Bangladesh was mired in a political crisis heightened by the wide-scale August 17 attacks by Islamic militants involving hundreds of small, near-simultaneous bombings throughout the nation. Journalists covering the bombings and their aftermath said they were more vulnerable than ever to violent reprisals.
Bangladesh was already one of the most dangerous countries for the press in Asia, according to CPJ research. Even by that poor standard, death threats and physical attacks against journalists spiked in 2005. Traditional enemies of the press such as criminal gangs, underground leftist groups, police, politicians, and student activists continued to lash out at journalists. The newer and potentially graver threat from radical Islamist groups exacerbated the treacherous landscape.
In May, CPJ named Bangladesh one of the world’s five most murderous countries for journalists. Nine journalists were killed over five years, eight of them in the lawless southwestern Khulna district, which is rife with criminal gangs, outlawed political groups, and drug traffickers. Seven of the victims received death threats beforehand. Investigations into the murders have yielded no convictions.
Journalists in rural provinces faced threats from the growing number of illegal groups. In February, the Janajuddha faction of the outlawed Purbo Banglar Communist Party sent death threats to eight journalists in the southwestern city of Satkhira. The Janajuddha called the journalists “class enemies” and threatened them with execution because of their reporting on the faction’s leader.
In September, five of the same journalists and four others received pieces of white cloth, symbolizing funeral shrouds, accompanied by letters co-signed by the outlawed Islamic militant Bangla Bhai and the radical movement Ahle Hadith. These letters warned journalists not to write about their groups’ activities and threatened to kill ethnic Hindu reporters.
The Bangladeshi press operates largely without direct government interference, and it routinely exposes government corruption. But retaliatory physical attacks and threats occur frequently and with impunity. Despite promises from officials to track down those responsible for the attacks, little is done to punish offenders—even in high-profile murder cases.
The February murder of Sheikh Belaluddin illustrates the seemingly intractable pattern of impunity. A journalist with the conservative national daily Sangbad, Belaluddin died after a homemade bomb detonated outside the Khulna Press Club. A breakthrough in the case was reported in July, when a former leader of the Islami Chhatra Shibir, the student wing of the Islamic fundamentalist political party Jamaat-e-Islami, confessed to taking part in the deadly bombing. Yet three weeks later, the suspect was freed on bail, and his whereabouts were unknown, according to local press reports.
Belaluddin’s murder shocked the nation’s press, prompting protests and briefly uniting the country’s polarized journalists. Editors from across the political spectrum came together to form a new group, the Forum to Protect Journalists, which rallied in the capital, Dhaka, soon after Belaluddin’s killing. The protesters marched to the National Press Club and called for justice in all of the murdered journalists’ cases. But longstanding divisions kept the forum from following up with more action, local journalists said.
The government has professed a commitment to solving the 2004 murders in Khulna of veteran reporter Manik Saha and editor Humayun Kabir Balu. Arrests have been made in both cases, but family members are skeptical about the proceedings and don’t believe that the masterminds have been apprehended, according to The Daily Star of Dhaka and CPJ sources.
Police brutality was a continuing problem, particularly for photographers covering the country’s growing political tensions. In May, baton-wielding riot police on the Dhaka University campus beat seven photographers and camera operators who were covering protests. When journalists staged their own demonstration in July to protest the mistreatment, intelligence officers assaulted nine photojournalists in full view of police.
Islamic militant activity in Bangladesh is on the increase, according to local and international news accounts. Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party rose to power in 2001 through an alliance with conservative Islamic parties. Her government had flatly denied the existence of militant groups, saying that journalists reporting on the trend were engaged in “informational terrorism.”
Covering this emerging story in the face of official denials carried risks for journalists. Government leaders harshly criticized a January New York Times Magazine article that described the rise of militant Islamism. Intelligence officers questioned and harassed people interviewed for the article and journalists who cooperated in its reporting. The family of Time reporter Saleem Samad was among those targeted. In June, four men identified as cadres of Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), an outlawed militant group headed by Bangla Bhai, attacked Janakantha reporter Shafiqul Islam in the northwestern town of Rajshahi because he had helped other journalists report on the JMJB’s activities, according to The Daily Star.
The government was finally forced to confront the rise in radical groups’ activities after the nationwide attacks on August 17. In a well-coordinated, half-hour-long series of strikes, hundreds of small bombs exploded across the country, killing at least two, injuring hundreds, and dealing a heavy psychological blow to the nation. The Supreme Court, the Foreign Ministry, airports, and at least seven press clubs were targeted in the bombings, which went off in 63 of the country’s 64 districts. Leaflets said the bombs were a message from the banned Islamic militant group Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) to Western leaders to leave Islamic countries. The leaflets also called for the establishment of Islamic sharia law.
Militant groups made use of the media to publicize their ideas, according to local news reports. The popular daily Prothom Alo reported in late 2004 that radical groups were increasingly using the media to recruit and spread propaganda about jihad. “Books, magazines, and cassettes are on sale in the capital urging people to join in a jihad,” according to Prothom Alo. Books with titles such as “Why Should We Participate in Jihad” were selling briskly.
An imprisoned journalist was released in April. Authorities freed Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, editor and publisher of the weekly tabloid Blitz, after he spent 17 months in jail awaiting trial on sedition charges stemming from his attempt to travel to Israel in November 2003 to participate in a conference with the Hebrew Writers Association. Bangladesh has no formal relations with Israel, and it is illegal for Bangladeshi citizens to travel there. The initial charge of violating passport restrictions was later dropped in favor of the more serious sedition charge.
Choudhury told CPJ that, because the sedition charges were pending, he was forced to appear in court once a month. He said that his passport was not returned, and that he was still at risk; after the August bombings, he received threatening letters from radicals. Choudhury relaunched the weekly Blitz in October.
Joynal Hazari, the member of parliament accused of ordering the savage beating of reporter Tipu Sultan in 2001, continued to elude justice as legal proceedings against him stalled. Despite the many delays, Sultan focused instead on journalism, covering the news for Bangladesh’s most popular daily, Prothom Alo.
Sultan told CPJ that four years after thugs smashed the bones in his right hand in retaliation for his reporting on local corruption, he was excelling professionally and investigating many of the paper’s lead stories. CPJ honored Sultan for his courage with an International Press Freedom Award in 2002.