Journalists attacked during Bangladeshi protests, others accused of attacking police
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Bangladeshi authorities to prosecute those responsible for injuring reporters during last week’s violent protests and to drop all charges against journalists arbitrarily accused of participating in violence against the police during these protests.
Four journalists – Abdul Majid, Abul Kalam Mohammad (A.K.M.) Iqbal Farooq, A.K.M. Belal Uddin and A.M. Omar Ali – are facing up to 15 years in prison on police charges of taking part in a protest that turned violent in the southeastern district of Chakaria on 15 August and of attacking the police.
Like many other protests throughout Bangladesh, this protest was organised by the opposition Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami in response to the news that one of its leaders, Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, had died in detention the previous day.
Although the investigation has not yet determined whether the four journalists were present at the protest or involved in the violence, five criminal charges have been brought against them, including one under Section 333 of the criminal code – “grievous hurt to any person being a public servant in the discharge of his duty” – which is punishable by up to ten years in prison. One of the journalists could be arrested under a 1974 special powers law which allows the police to carry out an arrest without a warrant.
Four other TV reporters were meanwhile brutally attacked by Jamaat-e-Islami protesters during a protest on the evening of 14 August in the capital, Dhaka.
“The hostility to which these journalists have been subjected from one quarter or another reflects a grim reality – that media personnel can nowadays be targeted by both protesters and security forces. RSF calls on the relevant authorities to drop the absurd charges against the journalists in Chakaria and to prosecute those who attacked the journalists in Dhaka. Media personnel must be able to work freely and safely.
Thousands of people took part in the protests organised in many localities throughout the country on 15 August to coincide with the funeral of Sayeedi, an influential Jamaat-e-Islami leader imprisoned since 2014 for war crimes against Hindus during Bangladesh’s 1971 independence war.
In Chakaria, the protest quickly led to violent clashes between Jamaat-e-Islami supporters and the local police (and some members of the ruling Awami League), in which one person was killed more than ten were injured, according to local sources. The local police, who used rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the crowd, went on to open investigations into several thousand people suspected, they say, of attacking the police that day.
They include the four journalists. Two of them – Majid a reporter for the newspaper Manobkantha, and Farooq, who reports for the newspapers Alokito Bangladesh and Dainik Purbodesh – say they were not even at the protest. The other two – Uddin, a reporter for Cox's Bazar Sangbad, and Ali, a reporter for the Daily Naya Diganta – acknowledge being at the protest but insist they were there just to cover it for their newspapers.
Representatives of local journalists associations contacted by RSF were adamant that none of the four journalists participated in the protest and none of them is affiliated politically to Jamaat-e-Islami.
Furthermore, the local police version makes little sense. Javed Mahmud, the officer in charge of Chakaria police station, claimed that the police had “camera footage as evidence” as well as eyewitnesses. But the police have also said a thorough investigation is under way to determine if the journalists were involved in the violence.
Some of the charges against the four journalists – including the charge of “grievous hurt or intent to deter any person being a public servant in the discharge of his duty" – could result in a combined sentence of up to 15 years in prison.
Within a few hours of the protests, over 17,000 persons are being prosecuted in several cities, including 5,000 people in Dhaka alone.
Violence against journalists
The four journalists who were the victims of violence in Dhaka late on the evening of 14 August were members of TV crews who went to the hospital – Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University hospital – where the imprisoned Jamaat-e-Islami leader had died of a heart attack earlier that day.
Shawkat Manjur Shanto, a reporter for the privately-owned TV news channel Jamuna TV, and his cameraman, Bishwanath Sarker, were broadcasting live from near the hospital when they were attacked by Jamaat-e-Islami supporters.
Sheikh Farid, a reporter for privately-owned RTV, and his cameraman Mohammad Manik, were also attacked by Jamaat-e-Islami supporters when they arrived about half an hour later. Their assailants not only beat them but also stole their equipment. The blows they received caused significant injuries that needed medical attention.
This violence comes as the prime minister’s office prepares to propose a draconian new cyber security law to parliament whose broad and ambiguous nature would make it much easier to bring online defamation proceedings against journalists and would reinforce censorship of the media just months before general elections scheduled for January 2024.