Newspaper threatened

New York, August 23, 2004—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply concerned about the growing number of threats being made against the popular Bangla-language daily Prothom Alo by Islamic groups in the capital, Dhaka, and in the southeastern Chittagong District.

The threats began last week in the wake of Prothom Alo’s investigative series about the illegal training of militants in Islamic schools, or madrasas, throughout the rural southeastern Chittagong District. The series, titled “Terrorist Activities in Greater Chittagong,” ran in mid-August. Days later, several Islamic groups began staging protests against the newspaper, including the Islamic fundamentalist political party the Islamic United Front.

Demonstrators in several towns throughout Chittagong District and in Dhaka burned copies of Prothom Alo, destroyed billboards showing the newspaper’s name, and attempted to attack the newspaper’s offices, according to local press reports. At a protest in Chittagong on August 21, Fazlul Haq Amini, a member of parliament from the Islamic United Front, demanded that Prothom Alo be banned and its editor, Motiur Rahman, arrested, according to the national newswire service the United News of Bangladesh (UNB).

The UNB also reported that another local leader, Mufti Izharul Islam, said that anyone selling copies of the newspaper would be “listed as an enemy of the people.” Local journalists’ groups were concerned that distribution of the newspaper would be disrupted and called on authorities to ensure its safe delivery, according to the newspaper The Daily Star.

On August 19, thousands of madrasa students and teachers demonstrated against the newspaper in Dhaka and threatened to burn down Prothom Alo’s headquarters, according to local news reports. An Islamic leader named Abdul Zabbar called on the protesters to take a vow to sacrifice their lives for the cause of destroying Prothom Alo, according to The Daily Star. “Either we exist, or Prothom Alo will exist in the country,” Zabbar said.

Issues relating to militant Islamic fundamentalism are highly sensitive in Bangladesh. The government has condemned and banned foreign media outlets that have reported on the alleged existence and activities of militant groups inside the country, including the Far Eastern Economic Review and Time magazines in 2002. The Prothom Alo series marked the first time that a Bangladeshi news outlet had reported on the issue, according to local journalists.

The editors of Bangladesh’s main newspapers, journalists’ groups, human rights groups, and intellectuals condemned the threatening demonstrations staged against Prothom Alo, but so far the government has not spoken out against the Islamic groups.

The demonstrations came during heightened political tensions in Bangladesh. Opposition leader Sheikh Hasina barely escaped an assassination attempt at a rally in Dhaka on August 21 that killed at least 17 people, according to international news reports. A nationwide two-day strike is planned beginning tomorrow, and thousands of opposition party Awami League supporters demonstrated against the attack over the weekend.

“These intimidation tactics amount to blatant attacks on press freedom in Bangladesh,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “We call on authorities to publicly condemn those who are harassing and threatening our colleagues at Prothom Alo, and to do everything in their power to protect the newspaper and its staff.”