The Bangladeshi press endured another volatile and violent year in 2004, with three journalists murdered in retaliation for their work, scores of death threats from extremist groups, and routine harassment and physical attacks. A CPJ delegation that conducted a fact-finding and advocacy mission to the country in March concluded that Bangladesh was the most dangerous country for journalists in the region. Rising religious fundamentalism, increased political tensions, and regional lawlessness contributed to 2004’s ominous press freedom landscape, while the pervasive culture of impunity continued to embolden those who would silence critical voices.
Two leading journalists and press freedom activists were killed in bomb attacks in the southwestern Khulna District, an area along the Indian border rife with crime.
On January 15, senior investigative reporter Manik Saha was brutally murdered by a homemade bomb thrown at him in broad daylight. Saha, a correspondent for the English-language daily New Age and a stringer for the BBC, had a reputation for bold reporting on local criminal gangs and drug smugglers. His death shocked the journalism community and the country. Prime Minister Khaleda Zia pledged to track down and punish those behind the killing.
An underground leftist group, Janajuddha (People’s War), a faction of the outlawed Purbo Banglar Communist Party (PBCP), claimed responsibility for Saha’s murder the day after he died. In the following weeks, the PBCP threatened to kill as many as 20 other local journalists in a similar fashion unless they stopped reporting about Saha’s killing and the group’s criminal activities.
On June 20, police charged 12 people in connection with Saha’s murder, according to The Associated Press (AP). But the four suspects in custody have no connection with Janajuddha, sources told CPJ, casting doubt on the validity of the arrests. Local journalists question whether those actually responsible for organizing the attack will ever be brought to justice. The trial for Saha’s murder is scheduled to begin in early 2005 under the Speedy Trial Act, which denies bail to defendants.
On June 27, Humayun Kabir, another well-known journalist who edited the Bangla-language daily Janmabhumi (Motherland), was murdered in a similar bomb attack in Khulna. Kabir was president of the Khulna Press Club and had published articles exposing local organized crime. Janajuddha also claimed responsibility for his death. The BBC reported that nine suspects have been detained in connection with Kabir’s murder, but local journalists remain skeptical about the case being resolved because the suspects have not been convincingly linked to Janajuddha. Local sources told CPJ that the families of the murdered journalists refused to file cases with the police because of their lack of faith in the legal process.
A third journalist, Kamal Hossain, was abducted and brutally murdered in August in the southeastern Chittagong District in retaliation for his investigative reporting on local criminal groups for the Bangla-language daily Ajker Kagoj, according to local journalists.
Unidentified assailants kidnapped Hossain’s 2-year-old son, holding him until the journalist surrendered and was taken away at gunpoint on August 21. Hossain’s decapitated body was found near his house the next day; his wife told local reporters that he had received death threats in the weeks leading up to the attack. The Chittagong District is notorious for crime, including illegal lumber and arms dealing, sources told CPJ.
Crime reporter Sumi Khan survived a knife attack in the port city of Chittagong, the lawless district’s capital, in April. Three unidentified assailants cut her forehead, mouth, and hands with a knife while trying to take her from the rickshaw in which she was riding. Khan, a longtime reporter with the publication Weekly 2000, said the assailants shouted: “You have gone too far. You are very daring, and you should not be.”
The government’s long-standing sensitivity to outside criticism continued in 2004. A CPJ delegation visiting the capital, Dhaka, was subjected to blatant surveillance and harassment by government minders, despite having official approval for the trip. The four-person CPJ delegation met with press freedom activists, journalists, and government officials from the two leading political parties to learn more about the formidable obstacles facing the Bangladeshi press, and to pressure authorities into taking action in their defense.
At a press conference in Dhaka, the CPJ delegation concluded that local journalists all too frequently risk attacks and death in retaliation for their reporting. In response to questions in Parliament about CPJ’s findings, Prime Minister Zia denied that journalists are targeted for their work, claiming that any such attacks stem from “local-level reasons, and not for journalism,” the AP reported.
In a disturbing trend, Islamic extremist groups threatened journalists throughout the country for reporting on their activities, calling them “enemies of Islam.” In May, members of an Islamic vigilante organization, Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), rallied in the northwestern city of Rajshahi and called for local journalists who report on their activities to be killed. Nine journalists in the nearby northwestern district of Dinajpur received death threat letters days later from a suspected Islamic militant group with ties to JMJB. In July, another Islamic group calling itself the Mujahideen al-Islam sent death threats to at least 24 journalists and writers in Dhaka, the northeastern city of Sylet, and the southern district of Barguna.
After Prothom Alo, the most widely circulated Bangla-language daily, ran a groundbreaking investigative series in August about the illegal training of militants in Islamic schools, or madrasas, in the southeastern Chittagong District, 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 the newspaper, destroyed billboards showing its 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 that its editor, Motiur Rahman, be arrested, according to the national news wire service United News of Bangladesh.
Journalists were also at risk covering political clashes that erupted with increasing intensity between supporters of the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the opposition Awami League. Journalists reporting on the frequent nationwide strikes, protests, and riots were often caught in the crossfire and even targeted by police and political activists. On August 21, opposition leader Sheikh Hasina survived an assassination attempt when unidentified assailants threw grenades at her while she was stepping down from the podium at a rally in Dhaka. At least seven journalists covering the rally were among the hundreds wounded in the attack. Police also beat four photographers covering a strike in Dhaka in June, according to local news reports.
In March and September, members of the ruling BNP’s student wing, the Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal (JCD), targeted journalists reporting on student demonstrations on the Dhaka University campus. JCD activists beat journalists who were taking pictures of their violent activities and confiscated their equipment and film while police stood by. In a meeting with CPJ representatives in March, then Home Secretary Altaf Chowdhury claimed that journalists were harmed accidentally while covering demonstrations. But journalists interviewed by CPJ said they were specifically targeted; they noted they are well known at the university, and that their professional identification and equipment clearly mark them as working members of the press.
Justice was delayed in the ongoing trial of those accused of attacking Prothom Alo reporter and 2002 International Press Freedom Award recipient Tipu Sultan. In October 2003, a group of 13 people, including former member of Parliament Joynal Hazari, went on trial on charges of attempted murder for the vicious attack on Sultan in early 2001. But the trial was stalled twice in 2004, in January and in August, when several defendants received six-month postponements from the court. CPJ urged Law Minister Moudud Ahmad and other government officials to prosecute Sultan’s case aggressively, but at year’s end, the trial showed no signs of reconvening.
Bangladesh’s lone imprisoned journalist, Salah Uddin Shoaib Chowdhury, remained in failing health behind bars on sedition charges despite repeated attempts to gain his release on bail, according to his family. Zia sent a memo to the Home Ministry in the spring asking that the case be resolved expeditiously, but Bangladesh’s High Court denied Chowdhury’s request for bail in August. Chowdhury was arrested in November 2003 while on his way to address a group of writers in Israel.