Monday, June 21, 2010

Bangladesh: a new dark area for press freedom?


THE RECENT developments in Bangladesh are like an old nightmare that is beginning again: arbitrary arrests, closure of news media, attacks on journalists by ruling party supporters, torture of detainees and intimidation. We thought Bangladesh had rid itself of the old demons of intolerance and violence against the media. But certain government and Awami League officials have again chosen the road of repression, dashing our hopes of a real commitment to media freedom in the space of just weeks.
If prime minister Sheikh Hasina does not take decisive steps, Bangladesh is likely to relapse into a period of brutality and intolerance similar to what it underwent at the start of the last decade, when the journalist Tipu Sultan had his hands broken by the supporters of an Awami League parliamentarian in Feni. Those Awami supporters, especially members of its youth movement, used steel bars and beatings to scare the press.

It is appalling that opposition newspaper editor Mahmudur Rahman has been mistreated in prison. It brings back memories of other journalists and intellectuals who have been tortured in prison such as Shahriar Kabir, F M Masum and Saleem Samad. It also raises the question whether security forces will ever be able to abandon such barbaric methods.

What justification is there for closing the privately-owned TV station Channel One after four years on the air? The fact that it was the telecommunications minister himself who announced the closure shows that it was a highly political decision. In this case, 400 employees have been put out of work. The political obstacles to Jamuna TV’s launch are also shocking while The Bangladesh Observer’s recent closure highlighted the difficulties of the print media.

We still have confidence in the judicial system, which must rapidly demonstrate its independence of both the politicians and the power of money by releasing Mahmudur Rahman, authorising the reopening of his daily, Amar Desh, and protecting the right to free expression.
When the BNP was in power, we repeatedly denounced the murders, illegal arrests, censorship and closure of E TV. When the caretaker government and army were in power, we condemned the acts of intimidation that encouraged censorship and the arbitrary arrests of journalists, especially those investigating extra-judicial executions. And now we condemn the dangerously hard line being taken by the current government, which is jeopardising the right to press freedom that Bangladesh’s journalists have won at a great cost.

This country has a long history of repressing its media. Aside from colonial-era censorship, we recall the June 1974 crackdown on the press by then Awami League government. Then, in the past decade, more than 150 cases of physical attacks and death threats were registered every year – a record in the region. BNP or Awami League supporters were responsible for most of this violence. First Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal (the BNP’s student wing), then the Awami Jubo League and then the Bangladesh Chattra League all used violence to intimidate the press.

The fight against crime has reduced violence by armed groups and criminal gangs in the southwest of the country, including the Purba Bangla Sharbahara Party (PBSP), which was implicated in journalist Harun-ur-Rashid’s murder, but the police continue to be very reluctant to arrest government supporters involved in violence.

We call for the media’s unity in the face of these difficulties. When you defend press freedom, you defend journalists of all colours. This is a principle that is under threat. There is a need to speak out regardless of partisan considerations.

Instead of targeting the independent and opposition press, Sheikh Hasina’s government should quickly reform the many laws that obstruct the work of the media and allow journalists and intellectuals to be thrown in prison in violation of Bangladesh’s international undertakings.

First published in, June 20, 2010

Vincent Brossel is Asia Director of Reporters Without Borders, a media watchdog based in Paris