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Attacks on the Press in 2002 - Bangladesh

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2003
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 2002 - Bangladesh, February 2003, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c56655c.html [accessed 26 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

For Bangladeshi journalists, covering crime and corruption can be as dangerous as reporting in a war zone. Journalists regularly endure vicious attacks, and since 1998, five Bangladeshi journalists have been killed in reprisal for their work.

All of the five murdered journalists were based in towns along the country's southwestern frontier with India – a crime-ridden area rife with guerrilla groups, gunrunners, and smuggling syndicates. The latest victim, crime reporter Harunur Rashid, was killed by gunmen on March 2 as he was riding his motorcycle to work in Khulna District. Another crime reporter from the same district went missing after armed men kidnapped him in early July, and colleagues believe that he, too, may have been killed.

Nationwide, 2002 saw a near total collapse of law and order in Bangladesh. The magnitude of the crisis became clear in mid-October, when Prime Minister Khaleda Zia ordered the army to aid police in a major anti-crime drive, resulting in rampant human rights abuses. According to police and news reports, more than 10,000 people were detained during the three-month operation, and 44 died – either in custody or after their releases – from injuries sustained while in detention. By early November, about 46,000 soldiers were engaged in the crackdown, which opposition leader Sheikh Hasina, who was prime minister until October 2001, characterized as "undeclared martial law."

Zia's clampdown did little to address the fact that many of those involved in crime are themselves police, political-party activists, and elected officials. The politicization of law enforcement agencies, combined with political corruption, has heightened the risks for journalists, who often have no recourse when they are targeted for their work.

One of the most famous cases of a journalist attacked for reporting on a politician's criminal misdeeds is that of Tipu Sultan, a winner of CPJ's 2002 International Press Freedom Award. Sultan was nearly killed in January 2001 when a gang he identified as followers of a local politician in the town of Feni savagely beat him. His assault received international attention and was one of several cases the Zia government promised to prosecute. (The politician, who allegedly ordered the attack, is a mem- ber of the main opposition Awami League and has since fled the country.) Sultan has recovered and is back at work, but no progress was made this year in bringing his assailants to justice.

Political partisans and gangs associated with Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the lead partner in the coalition government, were responsible for a number of attacks on members of the media during 2002. For example, journalists reporting on violent clashes between police and student demonstrators at Dhaka University at the end of July were targeted by activists associated with the BNP's youth wing who were unhappy with media coverage of the unrest, as well as by police, who apparently did not want the press to document their use of force to suppress the demonstrations.

The four-party ruling coalition that came to power at the end of 2001 includes the Islamist party Jamaat-i-Islami and the more militant Islami Oikya Jote. The presence of religious extremists among the country's top leadership signaled trouble for journalists who upheld Bangladesh's secular traditions.

In August, a religious group linked to the Islami Oikya Jote called for the arrest of anyone involved with a play staged in the town of Faridpur about sex trafficking, and cases were filed against at least 32 people. Police arrested the playwright, as well as two journalists identified as supporters of the drama group. Several Hindu journalists received death threats, and a group armed with machetes and axes attacked one reporter after he publicly criticized the protestors.

In October, Time magazine reported that Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan had sought refuge in Bangladesh. In the report, Time, noted that "the Bangladeshi government typically reacts with fury to reports of Jihadi camps or fundamentalism within its borders." Foreign Secretary Shamser Mobin Chowdhury called the report "irresponsible and malicious" and suggested it was part of "an orchestrated campaign designed to malign the country's international image as a liberal democratic country." However, the government did not ban the magazine, perhaps because of its earlier, bungled attempt to censor the Far Eastern Economic Review.

The April 4 edition of the Review featured a cover story branding Bangladesh a "Cocoon of Terror" and warning that "rising fundamentalism and religious intolerance are threatening secularism and moderate Islam." The Information Ministry declared the publication, sale, reprinting, and preservation of the issue illegal. The Hong Kong-based magazine, which ordinarily has a very small readership in Bangladesh, did not appear on newsstands but was accessible online. The piece was also widely distributed via e-mail. In the end, the story reached a larger audience than it would have had the government ignored the report.

In November, authorities detained two U.K.-based filmmakers working on a documentary for Channel 4's "Unreported World" series and accused them of sedition. The Home Ministry said that the journalists were arrested for their "malicious intent of portraying Bangladesh as an Islamic fanatical country." They were released after 16 days and were deported to Britain after signing a statement agreeing not to use any of their footage from Bangladesh. Bangladeshi journalists Priscilla Raj and Saleem Samad, who had worked for the Channel 4 team as interpreter and fixer, respectively, were also detained and charged with involvement in "anti-state activities." According to local sources, both journalists were tortured in custody. Raj was released on bail in December, and Samad was freed on January 18, 2003.

Nonetheless, Bangladesh has managed to sustain a diverse and aggressive local press. This does not apply, however, to the broadcast media, which continue to be dominated by state-run Bangladesh Television and its radio counterpart, Bangladesh Betar. At the end of August, Ekushey Television (ETV), the country's only private channel that is not broadcast via cable or satellite, was closed after Bangladesh's Supreme Court ruled that the station's license had been obtained improperly and was therefore invalid. BNP leaders had accused ETV of supporting the opposition Awami League, but the station was widely regarded as a professionally run, independent news organization.

February 5
Shahriar Kabir, free-lance ATTACKED

Explosions from several homemade bombs rocked the area surrounding the Chittagong Press Club, where journalist Kabir was attending a reception to celebrate his release on bail. One bystander was killed in the attack, and several others were injured. Kabir was not harmed.

Kabir, a documentary filmmaker, regular contributor to the national Bengali-language daily Janakantha, and author of several books about Bangladesh's war for independence, had been arrested on November 22, 2001, for "anti-state activities." Officials arrested him at the Dhaka International Airport upon his return to Bangladesh from India, where he had interviewed minority Bangladeshi Hindus who fled there following attacks against their community after the October 1, 2001, parliamentary elections. Kabir was released on bail on January 20, 2002.

A newly formed group called the Action Committee to Resist a Traitor had declared that Kabir was not welcome in Chittagong, and about 300 members of this committee held demonstrations outside the press club during the reception, according to local and international press reports. Kabir has been a longtime opponent of Islamic fundamentalism and has previously come under attack by religious extremists.

March 2
Harunur Rashid, Dainik Purbanchal KILLED

Rashid, a reporter for the Bengali-language newspaper Dainik Purbanchal, was ambushed by gunmen while he was riding his motorcycle to work in the southwestern city of Khulna, according to Bangladeshi and international news reports. Dainik Purbanchal, which is published in Khulna, is a well-regarded regional daily.

Three unidentified young men brought Rashid to a hospital, told doctors he had been injured in a car accident, and then disappeared. A doctor at the hospital told the Dhaka-based newspaper The Independent that Rashid had suffered a fatal bullet wound to his chest.

Rashid, also known as Rashid Khukon, was a crime reporter who had written several stories on official corruption and links between criminal syndicates and outlawed Maoist guerrilla groups, including the Purbo Bangla Communist Party (PBCP). Rashid's relatives told reporters that he was on a PBCP hit list. Though the PBCP issued a statement denying responsibility for Rashid's murder, some colleagues said a splinter faction of the group may be behind the killing.

The reporter had received anonymous death threats throughout his career and, for the last year, had been provided police protection. However, he did not always travel with security guards.

Local journalists believe Rashid was killed for his reporting. Amiya Kanti Pal, a former colleague, told Reuters that, "Rashid was a brave reporter. We suspect that the criminals he wrote about might be behind his murder."

The Criminal Investigation Department, a federal law enforcement body, is investigating the case.

April 3
Far Eastern Economic Review CENSORED

The government banned the April 4 edition of the Hong Kong-based weekly Far Eastern Economic Review because the cover story, "Bangladesh: Cocoon of Terror," described the country as besieged by "Islamic fundamentalism, religious intolerance, militant Muslim groups with links to international terrorist groups, a powerful military with ties to the militants, the mushrooming of Islamic schools churning out radical students, middle-class apathy, poverty and lawlessness."

The Information Ministry called the article a "malicious report" that would "create hatred and division among the people of Bangladesh." On April 3, the ministry declared the publication, sale, reprinting, and preservation of the magazine illegal, according to Bangladeshi and international news reports. While the April 4 edition was not available on newsstands in the country, people in Bangladesh were able to access it online.

The government responded to the article's claims in a letter to the Review that ran in its April 11 edition. Shafi Ahmed, the Bangladeshi consul general in Hong Kong, wrote, "Your description of Bangladesh as a Cocoon of Terror is at best a figment of someone's wild imagination. ... Your article could only be described as being motivated, if not by malicious intentions, then by reasons best known to you."

Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, when addressing Parliament on the issue, blamed the opposition Awami League for sponsoring the Review story and claimed that "vested quarters at home and abroad are trying to tarnish the country's image by spreading untrue, misleading, and malicious information."

April 9
M.A. Faisal, Daily Runner ATTACKED

Faisal, a reporter for the Jessore-based Daily Runner÷ was assaulted by a gang of men who approached him near the Tala Government College in southern Satkhira District. The assailants hit Faisal in the head and used a hammer to break his leg, according to the Dhaka-based organization Media Watch.

Faisal was attacked around noon on the day the Runner published an article about the intimidation of participants in a public bidding process in Tala, a subdistrict of Satkhira. While Faisal was recovering in the hospital, Altaf Hossain, a local leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), visited the journalist and told him, "I warned you not to report on that issue, now look at what has happened as a result," according to a report in the Runner. Hossain also warned Faisal against writing future articles that could anger his party "boys," an apparent reference to the youth wing of the BNP, known as the Jubo Dal, an organization whose members often assault journalists and opposition supporters.

Hossain did not publicly deny newspaper accounts reporting on his involvement in the incident. An editor from the Runner said that no charges were filed, although the police had registered a complaint identifying the assailants by name.

April 20
Nashir Uddin, Prothom Alo ATTACKED, THREATENED
M. Sadeq, free-lance ATTACKED

Nashir Uddin, Comilla-based correspondent for the national Bengali-language daily Prothom Alo, and Sadeq, a free-lance photographer on assignment for Prothom Alo, were assaulted and detained by a group led by local activists associated with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the lead partner in the country's coalition government.

The two were attacked in the village of Krishnapur, Comilla District, when they went there to report on the destruction of 24 homes, allegedly by supporters of a local Parliament member from the BNP. At around 9:30 a.m. on April 20, dozens of men, led by BNP activists, looted and burned property that was at the center of a land dispute between two families. Nashir Uddin and Sadeq arrived in Krishnapur at around 12:30 p.m. and began interviewing witnesses and taking photographs of the damage.

According to Nashir Uddin, a group of men responsible for the attack arrived on the scene and threatened to kill the journalists if they published news of the incident. The gang pushed the journalists, confiscated their film, and then detained them in a room in the Krishnapur Government Primary School for three hours. The men released the journalists after they promised not to report on the incident.

Nashir Uddin said that among those who threatened and harassed the journalists were Anwar Hossain, a leader of the local youth wing of the BNP and nephew of Abu Taher, a local Parliament member representing the BNP from Barura Subdistrict; Abdur Rahim, a local BNP leader from the village of Bhateswar; and Bahar, a BNP leader from the village of Paduarpar.

On April 21, the Comilla Press Club organized a protest condemning the attack on the journalists and demanded that the assailants be punished. The same day, Abdullah Hel Baki, the additional district magistrate of Comilla, visited Krishnapur, prepared a report for the local deputy commissioner about the arson attack, and filed a case on behalf of the victims – including the two journalists – with the Comilla police. No progress in the case had been reported by year's end.

Despite action taken at the district level, police in Barura Subdistrict have failed to take up any of the cases related to the arson attack. Meanwhile, Nashir Uddin continued to receive threats. On April 24, Amiruzzaman Amir, a municipal leader of the BNP, told Nashir Uddin that if he continued to write about Barura, he would "face the consequences." The journalist said he has also received several anonymous death threats over the phone.

May 3
Azadul, Daily Runner THREATENED
Delwar Hossain, Dainik Purbanchal THREATENED
Shaikh Ahsanul Karim, Manavzamin THREATENED
Rezaul Karim, Ittefaq THREATENED
Babul Sarder, Janakantha THREATENED
S.M. Tajuddin, Dainik Prabartan THREATENED

Azadul, of the Daily Runner; Hossain, of the daily Dainik Purbanchal; Shaikh Ahsanul Karim, of the daily Manavzamin; Karim, of the daily Ittefaq; Sarder, of the daily Janakantha; and Tajuddin, of the daily Dainik Prabartan, filed a complaint with police alleging that Sheikh Wahiduzzaman Dipu, joint secretary of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in Bagerhat District, threatened to have the journalists killed for accusing him of criminal activities. The journalists said armed men associated with the BNP were seen patrolling in front of their homes. Dipu also threatened to blow up the Bagerhat office of Dainik Purbanchal, according to the police report. The BNP is the party of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.

May 28
Nazmul Imam, Manavzamin ATTACKED

Imam, the Kushtia correspondent for the national Bengali-language daily Manavzamin, was attacked at around 1:30 a.m. while on his way home. According to several Bangladeshi and international news reports, about five men brandishing knives stopped Imam's rickshaw. Imam gave them his wallet and cell phone. When he then tried to run away, one of the men shouted, "Catch the journalist."

The assailants attacked Imam, slicing off his right thumb and stabbing him repeatedly in his arms, back, and waist, said news reports. After the attackers fled the scene, passers-by took Imam to a local hospital. On May 30, he was transferred to a hospital in the capital, Dhaka.

Imam, who has reported on drug smugglers and other criminal groups, has been targeted for attack before. In May 2001, a group of knife-wielding men stopped Imam's vehicle and ordered him to follow them, according to Bangladeshi news reports. Imam escaped unharmed after running to a nearby police station.

July 5
Shukur Hossain, Anirban MISSING

Hossain, a crime reporter for the Khulna-based newspaper Anirban, was kidnapped from his home in Ula, a village near the town of Dumuria, Khulna District, at around midnight by a group of about 35 armed men. His colleagues fear that he may have been killed. Police suspect that the assailants belong to the outlawed Biplobi Communist Party, one of several guerrilla groups active in the southwest of the country.

Hossain was last seen alive on the banks of the Ghangrail River, according to the national English-language newspaper The Daily Star. Two villagers who were in the area at the time reported that shots were fired, but police could not confirm whether Hossain was killed.

July 10
Iqbal Hossain, Prothom Alo ATTACKED

Hossain, a reporter for the national Bengali-language daily Prothom Alo, was abducted while bathing in a river in Keraniganj, a town just outside the capital, Dhaka. His assailants tortured him for several hours and used rocks to crush the bones in his hands, according to a Prothom Alo editor. He was later found by a roadside and taken to a hospital in Dhaka.

Hossain filed a complaint with police identifying three members of the Jubo Dal, the youth wing of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, as the assailants. Police told The Associated Press that the Jubo Dal denied responsibility for the attack.

August 3
Syed Farroque Ahmed, Pubali Barta KILLED (Motive unconfirmed)

Police found the mutilated body of Ahmed, 50, on August 3, more than two months after he had disappeared, according to the press freedom groups Reporters Sans Frontières and the Bangladesh Center for Development Journalism and Communication (BCDJC). Ahmed was editor of the local Bengali-language publication Pubali Barta, published in the southeastern town of Srimangal. Police had no leads in the case, according to the BCDJC.

November 25
Zaiba Malik, free-lance IMPRISONED
Bruno Sorrentino, free-lance IMPRISONED
Priscilla Raj, free-lance IMPRISONED
Saleem Samad, Reporters Sans Frontières IMPRISONED

Malik, Sorrentino, Raj, and Samad, all free-lance journalists, were detained while working on a documentary for Britain's Channel 4 "Unreported World" series. Reporter Malik, director and cameraman Sorrentino, and Raj, a free-lance Bangladeshi journalist working for the documentary team as an interpreter, were taken into custody on November 25 along with their driver, Misir Ali.

Malik, who is British, and Sorrentino, who was traveling on an Italian passport, were arrested at the Benapole border crossing en route to India. Raj and Ali, who are both Bangladeshi nationals, were picked up in Rajbari District on their way back to the capital, Dhaka. Ali was released the same day. Samad, a free-lance Bangladeshi reporter who worked as a fixer for the Channel 4 team, went into hiding after his colleagues' arrest but was found and detained by police on November 29.

The journalists were arrested for alleged involvement in "clandestine activities as journalists with an apparent and malicious intent of portraying Bangladesh as an Islamic fanatical country," said a statement issued by the Bangladeshi government, according to the Agence France-Presse news agency. They were accused of sedition, which is punishable by death in Bangladesh.

On December 11, authorities released Malik and Sorrentino and deported them to Britain. The two journalists signed a statement saying they would not produce any reports from their footage gathered in Bangladesh and "expressing regret for the unfortunate situation arising since their arrival in Bangladesh."

Raj was released on December 23, while Samad was not freed until January 18, 2003, four days after the High Court in Dhaka had ordered his release. Both Raj and Samad say they were tortured in police custody. Raj said her interrogators used electric shocks to compel her to give evidence against her colleagues, and Samad said an officer beat his knees repeatedly with a wooden baton when he denied police accusations.

December 8
Shahriar Kabir, free-lance IMPRISONED

Kabir, a free-lance journalist and human rights activist, was detained in the capital, Dhaka, as part of a police sweep during which about 40 opposition figures were arrested. Authorities initially said that Kabir was being held in connection with a sedition case against journalists working on a documentary about the political situation in Bangladesh for Britain's Channel 4. The government had accused the Channel 4 team of having the "malicious intent of portraying Bangladesh as an Islamic fanatical country." Kabir was among those interviewed for the film.

During a December 12, 2002, court hearing, Kabir told investigators that he had been tortured in police custody and denied food for more than 24 hours, according to Bangladeshi press reports. He was transferred to three different jails and was last imprisoned in the southern city of Chittagong, about 160 miles (260 kilometers) from Dhaka, a move that made it difficult for his relatives and lawyers to visit.

On January 4, 2003, the High Court declared Kabir's detention illegal and ordered his release within 24 hours. On January 5, the government ignored the ruling and ordered Kabir to remain in detention for 90 more days under the Special Powers Act, which allows for the preventive detention of anyone suspected of anti-state activities. He was finally freed on the afternoon of January 7.

This was the second time in a year that Kabir was imprisoned. An outspoken critic of the government, Kabir was arrested in November 2001 and accused by the Home Ministry of being "involved in a heinous bid to tarnish the image of Bangladesh and its government." The charge stemmed from his reporting on the ruling party's responsibility for a wave of attacks against Bangladesh's Hindu minority that followed the October 2001 parliamentary elections. He was first detained under the provisions of the Special Powers Act and was later charged with treason. He was freed on January 20, 2002, following two separate High Court orders for his release.

Muntasir Mamun, free-lance IMPRISONED

Mamun, a writer and historian, was among several prominent government critics and opposition members arrested in a series of police raids on December 8 and 9 in the capital, Dhaka. He was held under the provisions of Bangladesh's Special Powers Act (SPA), which allows for the preventive detention of anyone suspected of anti-state activities, on suspicion of trying to destabilize the government.

Mamun, the author of several books about Bangladesh, is a professor of history at Dhaka University. He also regularly contributes columns to several Bengali-language newspapers and had recently written articles about alleged abuses committed by the army during the government's recent anti-crime drive, Operation Clean Heart.

On December 12, the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate's Court in Dhaka rejected Mamun's bail petition and ordered him to be held for 30 days in preventive detention, under the SPA, while his case was being investigated. Mamun was imprisoned at the remote Dinajpur Jail, located about 250 miles (400 kilometers) from Dhaka in northern Bangladesh, making it both difficult and expensive for lawyers and family members to visit him.

On January 5, 2003, the High Court declared Mamun's detention illegal and ordered the government to release him within 24 hours. The court ruled that the government had failed to demonstrate sufficient grounds for Mamun's detention. However, Dinajpur Jail officials claimed that they did not receive the court order promptly and only released Mamun on January 9.

Enamul Hoque Chowdhury, Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha IMPRISONED

Police arrested Chowdhury, a senior reporter for the government-controlled news agency Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS) and a stringer for Reuters news agency, for allegedly fabricating comments, attributed to the home minister, that al-Qaeda may have been responsible for a series of bombings on December 7, 2002, that killed at least 17 people in the northern town of Mymensingh. Reuters' coverage of the attacks quoted the statements.

Home Minister Altaf Hossain Chowdhury (no relation to the journalist) denied making the statements. Reuters later withdrew five stories regarding the explosions that ran on December 7 and 8, saying it could "no longer vouch for the accuracy of the remarks," and that it was conducting an internal investigation into its coverage of the attacks. BSS dismissed Enamul Hoque Chowdhury on December 14.

A police statement issued after the journalist's arrest said that his reporting had "tarnished the country's image internationally and threatened its relations with powerful and friendly countries." Police later filed a case against the journalist for complicity in the Mymensingh bomb attacks, which the government claims were part of a conspiracy by the political opposition to destroy the administration's reputation. He is being held under Bangladesh's Special Powers Act, which allows for preventive detention of anyone suspected of anti-state activities.

"We permit a free press," Communications Minister Nazmul Huda told London's Financial Times. "But we will not allow reporters to besmirch our reputation internationally by making unsubstantiated allegations about Islamic extremism or the presence of an al-Qaeda cell."

Chowdhury admitted to colleagues that he mistakenly attributed comments about al-Qaeda's possible role in the blasts to the home minister. However, the journalist has denied any criminal wrongdoing. Legal challenges to his detention were ongoing in January 2003. The High Court ordered a medical board to examine Chowdhury for evidence that he was tortured while in police custody. As this book went to press, Chowdhury was imprisoned at Dhaka Central Jail.

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