During a press conference in Dhaka at the end of a week-long fact-finding mission, a CPJ delegation said that those who try to silence journalists must be held accountable. Without justice—for those who attack journalists, as well as those who order such attacks—violence will continue and so will Bangladesh’s reputation as the most violent country in Asia for journalists.
"It takes real courage to be a journalist in Bangladesh," said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. "Physical assaults and intimidation are almost commonplace, particularly in rural areas, where journalists are threatened, beaten severely, or even murdered just for reporting the news."
Since 1997, at least seven journalists in Bangladesh have been killed in reprisal for their work. Dozens more have been assaulted or threatened. The violence is particularly intense in southwestern regions of the country, where criminal gangs and clandestine groups frequently target local journalists who report on such topics as corruption and organized crime. Vigorous prosecutions are rare, even in some high profile cases.
"Bangladesh has strong private media, but its journalists are increasingly threatened for their reporting on sensitive topics," said CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Abi Wright. "In the country’s current tense political atmosphere, it is especially critical that journalists should be able to do their work safely in order to keep the public informed."
In addition to Cooper and Wright, who work for CPJ in New York, the delegation included Iqbal Athas, consultant editor/defense correspondent for The Sunday Times newspaper in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Andreas Harsono, managing editor of Pantau magazine in Jakarta, Indonesia.
The CPJ delegation met with a wide range of editors, reporters, and photographers who work for print and broadcast media in Dhaka. In addition, several journalists traveled to Dhaka from rural areas to meet with the delegation and discuss the often perilous working conditions in their regions. The delegation’s other meetings included discussions with Information Minister Tariqul Islam, Law Minister Moudud Ahmed, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Reaz Rahman, and Home Minister Altaf Hossain Chowdhury. The group also met with opposition leader Sheikh Hasina, head of the Awami League. A request for a meeting with Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was denied.
During a meeting on March 3, Law Minister Moudud Ahmed pledged to the CPJ delegation that he would recommend the Bangladesh Attorney General’s office take steps to ensure timely action in the court case against those charged with the brutal 2001 beating of journalist Tipu Sultan. Sultan, now a reporter for Prothom Alo, a daily newspaper in Dhaka, was a United News of Bangladesh correspondent in Feni District at the time of his assault. In 2002, CPJ presented Tipu Sultan with its International Press Freedom Award at a ceremony in New York.
In its meetings with government officials, the CPJ delegation stressed that timely action was also needed in dozens of other cases of attacks on journalists to send a message that interference with press freedom would not be tolerated in Bangladesh. The delegation also expressed its concern that its movements were under constant surveillance, creating an intimidating atmosphere as its members sought to discuss press freedom issues with journalists.
In addition, the CPJ delegation urged:
- Vigorous government investigations and prosecutions of all those who have threatened or attacked journalists during the last several years, including the murderers of Manik Saha, a correspondent for the daily New Age in Khulna who died when attackers threw a bomb at him in January 2004; those who killed Shamsur Rahman, a reporter for the daily Janakantha in Jessore who was gunned down in 2000; the assailants of Shafiul Haq Mithu, a local correspondent for the daily Janakantha in Pirojpur who was brutally beaten in December 2003; and those responsible for the 2001 assault on Prabir Shikder, the local correspondent for the daily Janakantha in Faridpur whose right leg had to be amputated after it was shattered by bullets in an attack.
- Police recognition of the right of journalists to cover public demonstrations safely. The delegation urged investigations of beatings of several journalists covering a Dhaka University demonstration on March 3.
- An end to the use of sedition or anti-state charges to detain journalists, including Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, editor of the weekly tabloid Blitz, who is currently in prison.
- Timely action to consider the license application of Ekushey Television (ETV), which was taken off the air in 2002 as a result of a court decision.