Journalists censored, threatened, beaten in two-month crackdown in Bangladesh
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns last week’s closure of the main opposition newspaper by the Bangladeshi government and the preceding two months of violence by ruling Awami League members against reporters who dare to cover subjects that are “off-limits.” They constitute a blatant attack on pluralistic journalism, RSF says.
Dainik Dinkal’s printing press in Dhaka has fallen silent. The Bengali-language opposition daily stopped publishing on 20 February, the day after being told the Press Council had upheld the closure order issued by the government on 25 December on the grounds that the paper’s publisher, Tariq Rahman, fled to the United Kingdom to escape a criminal conviction in Bangladesh, and that his residing abroad violates sections 10, 11, 16 and 20(a) of the 1973 Printing Presses and Publications (Declaration and Registration) Act.
These grounds are disputed by the current publisher, Shamsur Rahman Shimul Biswas. In his appeal against the closure order, he pointed out that Tariq Rahman resigned in 2016 and a new publisher was appointed. But the appeal was rejected outright by the Press Council, which is the media regulator and is an information ministry offshoot. Its decision was clearly influenced by the fact that, for the past three decades, Dainik Dinkal has been the mouthpiece of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition to the Awami League, which has ruled at the national level since 2009 and controls almost all of the country’s districts.
“Make no mistake: by shutting down Dainik Dinkal, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government is manipulating the law in pursuit of the goal of eliminating all forms of pluralistic journalism. We call on the Press Council to immediately restore the newspaper's publishing licence. At the same time, the information gathered by RSF shows a worrying resurgence in the past two months of attacks against journalists who have dared to criticise Awami League bosses. With less than a year to go to parliamentary elections, media pluralism must be respected or else Bangladeshi democracy will be just an illusion.
A government plan to close no fewer than 191 news websites for “conducting activities that spread confusion among the public” would deal another major blow to pluralism. Information and broadcasting minister Hasan Mahmud told parliament about the plan on 31 January. But when RSF asked his staff for a list of the websites, it got no response, suggesting that the plan was announced with the aim of satisfying his party’s representatives and has not yet been put into effect.
Seven attacks in two months
Meanwhile, the Awami League’s representatives and its supporters have been harassing and physically attacking journalists in the field. RSF has registered seven serious attacks in the past two months.
Two newspaper reporters, Dainik Kaler Kantho’s J.M. Rauf and Dainik Bogura’s Zahurul Islam, were physically attacked outside the Awami League branch office in the western district of Bogura on 1 February by Shariful Islam Shipul, the head of the local branch of the Jubo League, the Awami League’s youth section. He insulted and beat Rauf and then tried to strangle Islam because he did not welcome their presence at a press conference being given by an unsuccessful Awami League candidate for a district election.
Raghunath Kha, a reporter for the national daily Dainik Projonmo Ekattor and Deepto TV, was arrested by plainclothes police in Debhata, in the southwest of the country, on a trumped-up explosives charge on 23 January while covering an attempt by an association of landless rural residents to recover illegally seized land – a subject regarded as off-limits by the Awami League government. He was beaten and tortured by the police, who initially denied arresting him and released him only after threatening to kill him if he kept on covering this group’s activities.
In the southeastern city of Chattogram, the country’s second largest, Business Standard correspondent Abu Azad was investigating illegal brick kilns in the suburb of Rangunia on 25 December when he was abducted and assaulted by seven men including a member of the local government, Mohiuddin Talukder Mohan. Acting on the orders of the head of the local government, they took him to Mohan’s office, beat him, carefully deleted all of the photos and videos he had taken, and finally freed him after threatening to kill him if he ever tried to investigate the brick kilns again. Azad had to be hospitalised with various injuries including a neck fracture.
In Hatibandha, in the north of the country, a reporter was assaulted and beaten by Nural Amin, the general secretary of the local Awami League branch, and several thugs on 22 December. Their victim was Hazrat Ali, the local correspondent of the newspaper Bhorer Awaz, who had just written an article about the methods used to pressure voters who are members of the Hindu minority. His assailants took his press card and deleted all of his phone’s contents. Afterwards, the police refused to register the complaint he tried to file.
Zillur Rahman, the anchor of the Channel i talk show “Tritiyo Matra,” was at his family’s home in the outskirts of Dhaka on 22 December when he received a sudden visit from police who were seeking information but had no warrant. In a message posted that evening on Facebook, he said he thought the police went to his family’s home rather than his office or his own home in Dhaka in order to intimidate him for being outspoken. “This is not only condemnable, it is extremely irritating to see that the police is being used to gag my voice.” he said.
Barishal Metro news website reporter Muhammad Faruk Hasan was covering celebrations marking Bangladesh’s Victory Day on 16 December in Gournadi, a town 130 km south of Dhaka, when he was abducted by around ten members of the Chhatra League (the student wing of the Awami League), including the local branch secretary. They beat him and tortured him to the point of breaking one of his legs because he omitted the secretary’s name in a recent report. Hasan filed a complaint with the police, clearly identifying his attackers, but the police made no arrests.
The Awami League and the BNP have alternated in government since Bangladesh’s independence in 1971. Both parties have championed press freedom when in opposition but, when in power, have behaved in a similarly atavistic fashion, treating the news media as if they are supposed to be nothing more than government communication outlets.
When the current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, was returned to power in 2009, Bangladesh was ranked 121st out of 180 countries in RSF's World Press Freedom Index. It is now ranked 162nd, having fallen a total of 41 places under Hasina. The next parliamentary elections are due to be held in less than a year, in January 2024.