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A man reads a newspaper outside a Dhaka flower stall in 2015. Bangladesh's press say a climate of fear amid legal action, attacks, and threats makes covering sensitive issues difficult. (AP)

Bangladesh's press say they are losing the courage to report amid threats from all sides

By Steven Butler/CPJ Asia Program Coordinator on February 13, 2018 11:35 AM ET

Nazmul Huda pointed his TV camera at garment workers demonstrating for higher wages in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, and at the police firing tear gas and rubber bullets at them. It took a while for police to notice the ETV reporter, and they were furious. After all, they had ordered him to leave the area and stop reporting the day before. So they demanded he turn over his recordings. When Huda explained that he had none--it had all been broadcast live--it only made the police angrier.

As Huda told his story recently in a hotel lobby in Dhaka, his friendly, made-for-TV personality grew more somber. That December 2016 afternoon marked the start of a nightmare for Huda that is ongoing. And while few journalists in Bangladesh ever face the brutality and intimidation that he described that day, it's a cautionary tale that explains the feeling of fear repeated again and again by journalists with whom I spoke, who say they worry no one is there to protect them.

By appearances, Bangladesh has a vibrant and boisterous media industry. But its journalists are facing a diverse range of threats, from out-of-control police and forced disappearances, to tough criminal defamation laws under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Act. Militant attacks decimated a once-thriving community of bloggers and many journalists say they still feel the threat. Highly partisan politics polarized the journalist community, even splitting the journalist union into two competing organizations. Meanwhile, journalists say they endure repeated intimidating "advisory" phone calls from police, army intelligence, or the government. The net result is a siege mentality. "I don't have the courage anymore," said Matiur Rahman, editor of the leading Bangla daily paper, Prothom Alo. Rahman worries not just about himself and his family, but also his staff and the fate of the newspaper that he mustered the courage to found in 1998.

The result, according to every editor and reporter with whom I spoke, is that important news is sometimes ignored to avoid angering the military, the government--especially Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her family--or extremist religious groups. "I'm at a very high level of self-censorship," said Mahfuz Anam, editor of the leading English paper The Daily Star. Anam said that he is personally facing 84 legal cases for sedition or defamation, with potential damages of US$8 billion. With cases filed in different jurisdictions, the editor said, he is forced to travel around the country to defend himself.

Other journalists with whom I spoke, and who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, had similar stories. One of them recalled how he received a call from the government requesting that he stop giving blanket coverage to a controversial mayoral election. He said he complied, as did all other publications and broadcast channels.

In Huda's case, the journalist said that when he realized police were trying to pick him up a few days after the protest, he turned himself in, never imagining what would come next. Huda recalled how he was taken away, hooded, handcuffed and beaten for days, thrown in a ditch, retrieved, beaten some more, and, when he asked for water, was forced to drink urine. He said he had to stand for two days straight, while police tried to obtain a confession that he had conspired with the garment workers, and finally came before a judge to face six criminal charges. Mercifully, he said, the judge sent him to prison, where the beatings ended.

After 45 days Huda was granted bail. A court later threw out all the charges filed against him, except for a criminal defamation one filed under Section 57 of Bangladesh's Information and Communication Act. But legal charges aren't his biggest worry. "Any time, they can pick me up and kill me," said Huda, whose case is still ongoing. "I am always with that fear." Huda said he has returned to work, but with police repeatedly warning him not to attend press conferences or cover stories, he has trouble making living. He added that intelligence agents monitor and follow him and he never leaves home without a companion, so at least someone can bear witness and inform his family should he disappear.

Abdul Awal, the officer in charge of Ashulia Police Station, where the case against Huda was filed, told CPJ he had no knowledge of the allegations that the journalist was tortured after his arrest.

When we met in his Dhaka office, Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu, dismissed claims of a beleaguered press and boasted of the transparency of the government, including the 2009 Right to Information Act, and of the thousands of online applications for newspaper licenses, as if to say, 'how can people complain?' And there's some truth to that, with the emergence of innovative online news portals like bdnews24, or relatively recently launched print products in the past few years, such as the Dhaka Tribune.

As for Section 57, the online criminal defamation law that has struck fear into so many journalists? "It's not a law for journalists," he said, but rather aimed at online criminal activities, although he admitted that local police are sometimes been overzealous, throwing journalists and others into jail over perceived slights to others. CPJ has documented several arrests under the act in the past three years and every journalist with whom I spoke while in Dhaka said they were afraid of falling afoul of it.

A bill to replace Section 57, the Digital Security Bill, is in the works and will put authority to apply the law's harsh provisions to a committee of experts, the information minister told me. Even so, the proposed law, like the current one, criminalizes speech, so the potential dangers for journalists remain.

Aside from the threat of legal action or arrest, the divisiveness of Bangladeshi politics--between the ruling Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party--has polarized the journalism industry with most publications and broadcast channels identified as pro or anti one party or the other. And disappearances, while mainly affecting politicians, have scared everyone. It hit close to home last year with the disappearance of journalist Utpal Das, who reappeared, unharmed, unexpectedly a few months later.

Fear still lingers from a spate of murders in 2015, when extremists hacked to death four bloggers in separate attacks. Arif Jebtik, who started blogging in 2006, said he at first ignored the threats he received until his mother started getting calls in the family village home. "We had indications they would burn down our house," he said, speaking in his home in Dhaka. He uprooted his mother to Dhaka, quit his job, stopped jogging outside, and went into hiding, where he essentially remains. The life that he once had is finished, and he hasn't posted on his blog in two and a half years. "Once you are a target," he said, "you are a target for the rest of your life."

With such a range of threats, reversing the damage to freedom of expression will prove difficult, especially as the nation drifts from the secular, liberal democratic, values that inspired Bangladesh's freedom fighters in the 1971 war of independence against Pakistan. "What we achieved in 24 years [struggling] against Pakistan," said Rahman, the Prothom Alo editor, "we lost in 46 years of Bangladesh."


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