Attacks on the Press 2001: Bangladesh

In 2001, the anti-corruption watchdog group Transparency International ranked Bangladesh the most corrupt country in the world. The almost complete collapse of law and order in the country was seen as one of the prime reasons behind the fall from power of the Awami League.

The year began with a brutal attack on a young reporter that shocked a press corps already hardened by death threats, harassment, and assaults. On January 25, the private army of a local politician in the southeastern Feni District, Joynal Hazari, beat Tipu Sultan, a correspondent for the United News of Bangladesh, with iron rods and wooden bats, crushing the bones in his hands, arms, and legs so that he would never be able to work as a reporter again. The reporter was attacked for his writing on Hazari’s abuse of power.

Outraged local journalists organized a campaign on Tipu’s behalf to raise money for his medical treatment abroad. They also aggressively pursued his story, covering the circumstances of his attack, naming those responsible, and consistently holding the government accountable for its failure to prosecute the assailants.

The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina did little or nothing to investigate the attack because Hazari was a member of parliament from the ruling Awami League in a constituency that the party decided it could not afford to lose. But when Hasina’s term ended in mid-July, Parliament was dissolved, and a politically neutral caretaker government was established to supervise the forthcoming general elections.

Once the Awami League no longer held the reins of government, Joynal Hazari’s once formidable powers in Feni seemed to evaporate. On July 31, the caretaker government charged Hazari–along with dozens of his associates–in connection with the murders of three villagers in an attack that seemed politically motivated. That same week, according to the Bangladesh Centre for Development, Journalism, and Communication, the government replaced Feni’s police chief and deputy commissioner and ordered the new officials to investigate the attack on Tipu Sultan thoroughly.

Hazari went into hiding. He ultimately lost his parliamentary seat in October elections that brought to power an alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

Tipu’s story revealed the dangers facing Bangladeshi journalists who expose corruption, the active involvement and tacit complicity of political leaders in violence against journalists, and the politicization of law enforcement agencies. “It seems that we, the people in the press, have become the most vulnerable group of professionals in the country right now,” wrote The Daily Star, Bangladesh’s leading English-language daily, a few days after the attack on Tipu.

Even after the cries for help and pledges from the government to uphold press freedom, local journalists continued to come under attack. Nahar Ali, a reporter for the Khulna newspaper Anirban, was killed in April because “he knew too much” about the workings of local criminal syndicates and the complicity of some local authorities in their activities.

Another local reporter, Ahsan Ali (not related to Nahar Ali), was tortured and killed in July. As is often the case in Bangladesh, the motive for his murder remained unclear. Because of the extent of local corruption, police investigations are themselves often suspect, making it difficult to determine the reasons behind a journalist’s murder, let alone secure justice in a case.

Pressure from local journalists did help in efforts to prosecute the assassins of Shamsur Rahman, a senior correspondent for the daily Janakantha who frequently contributed to the BBC’s Bengali service and had reported on smuggling gangs and illegal arms trafficking along Bangladesh’s western border with India. Rahman was gunned down on July 16, 2000, as he was working alone at night at his office in downtown Jessore. His case, like Tipu’s, galvanized the media and forced police to launch a high-profile investigation.

Though the investigation moved slowly, and some journalists remain skeptical of the results, police filed charges against 16 people in May 2001. In a bizarre twist, five of those accused were journalists, including the Jessore bureau chief of the daily Inqilab. By August, at least 10 of the suspects had been arrested, but no trial date was set, according to local journalists.

During the last five years, six Bangladeshi journalists have been killed for their reporting. None of those cases has yet been successfully prosecuted. Equally disturbing were the increasingly vicious attacks. Tipu Sultan was not the only one left crippled by an assault. Reporter Prabir Shikder had his bullet-ridden right leg amputated following an attack that also left him with multiple stab injuries and bullet wounds in his right hand and arm. Shikder was attacked for his reporting on alleged war crimes committed by a prominent businessman during Bangladesh’s 1971 war for independence from Pakistan, according to police.

Bulu Sharif, a reporter for the daily Jugantor, was stabbed in his face, neck, and left eye one day after he wrote an article explaining why a local BNP leader seemed unlikely to win a seat in the October parliamentary elections. Death threats, which for years have been common in Bangladesh, were taken much more seriously, and small groups of journalists sometimes evacuated their towns, going underground for periods when they felt particularly insecure.

Unfortunately, there was no particular reason to believe that conditions for the press would improve under the leadership of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, the archrival of Sheikh Hasina. Zia heads the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the leading partner in a four-party coalition government that includes two religious parties not known for their tolerance of press freedom, the Jamaat-e-Islami and Islami Oikya Jote. Though the new home minister promised to launch fresh investigations into the murders of all journalists killed during the Awami League’s rule, no action had been taken by year’s end. CPJ sources said the announcement might have been nothing more than a partisan jab at the previous government.

The most direct threat to press freedom from the central government actually occurred under Zia, when authorities arrested Shahriar Kabir, a documentary filmmaker and newspaper columnist, for reporting on a wave of attacks against Bangladesh’s Hindu minority community following the parliamentary elections. Supporters of Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party were allegedly responsible for these attacks, targeting Hindus in part for their tendency to favor the Awami League.

Kabir was arrested on November 22 under Bangladesh’s notorious Special Powers Act, a law that Zia, while out of power, had pledged to abolish since authorities have often abused it to punish the political opposition. He was later charged with treason, a crime punishable by death. Kabir was released on bail on January 20, 2002.

January 25

Tipu Sultan, United News of Bangladesh

Tipu, a correspondent for the independent wire service United News of Bangladesh (UNB), was crippled in a brutal attack in the southeastern district of Feni.

On the night of January 25, Tipu was stopped along a road by a group of armed men working for Joynal Hazari, a member of parliament from Feni for the ruling Awami League. Tipu later told CPJ that he heard one of the attackers call Hazari on a cell phone and receive instructions to “cut off my hands and legs.” The gang first took Tipu to a community center, where they beat him severely and told him, “This is the order of Hazari.” They then moved him to another building, where he was beaten unconscious with bats, hockey sticks, and iron rods.

Tipu was hospitalized with gaping wounds and multiple broken bones and fractures in his hands, arms, and legs. Doctors feared he would suffer permanent disabilities.

Tipu says the attack came in reprisal for his reporting on Hazari, who had an infamous reputation as the “Godfather of Feni.” In 2000, the journalist won UNB’s award for best correspondent in recognition of his courageous and enterprising reporting.

On January 28, Tipu failed in his initial attempt to file a police report accusing Hazari and 14 others of assaulting him. Police refused to register the case because one of Hazari’s followers had already filed a report accusing local opposition party activists of involvement in the attack. Local journalists said the false case was registered to frustrate Tipu’s efforts to secure legal redress.

However, Tipu successfuly filed a police report against Hazari on September 17, during the rule of the non-partisan caretaker government that presided over Bangladesh in the run-up to parliamentary elections. Hazari had, by that time, gone underground in order to avoid prosecution on murder charges in an unrelated case.

The attack on Tipu Sultan became symbolic of the rising tide of violence directed against the press in Bangladesh. Leading journalists championed Tipu’s cause, and two of the leading national dailies, the Bengali-language Prothom Alo and English-language Daily Star, launched a fund drive to help pay for his medical treatment abroad. That money, together with funds raised by international organizations (including CPJ), allowed Tipu to seek treatment at the world-class Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok.

By the end of 2001, after multiple operations and extensive physical therapy, Tipu had regained the use of his right hand, which attackers had taken special pains to destroy. “Now I am going to start my previous profession within the shortest possible period,” he wrote in an e-mail to CPJ in December. “Though I am still not fully cured, now I can write with my right hand.”

April 19

Iskander Ali Chowdhury, Purbokone
Jalaluddin Ahmed Chowdhury, Purbokone

At around 1:30 a.m., a group of men led by Mamunur Rashid Mamun, a ward commissioner in the Chittagong City Corporation, forced their way into the offices of the local Bengali-language daily Purbokone.

The intruders assaulted chief subeditor Iskander Ali Chowdhury and journalist Jalaluddin Ahmed Chowdhury and forced them out of the building. The journalists were threatened and then shoved into a nearby roadside ditch.

In an April 24, front-page interview in the Bengali-language daily Sangbad, Mamun admitted going to the Purbokone offices but denied attacking the journalists. Mamun maintained that he visited the newspaper to ask why Purbokone, an independent publication, did not give favorable coverage to the ruling Awami League.

In the Sangbad interview, the commissioner also stated that he had the blessings of senior party officials and expressed confidence that he would not face legal reprisals over the incident. However, police in Panchlaish Thana charged him under the Public Safety Act.

In an April 24 letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, CPJ noted an alarming spate of violence directed against journalists in Bangladesh and urging her government to take immediate action to ensure that these crimes were prosecuted vigorously. Among the cases raised in the letter was the attack on the Purbokone journalists.

On April 28, police seized Mamun’s property, under court orders, in an effort to force the politician to face the charges against him. Meanwhile, Mamun had gone into hiding to avoid arrest. The Associated Press reported that the seizure was “the first step by the government after a string of attacks by politicians and criminal gangs against Bangladesh’s beleaguered journalists.”

On May 5, in another unprecedented move, the government offered a 100,000 takas (US$5,400) reward for information that would help find Mamun. On May 6, two brothers of the politician were arrested for allegedly violating wildlife preservation laws. “Our main aim is to draw him out of hiding,” a police officer told the AP. On May 7, Mamun surrendered before the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate’s Court in Chittagong.

Mamun’s case was referred to the Public Safety Act Tribunal in Chittagong, with hearing dates set for June 24, 25, and 26, according to the Dhaka-based newspaper The Independent. CPJ was unable to determine the outcome of these proceedings.

April 20

Prabir Shikder, Janakantha

Shikder, Faridpur correspondent for the national Bengali-language daily Janakantha, was on a reporting assignment when a group of armed men ambushed him on the outskirts of town.

The attackers, who had been waiting by the roadside in a van, threw several Molotov cocktails at Shikder as he approached on his motorcycle, according to eyewitness accounts from the local press. Several of the men then shot the journalist and stabbed him repeatedly before fleeing the scene.

The reporter was rushed to Faridpur Medical College Hospital and later transferred to the National Institute of Cardiovascular Diseases in Dhaka. Doctors amputated Shikder’s right leg, which was shattered by bullets. The journalist also sustained multiple stab injuries and bullet wounds in his right hand and arm.

Local journalists say Shikder was most likely attacked for reporting on the alleged collaboration of prominent local figures with Pakistani forces during the country’s 1971 war for independence from Pakistan. Shikder had also covered organized crime and its links to local police.

April 21

Nahar Ali, Anirban

Ali, a correspondent for the Khulna-based, Bengali-language daily Anirban, died shortly before midnight on April 21, while undergoing treatment at Khulna Medical College Hospital for injuries sustained in an attack days earlier. Late on the night of April 17, masked men kidnapped Ali from his home in the village of Shovna, according to local press reports. The assailants stabbed him, beat him severely, and broke his hands and legs before abandoning him on the outskirts of his village, according to police.

Ali was found unconscious and taken to the hospital in Khulna, a major city in southwestern Bangladesh. Doctors said he died due to major brain damage and profuse bleeding.

Police suggested that members of the outlawed Biplobi Communist Party may have killed Ali because of a dispute over ownership of a shrimp farm. However, journalists in Khulna said that the investigation lacked credibility because Ali’s reporting had uncovered links between police and smuggling rings in the region. CPJ sources said that Ali, who worked as the Dumuria subdistrict correspondent for Anirban, was killed because “he knew too much” about the workings of local criminal syndicates and the complicity of some local authorities in their activities.

July 20

Ahsan Ali, free-lancer
KILLED (Motive unconfirmed)

Ali, a stringer for the daily newspaper Jugantor, was reported missing on July 20 and found dead on July 22 in an irrigation canal in Rupganj Village, where he lived. Assailants had bound the journalist’s hands and legs, burned his face and chest with nitric acid, and stabbed him to death, according to police.

Ali had received death threats that same week from a local leader of the ruling Awami League’s youth wing, according to his wife, Shahida Akhter. Akhter told journalists that the threats followed Ali’s reporting months earlier that party activists were linked to incidents of highway robbery on the road from Dhaka to Chittagong. However, she also suggested that Ali might have been killed over a land dispute with some relatives.

November 22

Shahriar Kabir, free-lancer

On November 22, police at Dhaka’s Zia International Airport arrested Kabir when he returned to Bangladesh from India, where he had interviewed minority Bangladeshi Hindus who fled there following attacks against their community after Bangladesh’s October 1 parliamentary elections. Kabir–a documentary filmmaker, regular contributor to the national Bengali-language daily Janakantha, and author of several books about Bangladesh’s war for independence–was arrested for “anti-state activities on the basis of intelligence reports and at the instruction of higher authorities,” according to a police report. Police seized his passport, five videotapes, 13 audiotapes, several rolls of unprocessed film, and his camera, according to news reports.

A November 25 statement issued by the Home Ministry alleged that Kabir was “involved in a heinous bid to tarnish the image of Bangladesh and its government,” according to a report published by The Daily Star, a leading national paper. “Kabir had made a whirlwind tour across India with ulterior motives to shoot video films,” it said, noting that the video footage and other materials seized from Kabir upon his arrest were “objectionable, misleading, instigating and provocative to destroy communal harmony.” That same day, a district magistrate’s court authorized the government to detain Kabir for up to 30 days under the provisions of Bangladesh’s Special Powers Act. Authorities in Bangladesh frequently abuse this act, which allows for the arbitrary arrest and detention of any citizen suspected of engaging in activities that threaten national security.

On December 8, the government charged Kabir with treason. His detention was later extended by another three months.

On January 12, 2002, in response to a habeas corpus petition, a High Court bench declared the extension of Kabir’s term of detention to be illegal and ordered the journalist’s release. However, Kabir continued to be held on the treason charge. On January 19, a separate High Court bench ordered Kabir to be released on interim bail for six months, pending his treason trial. The High Court also issued a “show cause” notice to the government asking prosecutors to demonstrate why Kabir should not be granted permanent bail.

On January 20, authorities released Kabir from Dhaka Central Jail, where he was greeted by hundreds of colleagues, relatives, and other supporters. At press time, the government had not dropped the treason charge against Kabir, a charge that carries a maximum penalty of death.