Thursday, April 26, 2007

Need to end climate of impunity, bring to justice the perpetrators of violence & harassment towards journalists

Bangladesh: World Press Freedom Review 2006

WITH elections originally scheduled for 22 January 2007, the international community is focused on the difficulties and the dangers faced by Bangladeshi journalists seeking to report independently. Later, the elections were first postponed, and then cancelled. A state of emergency was imposed when the "caretaker" government stepped down under military pressure at the beginning of February 2007.
Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former World Bank official, who took over the government in early February 2007, along with 10 advisors and no functioning parliament, pledged to hold elections quickly. However, at the time of writing, a date has yet to be set.
A resolution adopted by the European Parliament, in mid-November 2006, condemned, "the physical attacks on journalists […] and the violence related to the forthcoming general election and the transitional arrangements." The resolution also stated that Bangladesh’s government should "guarantee media balance during the election campaign." To this end, authorities should "put an end to the climate of impunity and […] bring to justice the perpetrators of violence and harassment directed towards journalists in Bangladesh."
The electoral system in Bangladesh foresees the introduction of a three-month administration by a "caretaker" authority charged with leading the country to fresh elections. This system, designed to minimize elections frauds and to ensure the neutrality of the electoral preparations, has worked well in the past three elections. Democracy was originally restored in Bangladesh in 1990 after 15 years of military rule.
However, physical as well as legal attacks against the media have not stopped even after the "caretaker" authority led by Iajuddin Ahmed replaced Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia at the end of her five-year mandate.
The case of imprisoned journalist, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, was also highlighted in the European Parliament’s resolution.
Salah Uddin Shoaib Chaudhury, editor of the weekly tabloid Blitz, was arrested in November 2003 at Dhaka airport while he was leaving Bangladesh to attend a conference in Israel organised by the Hebrew Writers Association. Bangladesh has no diplomatic relations with Israel and travel to Israel is illegal for Bangladeshi citizens. Authorities found the text of the speech he was going to hold at the conference as well as reports on Bangladesh’s human rights situation. Chaudhury, a moderate Muslim, was accused of having links with Israeli intelligence and charged with sedition, which carries a maximum penalty of death or thirty years’ imprisonment. It is likely that the charges against Chaudhury are in connection with articles he wrote advocating dialogue between religions, calling for the recognition of the state of Israel and warning about radical Islam and the rise of al-Qaeda in Bangladesh. The final subject is one that the government has no wish to see discussed in the media.Chaudhury was released on bail in May 2005 after spending 17 months in prison and has since been awaiting trial on charges of espionage, blasphemy and sedition. In the past year, Chaudhury has been the victim of various attacks. He reportedly received telephone death threats on 26 February from a man claiming to be Bangla Bhai, the alias of Islamist militant leader Siddiqul Islam, who was sentenced in absentia in February to 40 years in prison for a bomb attack that killed two judges in November 2005. Chaudhury said that he received no response to his complaints to the police about the threat.
On 5 July, two small bombs exploded outside the office of Chaudhury’s Weekly Blitz in Dhaka, and two more devices were found unexploded inside the office. Although no one was injured and the explosions caused only minor damage to the office facilities, the attack followed threats against Chaudhury and his newspaper that were once again reportedly ignored by police. On 29 June, few days before the attack, Mufti Noor Hussain Noorani, leader of the radical movement Khatmey Nabuat (KNM), threatened Chaudhury on the phone after the Weekly Blitz ran articles critical of KNM On 5 October, a group of 40 people attacked the journalist in his office, breaking one of his ankles and stealing approximately US$4,000. The Writers in Prison Committee reported that leading members of the ruling Bangladesh National Party (BNP) were allegedly among the attackers.
While Chaudhury’s case is appalling and rightly deserves international attention, he is only one of the many journalists attacked and harassed this year in Bangladesh; Bangladeshi authorities are apparently unable to bring those responsible for these attacks to justice. Unpunished attacks against journalists in Bangladesh have only encouraged further attacks, in a media environment where journalists do not give up on their right to report injustices, corruption and their government’s shortcomings.
While in recent years, there has been an increase in the attacks against the press by members of radical Islamist groups, a large number of the violent attacks against journalists are carried out either by supporters of the ruling BNP or BNP’s youth wing or other activist groups. These attacks are in retaliation for criticism or exposure of crimes by the journalists.
One journalist was killed this year in Bangladesh due to his profession, according to IPI. Bellal Hossain Dafadar, a correspondent for the Khulna-based daily newspaper Janabani, died in hospital on 14 September after being stabbed by five unknown assailants.
A second journalist was almost killed when, on 1 March, the room where he was sleeping was set on fire by a group of unidentified people. When Nur Siddique, student and correspondent for the daily Prothom Alo, tried to escape the fire, he found that the door of his room had been locked; some neighbours managed to rescue him. Nur Siddique believes that supporters of BNP from within the university attacked him because of his recent articles about the student branch of the political party.While the Bangladesh constitution supports press freedom, members of the government do not reflect this duty in their own actions. The cancellation of a journalists’ seminar on 13 April following threats and pressures by local BNP leader and MP Manjurul Ahsan Munshi is ample evidence of this attitude.
The seminar, organised by the Debidwar Press Club, was going to discuss torture against journalists in Bangladesh and abroad. It was closed when approximately 15 people stormed the hall shortly before the forum was due to begin, forcibly removing guests from their seats and confiscating broadcast equipment, according to IFJ reports. Senior journalists and media personnel were verbally assaulted during the altercation.
Only three days before the attack, Munshi was convicted for harassing Debidwar Press Club member and journalist for the daily Prothom Alo, Atiqur Rahman Bashar. He was sentenced to six months in prison, but released on bail.
While threats and attacks against journalists happen almost every day in Bangladesh, the country’s journalists have shown a strong will to resist such threats and to protest against them. On different occasions this year, journalists throughout Bangladesh took to the streets to protest violence against the media; sadly, these demonstrations often lead to further violence.
In one of these cases, on 29 May, over 20 journalists were assaulted by BNP members during a demonstration taking place in the city of Kushtia. According to reports, BNP activists threw bricks, sticks and chairs at the 150 journalists who staged the demonstration in support of three journalists who had received threats from a BNP MP.
Hasan Jahid, a correspondent for the daily Manabzamin, Munshi Tariqul Islam, correspondent for the daily Shamokal, and Al Mamun Sagor, correspondent for the daily Jugantor, had been forced to flee Kushtia on 10 May following threats by MP Shahidul Islam after they published articles criticising the MP.
The journalists were returning to Kushtia on 29 May. Shahidul Islam also brought legal actions against them, claiming they tried to extort money from him in return for a promise not to print the articles. The three journalists denied such allegations and said they were being targeted because they exposed Islam’s alleged corruption.
On 3 June, about 60 people staged a counter protest in Dhaka, claiming to be victims of extortion and beatings by Islam supporters. According to the Daily Star, the protesters, mostly employees and supporters of the BNP, demanded Islam’s expulsion from the party and his arrest.
On 30 May, BNP members attacked the offices of a printing press, damaging the press, threatening employees and seizing documents. The editors of the daily Dainik Andolaner Bazar, which was being printed at Quality Press when the office was attacked, suspended publication fearing threats to staff safety, according to CPJ. Local media said that MP Shahidul Islam was behind the attack; however, he later denied any responsibility.
On 31 May, police injured eight journalists during a demonstration in which a group of journalists marched from the Satkhira Press Club to the courts to protest the attack on Dainik Andolaner Bazar and demand the arrest and persecution of those responsible for it.
At the end of November, another BNP member, Hazi Mujib, reportedly threatened to kill Subrata Deb Roy Sanjay, a journalist for Dainik Khabor and Dainik Sylheter Dak, because of Sanjay’s reports on Mujib’s alleged illegal business affairs. In recent years, Mujib has filed two defamation cases against Sanjay. Police did not react to the alleged death threats.
Journalists working in Bangladesh are not only attacked by BNP members and BNP activists, there are many other groups that harass journalists and media outlets whose reporting they dislike. Impunity is a major problem in Bangladesh and the main reason for the continued attacks.
In this light, the 16 November European Parliament resolution urging Bangladesh authorities "to put an end to the climate of impunity and to bring to justice the perpetrators of violence and harassment directed towards journalists" is welcome. The hope is that this kind of international pressure, and the outcome of the forthcoming election, will change a situation that has existed in Bangladesh for many years is thin. The world should not ignore the gross human right violations committed against Bangladesh’s over 150 million inhabitants. #

The IPI World Press Freedom Review 2006 is the Vienna-based International Press Institute’s annual review of press freedom in over 180 countries around the world, published on 25 April 2007