Journalists in Bangladesh were frequently subjected to physical assault, harassment, and intimidation as the country was wracked by political and criminal violence. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led by former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, intensified its campaign to oust the current government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, frequently calling countrywide strikes during which party workers ensured that all commercial activity ground to a halt. Those attempting to work, or even to travel by vehicle, risked being assaulted by political partisans.
While members of the press are supposedly exempt from these restrictions, journalists covering the strikes were invariably attacked, both by political activists and by the police. Reporting on Bangladesh’s highly politicized university campuses was also hazardous, as student activists routinely threatened and harassed journalists who probed too closely into their affairs. In the southern districts, journalists faced violent reprisals for their reporting on criminal syndicates and militant activity.
In February, shortly after a BNP-led general strike during which several journalists were assaulted and harassed, the home minister sent a memorandum to the country’s police chiefs asking them to guarantee the safety and security of journalists, and to “ensure that nobody should obstruct newsmen from performing their professional duties smoothly.” Strike-related violence against journalists continued unabated–often perpetrated by the police. In a particularly egregious October incident, riot police attempting to put down a demonstration held by an Islamic group turned their clubs on at least a dozen photojournalists covering the clash.
Religious extremists also contributed to the general atmosphere of intolerance in Bangladesh. Toab Khan, editor of Janakantha, one of the country’s leading Bengali-language dailies, received a series of letters in February warning him that he would be assassinated if the newspaper did not change its “anti-Islamic” stance. (Janakantha has editorialized against religious parties who want to see Bangladesh become an Islamist state.) In October, when bombs were planted at several mosques of a minority sect reviled by fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, an anti-tank mine was reportedly discovered in a briefcase left in the reception area of Janakantha‘s Dhaka office. Police recovered the explosive before it detonated, but defense ministry officials said the mine “could have blown away the entire building and nearby structures.”
While the administration was not overtly hostile to independent media, Hasina did make the ominous suggestion that the press, along with the judiciary, needed to be held “accountable.” In August, local journalists told CPJ that the administration was preparing to work out a new regulatory system that would give the government greater control over the press. The English-language Daily Star published a stern editorial on the subject, with a headline that told the prime minister to “Leave the Judiciary and Press Alone.”
Although Bangladesh’s constitution guarantees freedom of the press, it defines this freedom as “subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality.” These caveats give the government enormous discretionary powers.
District officials still have broad authority to cancel publishing licenses under the Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1973. In November, the Dhaka district magistrate ordered the closure of the pro-BNP political magazine Weekly Evidence on the grounds that the magazine’s publisher had failed to notify authorities of its change of address. A high court stayed the order for three months, as the action appeared politically motivated.
Prime Minister Hasina’s election-year pledges to grant autonomy to the state-run Bangladesh Television (BTV), meanwhile, remained unfulfilled. BTV is criticized by many for functioning as a propaganda tool of the ruling Awami League government. The opposition BNP has boycotted state television for the last year and a half: its leaders have refused to be interviewed on state television, and party activists have in the past forcibly blocked BTV cameramen from covering certain political events. However, the state’s TV monopoly ended with the launch of Ekushey Television (ETV), the country’s first private network. ETV was scheduled to start broadcasting in early 2000.
Despite the various pressures, there were more than 500 publications circulating in the country last year. Local journalists defend their rights vocally, and a number of organizations have been formed in recent years to promote press freedom. Some local activists feel that if these organizations could band together–overcoming partisan differences–they might provide the basis for building a truly civil society in Bangladesh.
Monirz Hossain, Dainik Sathkirar Chitra IMPRISONED
Police arrested Hossain, an apprentice reporter with the Bengali-language newspaper Dainik Sathkirar Chitra, at his home, and kept him in police custody for nearly a week despite evidence that his arrest warrant had been forged.
Hossain was arrested under a warrant that had ostensibly been issued by a Dhaka metropolitan court judge. However, when Hossain’s parents traveled to Dhaka to inquire about the warrant, they found that the case record number could not be traced to any particular court. On February 6, the superintendent of police in Sathkira–the town in which Hossain’s paper is published–admitted to a reporter for the Bengali-language daily Janakantha that it seemed Hossain had been arrested under a “fictitious warrant.” However, he did not release the journalist.
Dainik Sathkirar Chitra has a reputation for reporting on sensitive issues such as illegal trade across the border between India and Bangladesh (Sathkira is a border town in southwestern Bangladesh), criminal gang activity, and local corruption. Hossain, who is also a student at a local college, had written several stories that reportedly angered local traders. CPJ received reports indicating that a well-known criminal made several inquiries to determine whether Hossain’s arrest warrant had arrived at the Sathkira police station, and that the journalist was arrested in the presence of another gang leader.
Police released Hossain on February 8. In a letter sent to Minister of Information Abu Sayeed that same day, CPJ expressed concern that Hossain may have been arrested at the behest of local criminals.
Masud Pervez Anis, Bhorer Kagoj ATTACKED
Shakawat Hossain Rubel, Dainik Purbakone ATTACKED
Shupriya Chakma, Dainik Rupali ATTACKED
S.M. Shamsul Alam, Ajker Kagoj ATTACKED
Oli Ahmed, Banglabazar Patrika ATTACKED
Ahmed Nabi, Dainik Dinkal ATTACKED
Daily Star ATTACKED
Several journalists were attacked on the first day of a 60-hour general strike called by a group of opposition parties led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
Rubber bullets fired by Dhaka police hit Anis, a photographer with the Bengali-language newspaper Bhorer Kagoj. Anis had been riding in an autorickshaw along with other journalists when a group of opposition activists forced the rickshaw to stop, ordered the driver and the journalists to disembark, and set fire to the vehicle. Anis was injured while photographing the burning rickshaw and the mob surrounding it. The officers had apparently fired the shots to scatter rival political groups.
The same day, a group of about 20 activists set fire to a press autorickshaw stationed outside the Dhaka offices of the English-language newspaper Daily Star, and then threw rocks at the windows and gates of the building. No one was injured in the attack.
Also on February 9, opposition activists assaulted a group of journalists in the southeastern town of Rangamati. Leaders of the Rangamati Press Club met to denounce the attack on print journalists Rubel, Chakma, Alam, Ahmed, and Nabi. A resolution issued after the meeting announced that journalists in Rangamati would temporarily suspend news coverage of any BNP activities, demanded that the BNP publicly apologize for the actions of its followers, and called on officials to punish the attackers.
In a February 11 letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, CPJ noted that while the press is supposed to be exempt from work and travel restrictions that prevail during a general strike, Bangladeshi journalists are regularly assaulted in the course of covering such protests.
Alhaj Jahirul Haque, Janakantha ATTACKED
Rafiqur Rahman Reku, Janakantha ATTACKED
A.S.M. Nazrul Islam, Janakantha ATTACKED
Abdul Mutaleb Khan, Janakantha ATTACKED
A group of demonstrators from the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) stormed the ground floor of the office building that houses the Bengali-language daily Janakantha.
The attack occurred during an anti-government demonstration led by the BNP. According to the Bangladesh Centre for Development, Journalism, and Communication, BNP demonstrators were exhorted to attack Janakantha because it is a “government newspaper.” In fact, Janakantha is an independent daily that has been critical of both the present government and the opposition BNP.
Eighteen newspaper staffers were reportedly injured in the ensuing violence. They included photo editor Haque, photographer Reku, manager Islam, and assistant manager Khan.
The BNP activists were armed with homemade explosives, guns, rocks, and bamboo sticks. According to Janakantha management, they damaged fourteen of the newspaper’s vehicles in the course of the rampage, along with several doors and windows. Gunshots were also fired.
Janakantha filed a formal complaint with the Ramna police station after the attack. BNP leaders stated that their group was not responsible for the violence, and claimed that a separate armed group had attacked them from a nearby alley, opening fire and throwing Molotov cocktails. They contended that this second group also attacked the Janakantha office.
However, Mohammad Atiqullah Khan Masud, Janakantha‘s editor and publisher, told The Independent, an English-language newspaper published in Dhaka, that he had “seen with my own eyes that the BNP activists…attacked my newspaper office.” Masud said the attack was spearheaded by Anwar Zahid, press adviser to BNP leader Begum Khaleda Zia. Police arrested Zahid after the newspaper filed its complaint.
In an August 31 protest letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, CPJ asked her to ensure that attacks against the press do not go unpunished.
Babul Talukder, Dainik Dinkal ATTACKED
Mintu, Dainik Janata ATTACKED
Joy, Banglabazar Patrika ATTACKED
Abdur Razzak, Dainik Sangram ATTACKED
Enamul Huq Kabir, Dainik Muktakantha ATTACKED
Subir, Dainik Arthaneeti ATTACKED
Swapan Sarker, Dainik Banglar Bani ATTACKED
Matiur Rahman Tuku, Ajker Kagoj ATTACKED
Mamun Talukder, Ajker Kagoj ATTACKED
Bulbul Ahmed, The Independent ATTACKED
Salimullah Salim, The New Nation ATTACKED
Faruque Ahmed, United News of Bangladesh ATTACKED
Riot police subdued a demonstration held by Islamic activists in Dhaka. The police turned their batons on two newspaper photographers, Babul Talukder and Mintu, who were documenting police behavior at the protest. Both journalists were badly beaten.
When other photographers on the scene complained to senior police officers about the brutality of their subordinates, dozens of riot police attacked the group with batons. Among the photographers injured by the police in this second assault were Joy, Razzak, Kabir, Subir, Sarker, Tuku, Mamun Talukder, Bulbul Ahmed, Salim, and Faruque Ahmed.
In an October 26 letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, CPJ noted the frequent involvement of state personnel in violent attacks against journalists and urged her to ensure that police officers found guilty of assaulting the journalists be held accountable for their actions.
Weekly Evidence LEGAL ACTION
In a notice dated November 28, the Dhaka district magistrate ordered the English-language political magazine Weekly Evidence to stop publication. The notice claimed that the magazine had violated a section of the Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1973 requiring publishers to notify authorities of any change in address. The district magistrate charged that the addresses of both the magazine’s editorial office and its printer had been changed without official authorization.
Manzoor Qader, editor of Weekly Evidence, claimed that management had submitted a change-of-address application to the district magistrate on November 11, and received no reply. Qader said he received the notice regarding cancellation of the magazine’s publishing license on December 4.
Qader, a former member of parliament and one of the leaders of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, said the government had banned his magazine for its political line. On December 8, a high court bench responded to a writ petition filed by the magazine’s publisher and stayed the government’s order for three months, allowing Weekly Evidence to continue publishing.