Q&A: Nadia Sharmeen on journalists in Bangladesh

Nadia Sharmeen was attacked when she tried to cover a protest in April. (Ekushey TV)

It has been a turbulent year for journalists in Bangladesh. It began with blogger Asif Mohiuddin being stabbed in January as he left his office in Dhaka. The following month, blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider was killed for his writing. Four other bloggers, including Mohiuddin, were arrested in early April (all four have been released on bail, but still face criminal charges). Meanwhile, an editor of a pro-opposition newspaper is imprisoned.

These attacks come amid renewed political turmoil between the ruling Awami League and rival parties, including the Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party that was banned last week from contesting future elections. Some of the party’s members have recently been convicted of war crimes dating back to the 1971 war of independence.

In April, I wrote about assaults by Islamists against several journalists covering demonstrations in Dhaka, including Ekushey Television reporter Nadia Sharmeen. More than four months have passed and Sharmeen languishes at home due to her injuries, including a ruptured ligament in her leg. Little progress has been made in her case. Sharmeen spoke with CPJ about her attack, the state of press freedom in Bangladesh and the challenges of being a female journalist. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sumit Galhotra: Can you describe the attack that took place against you on April 6?

Nadia Sharmeen: That afternoon I was sent on an assignment to collect footage of a large rally organized by an extremist Islamist group known as the Hefajat-e-Islam in response to the ongoing Shahbagh protests that demanded the death penalty for Islamists accused of war crimes during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971. The rally drew thousands of people to the streets of Dhaka.

When I arrived at the scene, I learned that Islamists had attacked several journalists. After informing my office about it, I waited in a safe area nearby for about an hour. As I was chatting with people at an intersection, I was suddenly approached by a man whom I suspected belonged to the Islamist group. He came towards me and antagonistically said, “You’re a woman. Why are you here? Just get out of here right now.”

SG: What was your reaction?

NS: I was surprised, but calmly responded, “I’m not here as a woman, I’m here as a journalist to cover your event.” As the man became more aggressive, other Islamists also joined the chorus of verbal attacks asserting that journalists are the agents of the Shahbagh movement, that we manipulate, twist and lie about news in their favor, and that journalists don’t give adequate coverage to the Islamists.

SG: What happened next?

NS: Fearing the situation may escalate, I decided it was better to leave the area. But as I started making my way, the men started hitting me from behind. There was a police barricade just a few feet from the location where I stood. But no one from there came to help me.

Some people escorted me to a microbus where I briefly sought refuge. But Islamists continued to strike the vehicle with such force that it seemed that they would break it into pieces. At that point, I called my office to inform them that I was being attacked, and then made another call to my cameraman to alert him.

As I made my way out of the bus and headed away from the area, people behind me threw water bottles, pebbles, and pieces of brick at me. Since I couldn’t look back, I could only feel the objects landing around me and on my head, neck, back, and legs. One person walking alongside me, who offered to help, instead ran off with my cell phone.

By then a large crowd of about 50-60 people appeared and they pushed me to the ground and started beating me as if they wanted to kill me. I felt helpless and had no way to stop them. At that moment a few colleagues and others nearby came to my rescue. As they were trying to rescue me, the attackers kept pulling me back, throwing me to the ground and beating me like a dog. They tore apart my kameez (shirt) and tried to tear the whole dress apart. They also took off my scarf.

I was cordoned off by colleagues and others outside a building, and eventually a police team arrived and escorted us to safety and to seek medical attention.

SG: Can you describe the current climate for journalists in Bangladesh? What major threats do journalists face there? Where do these threats come from?

NS: Journalists are frequently facing attacks from various actors: political parties (both the ruling party and the opposition), criminal elements, police, religious leaders, student leaders, doctors, even by members of parliament as you recently documented.

SG: Is justice meted in any of these cases?

NS: Most of these cases are rarely brought to justice. So far, except for one journalist murder case in Bangladesh–the killing of Gautam Das–no journalist murder cases were brought to justice. Journalists in Bangladesh are denied justice because of political instability, weakness or unwillingness of police to investigate, as well as a weak justice system. A lot of murder cases like the double killing of the journalist couple Sagar Sarowar and Meherun Runi last year remain unsolved. Compounding these concerns is that fact that journalists themselves are divided in Bangladesh. Press organizations in the capital remain factionalized, hampering efforts at coordination and cooperation to tackle these issues.

SG: And what are conditions like for female journalists working in the country?

NS: The situation for women journalists in Bangladesh is getting riskier day by day. With the expansion of electronic media, the number of women working as journalists has certainly increased. But they face a host of problems including not being paid at the same levels as their male counterparts and being subject to sexual discrimination. We rarely see women as decision makers and media ownership is not yet in their hands. And freedom with which they can report can vary from urban to rural places. And at present, with the rise of groups like Hefajat-e-Islam and their demands for banning the free association of men and women in public spaces, media houses steer clear of sending women journalists to cover their events, thereby restricting the movement of women journalists. These extremists attack women journalists verbally, even physically–as seen in my case.

CPJ Speak Justice Associate Maha Masud contributed to this report.