Attacks on the Press 2003: Bangladesh

In 2003, Bangladesh was one of the most violent countries in the world for journalists, with almost daily cases of physical assaults and intimidation–particularly in rural areas. Local journalists say they are increasingly under threat for reporting on political violence, graft, and organized crime, but that the main cause of brutality against the press in Bangladesh is pervasive corruption.

For the third consecutive year, Transparency International, a nonprofit group dedicated to combating corruption, named Bangladesh the most corrupt country in the world. In response to criticism that her government has not done enough to stop corruption and criminal gangs, which are often linked to political parties, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia launched a massive crackdown on crime in October 2002, dubbed “Operation Clean Heart.” Military units were deployed nationwide, but after police and human rights groups reported that more than 40 suspects had been killed in custody, the soldiers were withdrawn in January 2003. In February, however, a paramilitary task force was redeployed. Police were granted authority to shoot criminals on sight, and President Iajuddin Ahmed signed a controversial bill granting troops immunity from prosecution for killings and other alleged human rights violations committed during the crackdown.

One victim was journalist Hiramon Mondol, a correspondent for the daily Dainik Prabarttan, who was brutally assaulted by members of the government’s joint task force in the southwestern town of Khulna on August 8. Soldiers beat him with rifles and hockey sticks after he wrote an article alleging that joint task force members had stolen fish from locals. Mondol was treated for his wounds then taken into custody by the joint task force, which charged him with extortion. Although he was eventually tried, acquitted, and freed six weeks after his arrest, Mondol says he still feels threatened.

CPJ documented several other cases in 2003 where journalists who reported on crimes committed by government officials were falsely charged with crimes in reprisal. Editor and publisher Mahmudul Haq was imprisoned for several weeks in May on extortion charges in Sitakunda, an industrial town in the southeastern Chittagong District, after exposing local political corruption. Akkas Sikder, a reporter for the local newspaper Ajker Barta, was charged with murder in July and detained for a month after he wrote about police corruption in the southern Jhalakati District. The charges were eventually dropped.

Partisans and gangs associated with Prime Minister Zia’s ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)–including the party’s student wing, Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal (JCD)–were responsible for many other brutal assaults against journalists. (Before the Awami League Party [ALP] lost power to the BNP in the 2001 elections, ALP members were also known for their brutal assaults on the media.) On July 31, a group of 20 JCD members viciously attacked Hasan Jahid Tusher, a reporter for The Daily Star, in his dorm room at Dhaka University in retaliation for articles he wrote about their violent activities. The gang beat Tusher with iron rods, severely injuring his back and shoulders, and then dragged him downstairs from his third-floor room.

In the Shariatpur District of southern Bangladesh, JCD members kidnapped the local correspondent for the national newspaper Janakantha, Abul Bashar, from his office on June 19. They took the journalist to district BNP headquarters, where armed party members shot him and beat him, injuring his spine, skull, and eyes. Prior to the kidnapping, Janakantha, which is known for its critical coverage of the BNP, ran an article detailing attacks on Shariatpur residents carried out by the JCD. By year’s end, no arrests had been made in the attacks on Tusher and Bashar.

In addition to the government officials, police, and party leaders who threatened and attacked journalists, criminal gangs also endangered the Bangladeshi press in 2003. In July, Shafiq Shaheen, a reporter for the newspaper Manabzamin, was severely beaten with hockey sticks by suspected gang members for writing about their illegal activities in the capital, Dhaka.

While no journalists were killed for their work in 2003 in Bangladesh, six have been murdered in the last seven years. No one has been convicted for any of the killings. The investigation into the 2000 murder of Shamsur Rahman, a Janakantha correspondent known for his articles exposing local criminal gangs, led to the arrest and charging of 17 men beginning in May 2003, including five journalists. One of the journalists, Farazi Azmal Hossain, a reporter with the Dhaka-based daily Ittefaq, was a close friend of Rahman’s. Hossain was formally charged in September but remained free on bail at year’s end. According to The Associated Press, the government suspects that “professional jealousy” may have led Hossain to murder Rahman. But Hossain’s lawyer claims that the charges are a “conspiracy” and a form of harassment because Hossain has protested Rahman’s killing. Rahman’s widow, meanwhile, has asked that the charges against Hossain be dropped.

Sensitivity to foreign media coverage remained high in 2003 after investigative articles in the U.S. newsweeklies Time and Far Eastern Economic Review in 2002 raised the possibility of an al-Qaeda presence in Bangladesh. In November 2002, two U.K.-based filmmakers with Britain’s Channel 4 were accused of sedition and held for 16 days before being deported. Two Bangladeshi journalists working with them were also detained and charged with “anti-state activities.” In February 2003, Prime Minister Zia accused the foreign media of slander at a conference for the Commonwealth Journalists Association. Visas for foreign reporters became difficult to obtain, and in July officials banned an issue of Newsweek containing an article examining different interpretations of the Quran.

While the number of independent publications in the country continues to grow, television is still severely restricted. The state-run Bangladesh Television and its radio counterpart, Bangladesh Betar, dominate the market. The country’s only private channel that is not broadcast via cable or satellite, Ekushey Television (ETV), was closed in August 2002 after the Supreme Court ruled that the station’s license had been obtained improperly. Local sources believe that the ruling was a pretext because the BNP has accused the channel of being biased in favor of the opposition Awami League Party. According to local journalists, the station plans to relaunch in early 2004.

Bangladesh has three other private channels, NTV, Channel I, and ATN, but they can only be viewed by satellite or cable. The government allows private cable companies to broadcast foreign programming such as CNN and the BBC. But channels risk losing their licenses if they are overly critical of the government, leading to self-censorship by local journalists.

In a country where impunity is the norm for those who attack journalists, a significant development occurred in 2003 in the case of 2002 CPJ International Press Freedom Award recipient Tipu Sultan. Two-and-a-half years after he was savagely attacked in the southwestern district of Feni, arrest warrants were finally issued in April for former member of Parliament Joynal Hazari and 12 of his aides on charges of violent assault and the attempted murder of Sultan. In January 2001, Sultan was abducted and savagely beaten with iron rods and hockey sticks by a gang of Hazari’s thugs. During the assault, they crushed the bones in Sultan’s hands, arms, and legs. Hazari, a local political leader who belonged to the then ruling Awami League Party, reportedly ordered the beating in retaliation for articles by Sultan accusing him of corruption.

Sultan’s case shocked journalists in Bangladesh and worldwide, and Hazari was forced to flee the country, reportedly to India. On April 16, after a 28-month investigation, Hazari and 12 of his associates were charged in absentia. Hazari was formally indicted in October. The trial began in November and was ongoing at press time. Sultan testified against Hazari on December 17 and was scheduled to be cross-examined by defense lawyers in early 2004.

Despite progress toward justice in the case, Hazari made threatening phone calls in August to Sultan’s home saying he would kill the journalist and his family unless the journalist withdrew the case, said Sultan. That same month, in an unrelated case, Hazari was convicted in absentia on two counts of illegal arms possession and sentenced to life in prison. Although Hazari’s conviction in Sultan’s case would send a message that those who try to silence journalists will be held accountable, he must be apprehended first.