Three days to find those responsible – this was the ultimatum that Bangladesh’s journalists gave to the authorities on 7 August, two days after around 30 of them were the targets of deliberate violence in connection with their coverage of the now ten-day-old wave of student protests in Dhaka.
The Dhaka Union of Journalists (DUJ) and the Bangladesh Federal Journalists Union (BFJU) have threatened retaliatory measures if, by 11 August, the authorities fail to identify those responsible for the violence, in which the police looked on without intervening when not directly participating, according to many witness accounts.
The victims include Shahidul Alam, an award-winning photojournalist who was arrested at his home on the evening of 5 August for covering the violence on Facebook. Because he bore the marks of torture when he appeared in court, a high court judge ordered his release on 7 August so that he could undergo a medical examination.
But he was returned to police custody on the afternoon of 8 August after a rapid hospital visit and he continues to be charged with spreading “fear and panic” by means of “fantastical and provocative lies” under the 2006 Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT Act).
The judicial persecution of Alam and the violence of 5 August capped a week of escalating press freedom violations that included judicial methods, coercion and intimidation
“It is high time that the Bangladeshi authorities took concrete measures to defuse the tension and demonstrate respect for press freedom and democratic practices,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“The first step should be to drop the absurd charges against Shahidul Alam and to arrest those responsible for the deliberate violence against journalists on 5 August. For the most part, those responsible are easily identifiable. More generally, the authorities should immediately abandon their use of absolutely unacceptable methods to suppress the freedom to inform, which have been escalating since the start of the student protests.”
It was after the deaths of two school students, who were knocked down by a bus on 29 July, that Dhaka’s students began staging demonstrations to demand better road safety and the police reacted by trying to prevent media coverage of the protests.
“Fabricated and misleading” content
On 2 August, the Dhaka police brought charges under the ICT Act against 28 social network users who had posted photos, video footage or reports about the protests. They included not only Facebook and Twitter users but also news sites such as Andolonews and Zoombangla, which are now inaccessible. The indictment claims that the content they posted was “fabricated and misleading.”
Pradip Das and Sadaat Mahmood, two journalists with the Priyo.com website who were covering the student protests, were attacked by pro-government activists armed with steel bars or sticks on 3 August. They and a third journalist who went to their aid, Rafiqul Ranju, were beaten and their equipment was vandalized. They managed to find refuge in Priyo.com’s nearby office, part of which was also vandalized. The police said they were unable to identify any of their attackers.
The next day, 4 August, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting ordered two TV channels, Ekattor TV and News 24, to stop broadcasting any coverage of the student unrest or risk losing their licences.
The same day, the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission announced a complete ban on all 3G or 4G mobile coverage, in order to prevent smartphone owners from sending photos and videos.
It was on 5 August that the violence against the media escalated dramatically, with systematic physical attacks against journalists by members of the ruling Awami League’s student wing, the Chhatra League. Armed with machetes, metal bars and batons, and many of them wearing motorcycle helmets, they injured at least 23 journalists and attacked six others. The worst injuries were sustained by Associated Press photographer A.M. Ahad, Palash Shikder of Dainik Banik and freelance photographer Rahat Karim.
Five other journalists were later beaten at the same location. They were Channel-i reporter Samia Rahman, bdnews24.com photographer Mahmud Zaman Ovi, Dainik Janakantha’s Ibnul Asaf Jawed, a reporter for the US-based Zuma Press known as Rimon, and photojournalism student Enamul Hasan.
Ahmed Deepto, a reporter for the daily newspaper Prothom Alo, was found by a colleague at a nearby location surrounded by 15 to 20 men, who had beaten him. The reporter who went to his aid, the Daily Ittefaq’s Sujon Mondol, was also beaten with wooden sticks.
NTV reporter Fahad Mohammad and cameraman Rubel Hossain sustained injuries when they tried to prevent attackers from smashing their cameras in Dhaka’s Dhanmondi district.
Eight other journalists and media workers were beaten in the same neighbourhood: Mohona TV reporter Ariful Islam and cameraman Rezaul Karim, Channel i reporter Preema Rahman and her cameraman, a DBC News driver known as Munir, Dainik Naya Diganta’s Abdullah Al Bappi and a colleague known as Sharif, the Bdmorning news portal’s Abu Sufian Jewel and Prothom Alo photographer Sajid Hossain.
A Nagorik TV crew – reporter Abdullah Shafi, cameraman Ripon Hasana and driver Golam Morshed – sustained injuries when they tried to prevent assailants from vandalizing their vehicle and camera. Bangla Tribune reporter Nuruzzaman Labu was chased away when he tried to take photos on his mobile phone. The police looked on without intervening.
At least six other journalists were slightly injured in violence by Chhatra League members that was equally unacceptable. Daily Star reporter Shaer Reaz was taking photos when a man attacked him with a stick and then handed him over to the police, who detained him for four hours. A journalist with the same newspaper, Selim Sadman Somoy, was also taken to the same police station, where he said he was beaten up.
Star Weekend editor Sushmita S. Preetha was accosted at around 5:30 p.m. while filming a pro-government demonstration from a bridge. She agreed to delete the video but her assailants insulted her and molested her sexually before letting her leave.
Freelance journalist Rafiul Islam was attacked shortly thereafter and two Channel 24 journalists, Faisal Hossain and Krishna Sarker, were beaten at around 7 p.m. while trying to provide live coverage.
Four days after this terrifying day for the media, none of the attackers has been arrested or questioned by the police.
Bangladesh is ranked 146th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2018 World Press Freedom Index.