice system.
“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 worst scenario was arbitrary detention and torture of journalists in judicial custody by dreaded state security agency DGFI (Directorate General of Forces Intelligence) and the elite anti-crime squad RAB (Rapid Action Battalion).
At least two journalists have been detained and tortured by DGFI and another by RAB. In both cases the journalists also worked for a rights group and international media. Obviously the authorities are nervous with any journalists who have extra hats. One as defender of human rights and another stringer for international press. The state security agencies know only one solution – imbibe a sense of fear by intimidation and repression, which the chiefs does not understand it backfires and of course stains the effort of the reform seeking government.
Tasneem Khalil, a journalist with the independent English newspaper The Daily Star had also worked as correspondent with the influential TV station CNN. His crime was investigating extra-judicial killing of suspects and alleged criminals by elite RAB. He was physically tortured and intimidated. He recounted his ordeal in DGFI secret cell which has been published by New York based Human Rights Watch in early February.
Whereas Jahangir Alam Akash, correspondent of pro-secular newspaper Dainik Sangbad based in Rajshahi, northern town and also correspondent of German radio Deutsch Welle. He was detained for alleged extortion, which has yet to be proved in any competent court of law.
He also investigated an extra-judicial killing of a student leader by elite RAB, which prompted the anti-crime squad officer (of Bangladesh Army), was arrested by army officers 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.”
The emergency rule forced the newspapers and electronic media to practice self-censorship to save themselves from the wrath of the government punitive actions and threats. However, the print media …
“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.”
Chief of the interim government Dr Fakruddin Ahmed, former World Bank executive often told foreign dignitaries. As well as on his official visits abroad that Bangladesh press enjoy freedom.
Recently the former economist, Dr Ahmed told United States Congressmen that the authority was accountable to the people and there was press freedom in the country. Possibly he does not understand the definition of press freedom and freedom of speech.
RSF concludes that:
“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.”
Bangladesh is a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which was signed during the United Nations Millennium conference at New York in 2000. However, Bangladesh is yet to ratify the Covenant, as well as Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights both guarantees absolute freedom of expression.
Tasneem Khalil has escaped to Sweden, where he is presently living in self exile. Damage control, no apology, no action has been taken against the perpetrators.
Saleem Samad [http://bangladeshwatchdog.blogspot.com] — an Ashoka Fellow — is a journalist best known for his investigative reporting on military oppression in CHT and Jihadist militancy in Bangladesh. Currently living in exile in Canada for his articles in Time, Tehelka.com, Daily Times. He specializes on intelligence, conflict, Islamic militancy in South Asia, particularly in Bangladesh.