December 16, 2002
Her Excellency Khaleda Zia
Prime Minister, People’s Republic of Bangladesh
Office of the Prime Minister
Via facsimile: 011-88-02-811-3244 Your Excellency:
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is gravely concerned by the recent arrests of several Bangladeshi journalists who have worked with foreign news agencies. We are especially concerned that journalists Priscilla Raj and Saleem Samad, who were charged with sedition after working with a documentary crew from Britain’s Channel 4 “Unreported World” series, remain in detention and have allegedly been tortured in government custody.
On November 25, authorities arrested Raj, a free-lance Bangladeshi reporter who was working for the Channel 4 team as an interpreter; reporter Zaiba Malik, who is British; and cameraman Bruno Sorrentino, who was traveling on an Italian passport. Samad, a prominent free-lance reporter who was working as a fixer for the Channel 4 team, was arrested on November 29.
The government accused the film crew of involvement in “clandestine activities as journalists with an apparent and malicious intent of portraying Bangladesh as an Islamic fanatical country,” according to Agence France-Presse. All four journalists were accused of sedition, which is punishable by death in Bangladesh. On December 11, Malik and Sorrentino were released and deported to the United Kingdom after signing a statement agreeing not to use any of their footage from Bangladesh and apologizing for “the unfortunate situation arising since their arrival” in the country.
On December 8, police also arrested journalist and human rights activist Shahriar Kabir and are holding him in Dhaka Central Jail. While authorities have not yet publicly disclosed the reasons for his arrest, police have said he is being held in connection with the sedition case against Raj and Samad, according to Bangladeshi news reports.
Raj and Samad are also being held at Dhaka Central Jail. On December 14, the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate’s (CMM) Court rejected for the third time a bail request filed by the journalists’ lawyers. Raj, Samad, and Kabir have all been subjected to electric shock and other forms of mistreatment in prison, according to sources in Bangladesh.
In an unrelated case, on December 13, police arrested journalist Enamul Hoque Chowdhury, a part-time reporter for Reuters news agency, after he filed stories that quoted Home Minister Altaf Hossain Chowdhury (no relation) as saying that al-Qaeda may have been responsible for a series of bombings on December 7that killed at least 17 people in the northern town of Mymensingh. Authorities said that the reports by Chowdhury “tarnished the country’s image internationally and threatened its relations with powerful and friendly countries.” Chowdhury was also a senior reporter for the state news agency BSS until the agency dismissed him on December 14.
Home Minister Chowdhury later denied making the statement, and Reuters has since withdrawn the stories. Reuters is currently conducting an internal investigation into its coverage of the attacks.
As a nonpartisan organization of journalists dedicated to defending press freedom worldwide, CPJ condemns these arrests, which appear to be an orchestrated effort to intimidate journalists who are working for foreign media agencies. Such draconian actions by Your Excellency’s government will only damage Bangladesh’s international reputation.
We call for the immediate and unconditional release of Priscilla Raj, Saleem Samad, Shahriar Kabir, and Enamul Hoque Chowdhury. We also respectfully urge you to ensure that all journalists in Bangladesh are able to report freely without fear of reprisal.
Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your response.