Rioting kicked off a three-month electoral season in October as the ruling Bangladesh National Party (BNP) was accused of bias in the installation of an interim government and election commissioner. Fears of physical attacks against a politically divided press corps deepened along with the political crisis, as leaders of the rival Awami League threatened to boycott the general election scheduled for January 2007. Journalists were tasked with covering a time of great uncertainty: President Iajuddin Ahmed, formerly a ceremonial head, installed himself as chief of a caretaker government and warned that the military could be brought in to quell violence.
Throughout the year, routine violence against journalists continued to inhibit coverage of corruption, poverty, and rising Islamic militancy. For the first time in three years, CPJ documented no cases of journalists killed for their work–but members of the press were threatened, intimidated, and physically attacked by party and student activists, police, criminal gangs, and fundamentalist groups. Journalists outside of the capital, Dhaka, were at particular risk.
A very active press in Bangladesh operated in relative freedom from direct government censorship. At the same time, public officials warned journalists against critical news reports in the name of protecting the image of Bangladesh. Addressing newly elected members of the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists in her office in April, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia called on the media to protect the country’s interest and avoid harming the national economy through their reporting, according to local media reports.
Some high-level officials also took advantage of outdated criminal defamation laws to file cases against journalists whose critical reporting affected public perceptions. Public Works Minister Mirza Abbas filed a defamation case in February against the editor and publisher of the popular Dhaka-based Bengali-language daily Prothom Alo, saying that an article claiming a disagreement between the minister and police had tarnished the minister’s image and status. Mahfuz Anam, publisher of Prothom Alo and editor of the English-language Daily Star, told CPJ that the case was one of three ongoing defamation cases against him.
In some instances, particularly in regions outside of Dhaka, official legal action against journalists was accompanied by physical threats and violence. Three journalists fled the western town of Kushtia in May fearing for their safety after local ruling party lawmaker Shahidul Islam filed extortion cases against them. Journalists from Dhaka and elsewhere traveled to the town to protest treatment of their colleagues only to be targeted themselves. At a rally in support of the press, men identified as BNP activists attacked the journalists with bricks, stones, and chairs, injuring as many as 25 without apparent police intervention. After vocal protests from Bangladeshi media organizations and international human rights organizations, including CPJ, the lawmaker apologized in July, dropping the cases against the journalists and allowing them to return to their homes.
Police continued a grim tradition of violence against the media in April, beating a sports photographer for using the wrong entrance at the opening of an Australia-Bangladesh cricket match in the southeastern city of Chittagong. The situation escalated when dozens of baton-wielding police officers brutally beat 20 journalists who were protesting the initial attack on their colleague. Several of the journalists were hospitalized, and a government committee later recommended monetary compensation for the injured reporters.
Little progress was made in solving a series of journalist murders. A disturbing pattern emerged in the cases of Shamsur Rahman, Manik Saha, Sheikh Belaluddin, and others killed for their work in recent years. Investigations moved slowly, suspects were released, and trials repeatedly postponed–all of which served to ensure near total impunity in the killings. The failure of justice indicated a lack of either political will or ability on the part of the government.
“That’s their strategy,” Mainul Islam Khan, a press advocate for the Bangladesh Center for Development, Journalism, and Communication, told CPJ. “To delay as long as possible so the drive for justice becomes weaker and people will finally forget about the verdict.”
In anticipation of the 2007 election between bitter rivals Zia, leader of the BNP, and former prime minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League, the issues of widespread corruption, violent crime, high rates of inflation, and poverty were brought to the forefront. Awami League leaders also blasted BNP’s coalition with the conservative Islamic Jamaat-e-Islami party, accused of having close links to banned militant Islamist groups in the country.
The presence of an organized militant network–long reported by the media despite clear risks–was belatedly acknowledged by the government with the arrests of high-profile suspects in the coordinated nationwide bombings of August 2005. Journalists were denied access to captured militants Bangla Bhai (the alias of Siddiqul Islam) and Shaikh Abdur Rahman, prompting speculation that the leaders of the recently banned groups Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh and Jamaat-ul-Mujahedeen would implicate others.
A sedition case proceeded against journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, editor of the Dhaka-based tabloid Blitz, who was released on bail in 2005 after spending 17 months in prison. Choudhury was arrested in November 2003 after trying to travel to Israel for a conference organized by the Hebrew Writers Association. Bangladesh has no formal relations with Israel, and the government has made it illegal for Bangladeshi citizens to travel there.