Attacks on the Press 2002: Bangladesh

For Bangladeshi journalists, covering crime and corruption can be as dangerous as reporting in a war zone. Journalists regularly endure vicious attacks, and since 1998, five Bangladeshi journalists have been killed in reprisal for their work.

All of the five murdered journalists were based in towns along the country’s southwestern frontier with India–a crime-ridden area rife with guerrilla groups, gunrunners, and smuggling syndicates. The latest victim, crime reporter Harunur Rashid, was killed by gunmen on March 2 as he was riding his motorcycle to work in Khulna District. Another crime reporter from the same district went missing after armed men kidnapped him in early July, and colleagues believe that he, too, may have been killed.

Nationwide, 2002 saw a near total collapse of law and order in Bangladesh. The magnitude of the crisis became clear in mid-October, when Prime Minister Khaleda Zia ordered the army to aid police in a major anti-crime drive, resulting in rampant human rights abuses. According to police and news reports, more than 10,000 people were detained during the three-month operation, and 44 died–either in custody or after their releases–from injuries sustained while in detention. By early November, about 46,000 soldiers were engaged in the crackdown, which opposition leader Sheikh Hasina, who was prime minister until October 2001, characterized as “undeclared martial law.”

Zia’s clampdown did little to address the fact that many of those involved in crime are themselves police, political-party activists, and elected officials. The politicization of law enforcement agencies, combined with political corruption, has heightened the risks for journalists, who often have no recourse when they are targeted for their work.

One of the most famous cases of a journalist attacked for reporting on a politician’s criminal misdeeds is that of Tipu Sultan, a winner of CPJ’s 2002 International Press Freedom Award. Sultan was nearly killed in January 2001 when a gang he identified as followers of a local politician in the town of Feni savagely beat him. His assault received international attention and was one of several cases the Zia government promised to prosecute. (The politician, who allegedly ordered the attack, is a mem- ber of the main opposition Awami League and has since fled the country.) Sultan has recovered and is back at work, but no progress was made this year in bringing his assailants to justice.

Political partisans and gangs associated with Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the lead partner in the coalition government, were responsible for a number of attacks on members of the media during 2002. For example, journalists reporting on violent clashes between police and student demonstrators at Dhaka University at the end of July were targeted by activists associated with the BNP’s youth wing who were unhappy with media coverage of the unrest, as well as by police, who apparently did not want the press to document their use of force to suppress the demonstrations.

The four-party ruling coalition that came to power at the end of 2001 includes the Islamist party Jamaat-i-Islami and the more militant Islami Oikya Jote. The presence of religious extremists among the country’s top leadership signaled trouble for journalists who upheld Bangladesh’s secular traditions.

In August, a religious group linked to the Islami Oikya Jote called for the arrest of anyone involved with a play staged in the town of Faridpur about sex trafficking, and cases were filed against at least 32 people. Police arrested the playwright, as well as two journalists identified as supporters of the drama group. Several Hindu journalists received death threats, and a group armed with machetes and axes attacked one reporter after he publicly criticized the protestors.

In October, Time magazine reported that Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan had sought refuge in Bangladesh. In the report, Timeýnoted that “the Bangladeshi government typically reacts with fury to reports of Jihadi camps or fundamentalism within its borders.” Foreign Secretary Shamser Mobin Chowdhury called the report “irresponsible and malicious” and suggested it was part of “an orchestrated campaign designed to malign the country’s international image as a liberal democratic country.” However, the government did not ban the magazine, perhaps because of its earlier, bungled attempt to censor the Far Eastern Economic Review.

The April 4 edition of the Review featured a cover story branding Bangladesh a “Cocoon of Terror” and warning that “rising fundamentalism and religious intolerance are threatening secularism and moderate Islam.” The Information Ministry declared the publication, sale, reprinting, and preservation of the issue illegal. The Hong Kong-based magazine, which ordinarily has a very small readership in Bangladesh, did not appear on newsstands but was accessible online. The piece was also widely distributed via e-mail. In the end, the story reached a larger audience than it would have had the government ignored the report.

In November, authorities detained two U.K.-based filmmakers working on a documentary for Channel 4’s “Unreported World” series and accused them of sedition. The Home Ministry said that the journalists were arrested for their “malicious intent of portraying Bangladesh as an Islamic fanatical country.” They were released after 16 days and were deported to Britain after signing a statement agreeing not to use any of their footage from Bangladesh. Bangladeshi journalists Priscilla Raj and Saleem Samad, who had worked for the Channel 4 team as interpreter and fixer, respectively, were also detained and charged with involvement in “anti-state activities.” According to local sources, both journalists were tortured in custody. Raj was released on bail in December, and Samad was freed on January 18, 2003.

Nonetheless, Bangladesh has managed to sustain a diverse and aggressive local press. This does not apply, however, to the broadcast media, which continue to be dominated by state-run Bangladesh Television and its radio counterpart, Bangladesh Betar. At the end of August, Ekushey Television (ETV), the country’s only private channel that is not broadcast via cable or satellite, was closed after Bangladesh’s Supreme Court ruled that the station’s license had been obtained improperly and was therefore invalid. BNP leaders had accused ETV of supporting the opposition Awami League, but the station was widely regarded as a professionally run, independent news organization.

February 5

Shahriar Kabir, free-lance

Explosions from several homemade bombs rocked the area surrounding the Chittagong Press Club, where journalist Kabir was attending a reception to celebrate his release on bail. One bystander was killed in the attack, and several others were injured. Kabir was not harmed.

Kabir, a documentary filmmaker, regular contributor to the national Bengali-language daily Janakantha, and author of several books about Bangladesh’s war for independence, had been arrested on November 22, 2001, for “anti-state activities.” Officials arrested him at the Dhaka International Airport upon his return to Bangladesh from India, where he had interviewed minority Bangladeshi Hindus who fled there following attacks against their community after the October 1, 2001, parliamentary elections. Kabir was released on bail on January 20, 2002.

A newly formed group called the Action Committee to Resist a Traitor had declared that Kabir was not welcome in Chittagong, and about 300 members of this committee held demonstrations outside the press club during the reception, according to local and international press reports. Kabir has been a longtime opponent of Islamic fundamentalism and has previously come under attack by religious extremists.

March 2

Harunur Rashid, Dainik Purbanchal

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April 3

Far Eastern Economic Review

The government banned the April 4 edition of the Hong Kong-based weekly Far Eastern Economic Review because the cover story, “Bangladesh: Cocoon of Terror,” described the country as besieged by “Islamic fundamentalism, religious intolerance, militant Muslim groups with links to international terrorist groups, a powerful military with ties to the militants, the mushrooming of Islamic schools churning out radical students, middle-class apathy, poverty and lawlessness.”

The Information Ministry called the article a “malicious report” that would “create hatred and division among the people of Bangladesh.” On April 3, the ministry declared the publication, sale, reprinting, and preservation of the magazine illegal, according to Bangladeshi and international news reports. While the April 4 edition was not available on newsstands in the country, people in Bangladesh were able to access it online.

The government responded to the article’s claims in a letter to the Review that ran in its April 11 edition. Shafi Ahmed, the Bangladeshi consul general in Hong Kong, wrote, “Your description of Bangladesh as a Cocoon of Terror is at best a figment of someone’s wild imagination. …Your article could only be described as being motivated, if not by malicious intentions, then by reasons best known to you.”

Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, when addressing Parliament on the issue, blamed the opposition Awami League for sponsoring the Review story and claimed that “vested quarters at home and abroad are trying to tarnish the country’s image by spreading untrue, misleading, and malicious information.”

April 9

M.A. Faisal, Daily Runner

Faisal, a reporter for the Jessore-based Daily Runner÷ was assaulted by a gang of men who approached him near the Tala Government College in southern Satkhira District. The assailants hit Faisal in the head and used a hammer to break his leg, according to the Dhaka-based organization Media Watch.

Faisal was attacked around noon on the day the Runner published an article about the intimidation of participants in a public bidding process in Tala, a subdistrict of Satkhira. While Faisal was recovering in the hospital, Altaf Hossain, a local leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), visited the journalist and told him, “I warned you not to report on that issue, now look at what has happened as a result,” according to a report in the Runner. Hossain also warned Faisal against writing future articles that could anger his party “boys,” an apparent reference to the youth wing of the BNP, known as the Jubo Dal, an organization whose members often assault journalists and opposition supporters.

Hossain did not publicly deny newspaper accounts reporting on his involvement in the incident. An editor from the Runner said that no charges were filed, although the police had registered a complaint identifying the assailants by name.

April 20

Nashir Uddin, Prothom Alo

M. Sadeq, free-lance

Nashir Uddin, Comilla-based correspondent for the national Bengali-language daily Prothom Alo, and Sadeq, a free-lance photographer on assignment for Prothom Alo, were assaulted and detained by a group led by local activists associated with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the lead partner in the country’s coalition government.

The two were attacked in the village of Krishnapur, Comilla District, when they went there to report on the destruction of 24 homes, allegedly by supporters of a local Parliament member from the BNP. At around 9:30 a.m. on April 20, dozens of men, led by BNP activists, looted and burned property that was at the center of a land dispute between two families. Nashir Uddin and Sadeq arrived in Krishnapur at around 12:30 p.m. and began interviewing witnesses and taking photographs of the damage.

According to Nashir Uddin, a group of men responsible for the attack arrived on the scene and threatened to kill the journalists if they published news of the incident. The gang pushed the journalists, confiscated their film, and then detained them in a room in the Krishnapur Government Primary School for three hours. The men released the journalists after they promised not to report on the incident.

Nashir Uddin said that among those who threatened and harassed the journalists were Anwar Hossain, a leader of the local youth wing of the BNP and nephew of Abu Taher, a local Parliament member representing the BNP from Barura Subdistrict; Abdur Rahim, a local BNP leader from the village of Bhateswar; and Bahar, a BNP leader from the village of Paduarpar.

On April 21, the Comilla Press Club organized a protest condemning the attack on the journalists and demanded that the assailants be punished. The same day, Abdullah Hel Baki, the additional district magistrate of Comilla, visited Krishnapur, prepared a report for the local deputy commissioner about the arson attack, and filed a case on behalf of the victims–including the two journalists–with the Comilla police. No progress in the case had been reported by year’s end.

Despite action taken at the district level, police in Barura Subdistrict have failed to take up any of the cases related to the arson attack. Meanwhile, Nashir Uddin continued to receive threats. On April 24, Amiruzzaman Amir, a municipal leader of the BNP, told Nashir Uddin that if he continued to write about Barura, he would “face the consequences.” The journalist said he has also received several anonymous death threats over the phone.

May 3

Azadul, Daily Runner
Delwar Hossain, Dainik Purbanchal
Shaikh Ahsanul Karim, Manavzamin
Rezaul Karim, Ittefaq
Babul Sarder, Janakantha
S.M. Tajuddin, Dainik Prabartan

Azadul, of the Daily Runner; Hossain, of the daily Dainik Purbanchal; Shaikh Ahsanul Karim, of the daily Manavzamin; Karim, of the daily Ittefaq; Sarder, of the daily Janakantha; and Tajuddin, of the daily Dainik Prabartan, filed a complaint with police alleging that Sheikh Wahiduzzaman Dipu, joint secretary of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in Bagerhat District, threatened to have the journalists killed for accusing him of criminal activities. The journalists said armed men associated with the BNP were seen patrolling in front of their homes. Dipu also threatened to blow up the Bagerhat office of Dainik Purbanchal, according to the police report. The BNP is the party of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.

May 28

Nazmul Imam, Manavzamin

Imam, the Kushtia correspondent for the national Bengali-language daily Manavzamin, was attacked at around 1:30 a.m. while on his way home. According to several Bangladeshi and international news reports, about five men brandishing knives stopped Imam’s rickshaw. Imam gave them his wallet and cell phone. When he then tried to run away, one of the men shouted, “Catch the journalist.”

The assailants attacked Imam, slicing off his right thumb and stabbing him repeatedly in his arms, back, and waist, said news reports. After the attackers fled the scene, passers-by took Imam to a local hospital. On May 30, he was transferred to a hospital in the capital, Dhaka.

Imam, who has reported on drug smugglers and other criminal groups, has been targeted for attack before. In May 2001, a group of knife-wielding men stopped Imam’s vehicle and ordered him to follow them, according to Bangladeshi news reports. Imam escaped unharmed after running to a nearby police station.

July 5

Shukur Hossain, Anirban

Hossain, a crime reporter for the Khulna-based newspaper Anirban, was kidnapped from his home in Ula, a village near the town of Dumuria, Khulna District, at around midnight by a group of about 35 armed men. His colleagues fear that he may have been killed. Police suspect that the assailants belong to the outlawed Biplobi Communist Party, one of several guerrilla groups active in the southwest of the country.

Hossain was last seen alive on the banks of the Ghangrail River, according to the national English-language newspaper The Daily Star. Two villagers who were in the area at the time reported that shots were fired, but police could not confirm whether Hossain was killed.

July 10

Iqbal Hossain, Prothom Alo

Hossain, a reporter for the national Bengali-language daily Prothom Alo, was abducted while bathing in a river in Keraniganj, a town just outside the capital, Dhaka. His assailants tortured him for several hours and used rocks to crush the bones in his hands, according to a Prothom Alo editor. He was later found by a roadside and taken to a hospital in Dhaka.

Hossain filed a complaint with police identifying three members of the Jubo Dal, the youth wing of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, as the assailants. Police told The Associated Press that the Jubo Dal denied responsibility for the attack.

August 3

Syed Farroque Ahmed, Pubali Barta

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November 25

Zaiba Malik, free-lance
Bruno Sorrentino, free-lance

Priscilla Raj, free-lance
Saleem Samad, Reporters Sans Frontières

Malik, Sorrentino, Raj, and Samad, all free-lance journalists, were detained while working on a documentary for Britain’s Channel 4 “Unreported World” series. Reporter Malik, director and cameraman Sorrentino, and Raj, a free-lance Bangladeshi journalist working for the documentary team as an interpreter, were taken into custody on November 25 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. Ali was released the same day. Samad, a free-lance Bangladeshi reporter who worked as a fixer for the Channel 4 team, went into hiding after his colleagues’ arrest but was found and detained by police on November 29.

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 by the Bangladeshi government, according to the Agence France-Presse news agency. They were accused of sedition, which is punishable by death in Bangladesh.

On December 11, authorities released Malik and Sorrentino and deported them to Britain. The two journalists signed a statement saying they would not produce any reports from their footage gathered in Bangladesh and “expressing regret for the unfortunate situation arising since their arrival in Bangladesh.”

Raj was released on December 23, while Samad was not freed until January 18, 2003, four days after the High Court in Dhaka had ordered his release. Both Raj and Samad say they were tortured in police custody. Raj said her interrogators used electric shocks to compel her to give evidence against her colleagues, and Samad said an officer beat his knees repeatedly with a wooden baton when he denied police accusations.

December 8

Shahriar Kabir, free-lance

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Muntasir Mamun, free-lance

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December 13

Enamul Hoque Chowdhury, Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha

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