Detained journalists accused of anti-state activities

New York, November 26, 2002—
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemns the arrest in Bangladesh yesterday of three journalists working on a documentary for Britain’s Channel 4 “Unreported World” series.

Reporter Zaiba Malik, director and cameraman Bruno Sorrentino, and Priscilla Raj, a free-lance journalist working for the documentary team as an interpreter, were taken into custody along with their driver, Misir Ali.

Malik, who is British, and Sorrentino, who was traveling on an Italian passport, were arrested at the Benapole border crossing en route to India. Raj and Ali, who are both Bangladeshi nationals, were picked up in Rajbari District on their way back to the capital, Dhaka.

Malik, Sorrentino, and Raj appeared in court today in Dhaka and were remanded to police custody for five days for further investigation. The team is accused of sedition. Police are seeking to arrest a fourth journalist, Saleem Samad, who was also working for the documentary team as an interpreter. Samad, a prominent free-lance journalist and media activist, is the local representative for the Paris-based press freedom organization Reporters sans frontières.

The journalists were arrested for alleged involvement in “clandestine activities as journalists with an apparent and malicious intent of portraying Bangladesh as an Islamic fanatical country,” said a statement issued today by the Bangladeshi government, according to the Agence France-Presse news agency.

Foreign correspondents and local journalists who work with international news organizations perceive the arrests as a government warning.

“These draconian government actions against journalists threaten Bangladesh’s reputation as a liberal democracy,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “We are extremely worried about the climate of intolerance signaled by these detentions. It is unfortunate that these arrests come as CPJ is honoring Bangladeshi journalist Tipu Sultan with an International Press Freedom Award.”

Prime Minister Khaleda Zia personally congratulated Sultan for this honor and has pledged to uphold press freedom. Sultan will be receiving CPJ’s award at a formal ceremony tonight in New York that will be attended by major U.S. media organizations.

The Bangladeshi government has reacted harshly to media reports focusing on controversial topics such as sectarian violence and the influence of Islamist militants in the country. At the end of 2001, documentary filmmaker and activist Shahriar Kabir was arrested on sedition charges and imprisoned for nearly two months after reporting on a wave of attacks against Bangladesh’s Hindu minority. Kabir was released on bail at the end of January, but the charges against him have not been dropped.

In April, the government banned an edition of The Far Eastern Economic Review that featured a cover story describing Bangladesh as a “Cocoon of Terror” and warning that “rising fundamentalism and religious intolerance are threatening secularism and moderate Islam” in Bangladesh.

In October, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that a Time magazine story reporting that Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters had sought refuge in Bangladesh was part of “an orchestrated campaign designed to malign the country’s international image as a liberal democratic country.”