Attacks on the Press 2000: Bangladesh

FACING ROUTINE THREATS, HARASSMENT, AND OTHER ATTACKS, Bangladeshi journalists continued to work at great risk as political and criminal violence went unchecked. Two journalists were assassinated: Mir Illias Hossain, editor of the newspaper Dainik Bir Darpan, and Shamsur Rahman, a senior correspondent for the national daily Janakantha and a frequent contributor to the BBC’s Bengali-language service.

The most dangerous region in the country for journalists remained the southwest, where criminal smuggling syndicates and militant groups are active. Both Hossain and Rahman were murdered there, as was a prominent editor assassinated in 1998. Hossain, who was killed in the town of Jhenaidah on January 15, had been outspoken against left-wing militant activity in the area. Local journalists believed that local militants shot him because they were unhappy with his newspaper’s political stance.

When Rahman was shot in the nearby city of Jessore on July 16, his case received unusual national attention, and police launched a high-profile investigation. However, despite evidence that a local organized crime syndicate arranged for the journalist’s murder, none of the suspects were in jail by year’s end, according to CPJ sources.

The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina failed to prosecute violent attacks against journalists, and in some cases encouraged them actively. In October, for example, a government minister exhorted members of the ruling Awami League to attack the press: “Wherever you will find journalists, break their bones,” he said, addressing a party meeting in Satkhira. The minister’s comments followed press reports that Awami League members had embezzled money intended to help the victims of severe flooding in southwestern Bangladesh.

Even before these provocative remarks, the local press had complained of threats and intimidation. Awami League activists brutally assaulted two journalists in the space of a week, and several journalists went into hiding for fear of attack.

Awami League leaders were also behind a series of attacks against the Islamist newspaper Inqilab, which the government accused of treason for publishing a parody of the national anthem. In November, while legal cases against the daily were crawling through the courts, party activists tried forcibly to ban the paper, attacking Inqilab offices and transport vehicles, harassing distributors and vendors, and destroying thousands of copies of the newspaper.

The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party also did nothing to curb the abuses of its members, who regularly attacked journalists assigned to cover the party’s frequent nationwide strikes.

In March, journalists were targeted during a protest organized by Islamic fundamentalist groups in the northeastern city of Sylhet. Ahmed Abed Rumi, a reporter for the daily Banglar Bani, had both his arms broken and sustained multiple stab wounds when he was attacked by a group of demonstrators who accused Rumi and other journalists of being anti-Islam.

Extremists were also blamed for the August stabbing of Shahriar Kabir, a free-lance journalist who has been outspoken against the religious right in Bangladesh. Kabir, who was stabbed in the face and in his right hand, said he had received many threats in the past, and blamed the Harkatul Jihad, a fundamentalist group said to have links with the Taliban movement in Afghanistan.

Journalists were also subject to legal harassment. Criminal defamation laws remain on the books, and are routinely used to intimidate journalists. Politicians and businessmen often file frivolous defamation suits, knowing that even if the journalist is never convicted, he or she will have to post bail to avoid waiting out the interminable court proceedings in prison, and will spend years saddled with a pending criminal charge.

The government already had broad powers of arrest on national security grounds under the Special Powers Act, which was used this year to arbitrarily arrest M. Mainuddin, director of the Inqilab Group of Publications.The new Public Safety Act gave the government an additional weapon against its press critics. The law enables authorities to detain anyone accused of being an “enemy of the state” for 90 days without trial or bail. Journalists and civil-liberties groups bitterly protested the law, arguing that it dispensed with due process protections guaranteed by the Constitution and could be used to suppress dissent.

Mir Illias Hossain, Dainik Bir Darpan

Hossain, 43, editor of the newspaper Dainik Bir Darpan, was assassinated in the southwestern town of Jhenaidah. According to the English-language daily The Independent, published from Dhaka, three unidentified assailants riding a motorcycle fired on Hossain and a friend as they were talking outside a store. The assailants reportedly fired at close range. Hossain was killed instantly, while his friend, Alfaj Uddin, died on his way to the hospital.

Dainik Bir Darpan had been outspoken against left-wing militant activity in the area, arguing that the leftist underground should abandon violence and engage in the democratic process. Hossain himself wrote numerous articles criticizing local militants for ignoring the needs of the rural population.

Although both Hossain and Alfaj Uddin had been active in the Sramajibi Mukti Andolan, a radical leftist organization working for more equitable land distribution, CPJ sources believe Hossain was targeted for his journalistic work.

Ahmed Abed Rumi, Dainik Banglar Bani
Kamal Mehdi, Prothom Alo

On the 29th anniversary of Bangladeshi independence, Islamist political groups led a demonstration outside the Shahjalal Science and Technology University in the northeastern city of Sylhet. The university had been closed since February after a dispute arose between religious and secular groups over the naming of the school’s new dormitories. Demonstrators accused journalists covering the protests of being anti-Islam.

Rumi, a reporter for the newspaper Dainik Banglar Bani, had both his arms broken and sustained multiple stab wounds when he was attacked by a group of demonstrators. Protesters also attacked Mehdi, a photographer for the daily Prothom Alo. Mehdi escaped with minor injuries, but said his assailants seized his camera and smashed it.

Tariqul Haq Tariq, Dainik Prothom Alo

Some 20 police officers ransacked the home of Tariq, correspondent for the Bengali-language daily Dainik Prothom Alo in the western town of Kushtia. Tariq was out when police arrived; according to local press reports, the raid lasted from 2:00 until 5:00 a.m.

The police were apparently irritated by Tariq’s recent reporting on the deteriorating law-and-order situation in Kushtia. Tariq received anonymous threats after the police attack was reported in the local press.

The police conducted the raid under a May 1999 search warrant that had been issued in connection with an unrelated criminal defamation case.

Shamsur Rahman, Janakantha

At around 8:20 p.m., two armed men entered the office of journalist Shamsur Rahman, special correspondent for the Bengali-language national daily Janakantha, and shot him in the head and chest at point-blank range. Rahman, 43, was working alone in his office on Jail Road in central Jessore when the assailants arrived. The gunmen reportedly fled the scene immediately. Rahman was pronounced dead on arrival at Jessore General Hospital.

Jessore, which is close to the Indian border with southwestern Bangladesh, is an international smuggling center. Rahman regularly covered the activities of criminal gangs and armed political groups in the region. Sources at Janakantha told CPJ that Rahman had periodically received death threats in retaliation for his reporting.

Home Minister Mohammed Nasim traveled to Jessore on July 17 and spoke at Rahman’s funeral, urging police to conduct a thorough investigation into the journalist’s murder. That day, CPJ sent a letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, asking her to ensure that Rahman’s killers were brought to justice.

A high-profile investigation into the journalist’s death led to a series of arrests, but all of the suspects had been released by year’s end, according to CPJ sources. Based on confessions obtained in September, police claimed that Rahman’s murder had been plotted by a smuggler’s gang based in nearby Khulna.

Shahriar Kabir, free-lancer

Kabir, a free-lance journalist and outspoken critic of Islamic fundamentalism, was returning home from a meeting at Dhaka University when he was approached by a group of four young men, who asked the journalist to accompany them.

When Kabir refused, the youths stabbed him in the face and right hand. When he cried out for help, his assailants fled the scene.

Aside from his journalistic work Kabir heads the country’s main anti-fundamentalist group, the Ekkaturer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Committee. He told local reporters that his attackers were members of the Harkatul Jihad, a radical organization said to have links with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

All journalists in Satkhira
Sohrab Hossain, Loksamaj
Anisur Rahim, Satkhirar Chitro

“Wherever you will find journalists, break their bones,” a federal official in charge of relief efforts in the flood-ravaged town of Satkhira, southwestern Bangladesh, said in a closed-door meeting with Awami League activists and local officials.

The official, Minister for Social Welfare Mozammel Hossain, was reacting to news reports that ruling party members had siphoned off money intended for flood victims. But even before he made his remarks, local journalists had complained of threats and intimidation by activists from the Awami Jubo League, the youth wing of the ruling party.

On October 20, a group of Jubo League activists assaulted Hossain, a reporter with the regional Bengali-language daily Loksamaj, after he published an article critical of the government’s flood relief efforts. In response to a complaint filed by the journalist, police arrested Jubo League leader Nurul Islam. He was released after Awami League activists besieged the police station to protest his detention.

On October 26 at around 7:30 p.m., a group led by local Awami League leader Asadul Haq ransacked the office of the local daily Satkhirar Chitro and assaulted Rahim, the newspaper’s editor. The attack came in response to articles in the newspaper about alleged misappropriation of disaster relief funds.

Rahim was taken to the Satkhira General Hospital with injuries to his face, hands, and legs.

CPJ sent a letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on October 30, urging her to order an investigation into the attacks and to publicly guarantee the security of journalists in Satkhira.

A.M.M. Bahauddin, Inqilab
A.S.M. Baki Billah, Inqilab
A.S. Mosharraf, Inqilab
M. Mainuddin, Inqilab Group of Publications

On November 6, the Awami League Working Committee met at the residence of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and decided to take action against the Bengali-language daily Inqilab for publishing a parody of Bangladesh’s national anthem. Within days, various Awami League leaders had filed treason charges against Inqilab in districts around the country.

On November 13, the Home Ministry filed its own complaint with the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate’s Court in Dhaka, accusing editor Bahauddin, publisher Baki Billah, and writer Mosharraf, who authored the parody, of sedition under Section 124A of the Penal Code. Arrest warrants were issued that same day. Under the Penal Code, people found guilty of sedition can be sentenced to life in prison, or even death.

Shortly before midnight, police raided the Dhaka offices of Inqilab, as well as the residences of Bahauddin and Baki Billah, who are brothers, but failed to find the journalists. However, the next morning, on November 14, police arrested a third brother, Inqilab Group head Mainuddin, under the broad provisions of the Special Powers Act (SPA), which allows for the arbitrary arrest and detention of any citizen suspected of engaging in activities that threaten national security.

Bahauddin, fearing imminent arrest, applied for anticipatory bail that evening. At 11:40 p.m. on November 14, a High Court Division of the Supreme Court granted bail to Bahauddin until November 20, when a second hearing was scheduled for the government to defend its argument that the bail application should be denied.

Senior administration officials vehemently criticized the High Court’s action and publicly questioned the propriety of the unprecedented late-night session.

Meanwhile, leaders from the ruling Awami League encouraged party activists to block distribution of Inqilab throughout the country, and sanctioned the use of violence to achieve this end. On November 20, Abdul Hasnat Abdullah, an Awami League official, announced at a meeting organized by party leaders in the southern town of Barisal that Inqilab was banned in the southern region. The next day, 900 copies of the newspaper were burned by Awami League activists in Barisal, according to local news reports. Local distributors of the newspaper were also threatened and harassed.

On November 22, Awami League activists stopped a delivery van at the Shikarpur ferry landing, on the Dhaka-Barisal highway, and burned 4000 copies of Inqilab, as well as 400 copies of the weekly Purnima, which is also published by the Inqilab Group. On November 28, a mob attacked the Inqilab office in Khulna, damaged a company vehicle parked outside, and harassed a local newspaper agent who distributed the paper.

On November 30, CPJ sent a letter to Prime Minister Hasina condemning the government’s persecution of Inqilab and urging her to order the immediate release of Mainuddin. CPJ also asked Hasina to instruct the Home Ministry to drop its sedition cases against Bahauddin, Baki Billah, and Mosharraf.

Mainuddin was released on December 1. Hearings in the sedition case were scheduled to resume in February 2001.