Friday, December 11, 2009

Bangladesh Failure to Solve Past Journalist Murders Hinders Press Freedom Development

Photo: Slain journalists Shamsur Rahman Kebol (Dainik Janakantha, Jessore - killed July 16, 2000) and Manik Chandra Shah (Dainik Sangbad, Khulna - killed January 15, 2004)

With 16 unsolved killings since 1998, Impunity overshadows any progress in free media development


DURING A 1-6 December 2009 press freedom mission to Bangladesh*, the International Press Institute (IPI) found that there had been no discernible efforts to bring to justice the killers of the 16 journalists murdered since 1998, political influence over the media remained significant and the legal framework within which the media operates was in need of reform.

IPI last visited Bangladesh from 27 November to 2 December, 2008, shortly before general elections which brought back the Awami League party, headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, to power.

IPI’s latest mission offered an opportunity to undertake a first assessment of the sitting, elected government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, as opposed to the interim government that preceded it.

Over the last year there has been some progress on the media freedom front.

A state of emergency in force for two years was lifted in December 2008, ahead of the general election. In July, a right to Information Act was enacted and under Article 15(1) of the Act a three-member Information Commission was created. Government officials have manifested a willingness to engage with IPI on matters related to press freedom.

However, distinct areas of concern remain.

Although President Zillur Rahman told IPI: “We must do justice, must punish the killers,” and in every meeting with IPI, government representatives as well as officials from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) expressed support for press freedom, this mission believes that such an apparent commitment can only be substantiated if the government translates its words into concrete actions.

Politicians must resist the temptation to politicise the media. Rather than allowing the issue of press freedom to become tinged with political posturing, the ruling Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party must express a uniform, joint willingness to transcend political fault lines, examine the nation’s past and, for the good of the future, solve the cases of murdered journalists.

“If the Bangladeshi media environment is to improve, both the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the ruling Awami League must acknowledge the media’s right to report on behalf of the Bangladeshi public and halt all attempts to politicise the media,” said IPI Director David Dadge. “In doing so, a clear distinction should be made between narrow political interests and national ones.”

The Home Minister, Ms. Shahara Khatum, informed IPI that she is monitoring investigations into the murders of journalists, and that she regularly meets with officers from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). This process must be open and transparent if progress in the investigations is to be made.

The mission expressed strong concerns about the conduct of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite military force formed in 2004.

In October 2009, journalist F.M. Masum, a staff correspondent with the daily New Age in Bangladesh, was taken from his residence by RAB members and was then held incommunicado, and tortured, for over ten hours, before being released.

Although the government subsequently issued an apology, and action was taken against the responsible officer, IPI remains concerned that RAB at times appears to be operating outside the control of the civilian authorities, and lacks awareness and sensitivity in dealing with the media.

In April 2007, General-Secretary of the Sylhet Press Club Ahmed Noor, was allegedly tortured by RAB forces after being arrested on alleged extortion charges in two cases. In one case, he has been acquitted. The second case is still pending.

While the government is to be praised for passing the Right to Information Act and for its professed commitment to the Act’s complete implementation, it is crucial that it take the lead and create an atmosphere of transparency. This means setting aside a longstanding culture of secrecy and making information readily available without forcing journalists and civil society to apply for information under the Right to Information Act.

Further, there are concerns that infrastructure and funding challenges in Bangladesh will hinder full implementation of the Act.

In the domain of broadcasting, it is vital that the draft Broadcasting Act of 2003 be enacted; however IPI received no commitments on a time frame. Under the draft Broadcasting Act, non-profit entities would be allowed to form radio and television stations – which would help promote the free flow of information in rural areas. It is the considered view of this mission that the Act should be enacted as soon as possible once due discussions have been undertaken with key decision-makers, including the media.

According to IPI sources, a number of the 16 journalists killed since 1998 were covering corruption. This underscores the need for the Government to take immediate, serious steps to combat corruption and bribery.

The government must not forget that journalists play a fundamental role in exposing corruption, and has an obligation to ensure that they are free to do so without fear of harassment and intimidation.

The mission would encourage all journalists in Bangladesh to uphold the reporting values of balance, fairness and accuracy, and to abide by a voluntary code of best practice, which reinforces the credibility of the media.

In asking for these commitments from both the government and the media, IPI will itself also remain engaged in Bangladesh and do everything it can to assist the media profession and to continue to advocate for full and proper investigations into the cases of murdered journalists.

The mission delegation included IPI Director David Dadge, IPI Press Freedom Manager Anthony Mills, and media consultant Trine Ostlyngen representing IPI’s Norway National Committee. It was locally coordinated by IPI Board Member and National Committee Chairperson Monjurul Ahsan Bulbul, Head of News and Current Affairs at ATN Bangla.

The mission was carried out with support from the Guardian Foundation.

- Political parties must unite on the need to investigate the murders of journalists, and bring the murderers to justice.
- Remove the cases of murdered journalists from any review committees and appoint a special individual to investigate the cases. Such an individual should provide regular, open and transparent reports to parliament. The individual should have the authority to empower local authorities to investigate thoroughly.
- The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) should be provided with awareness and sensitivity training in terms of the media’s role in a democratic society, with commanding officers making it clear that the media have a right to report freely.
- Greater oversight by the civilian government of RAB activities.
- The government must take every possible step to rid Bangladesh of bribery and corruption.
- The international community should assist the Bangladesh government with support and resources so that it can fully implement all the elements of the Right to Information Act.
- The Information Commission formed under the Right to Information Act must create suitable structures and procedures, including the ability to take independent legal advice, that will enable it to stand at arm’s length from the government and therefore avoid any attempt at influence.
- Creation of voluntary media accountability systems that enhance the media’s credibility and reinforce its right to report independently, as well as suitable training for all levels of the media profession.
- The government must conduct a review of all laws to ensure that they are in conformance with international standards

The IFEX Mission Report is published on December 08, 2009

Author Anthony Mills is IPI Press Freedom Manager, Vienna, Austria

* IPI Advocacy Mission to Bangladesh: The IPI Delegation met with leading representatives of the media, government and civil society The mission objective was to follow up on some of the issues discussed in the December 2008 IPI press freedom mission and assess the current media and press freedom environment in the country. IPI Director David Dadge.will join the mission to Bangladesh together with IPI member Trine Ostlyngen, Former President of the Institute of Journalism in Oslo, Norway, and IPI Press and Communications Manager Anthony Mills. The mission is locally coordinated by IPI Board Member and National Committee Chairperson Monjurul Ahsan Bulbul, Head of News and Current Affairs at ATN Bangla. The mission to Bangladesh is being undertaken with assistance from the Guardian Foundation