Area: 144,000 sq.km.
Languages: Bengali, English
Head of state: President Iajuddin Ahmed
Head of government: Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia
Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s ruling alliance of conservative and Islamist parties, which has been in power since October 2001, displayed criminal ill-will in refusing to acknowledge human rights violations, including press freedom violations. The prime minister said in March she did not want to silence journalists but press freedom could not be used to cause unrest or write libellous articles. Her ministers were deployed throughout the year to remind the media of their patriotic duty and accuse the independent press of every kind of vice.
"I no longer recognize my country," a Dhaka editor said on condition of anonymity, while Reporters Without Borders correspondent Saleem Samad decided to go into exile after his family was again threatened by the security services. Such is the fate awaiting Bangladeshi journalists who write about crackdowns on government opponents, minorities and human rights activists, especially if they write for the international press.
"The government displays an open hostility towards the press," said the head of one journalists’ association who did not want to be identified. "It uses all sorts of methods to reduce criticism in the name of the national interest. These range from the assignment of state advertising - the daily Janakantha has been deprived of it - to unjustified libel prosecutions against the leading editors of privately-owned media. In fact, the government is afraid of the media because most of them defend the public interest."
Violence against journalists, especially in the provinces, has continued to limit the possibility of freely covering key issues such as corruption, human rights violations and the collusion between politicians and organised crime. The police and courts were unable to put an end to the impunity enjoyed by the activists of the ruling parties, especially the BNP youth, who attack journalists.
Physical attacks became increasingly common in 2004. Sumi Khan, who is known for her investigative political reporting in the south-eastern town of Chittagong in the weekly Shaptahik-2000, escaped an abduction attempt in April. Azaharul Islam Montu, a reporter with the national daily Grammar Kagoj, was clubbed and badly injured in September by members of a group of drug traffickers he had just written about. As a result of pressure by a parliamentary member of the ruling BNP, the police refused to investigate this attack.
Four journalists murdered
Armed groups claiming to be Maoist sowed terror in the south-western Khulna region. More than 50 journalists were threatened with death and three were killed. Activists with the Maoist party, Purbobanglar, murdered Manik Shaha, a correspondent for the daily New Age and the BBC World Service, on 15 January by throwing a home-made bomb at him as he was travelling on a motor-scooter. He had felt under threat as a result of his reports about the illegal activities of these groups and local criminal gangs. Several suspects detained by the police in April called Shaha an "enemy of the proletariat."
Another Purbobanglar faction killed Humayun Kabir Balu, the editor of the regional daily Janmabhumi, on 27 June with a bomb that also seriously injured his son, Asif Kabir, a journalism student. In a phone call claiming responsibility for the bombing, a Purbobanglar leader called Balu a "class enemy."
Kamal Hossain, a correspondent for the daily Ajker Kagoj, was macheted to death on 22 August in the south-eastern town of Manikchhari. His wife said he had received a death threat a short time before. He had been investigating matters linked to organised crime.
Dipankar Chakrabarty, the editor of the regional daily Durjoy Bangla, was axed to death on 3 October in Sherpur, north-west of Dhaka. He had told Reporters Without Borders in the past that he felt threatened because of his criticism of local organised crime, which had the protection of some Sherpur politicians.
A few newspapers nonetheless continued to run courageous reports about corruption, abuses by political authorities and the rise of Islamist movements. They included the national dailies Janakantha, Prothom Alo and Ajker Kagoj, whose provincial correspondents suffered as a result of this independence. Janakantha’s reporter in Faridpur (west of Dhaka), Prabir Shikder, was physically attacked and threatened with death several times during the year. He had already lost a leg in 2001 following an attack by a local boss’s thugs. A score of armed BNP activists attacked Iqbal Hasan, Janakantha’s correspondent in the north-eastern town of Natore in early February after he reported that BNP members burned the homes of supporters of the opposition Awami League.
At least 15 Prothom Alo journalists were physically attacked in the course of 2004 and, on 19 August, Islamists ransacked its office in the southeastern town of Cox’s Bazar, burning copies of the newspaper.
"Neutralise critical media before the next elections"
The authorities, especially the police, used (and abused) repressive laws or unjustified complaints to arrest some 10 journalists in 2004. Abdul Mahbud Mahu of the local daily Ajker Dish Bidesh was arrested without a warrant in Cox’s Bazar on 14 February at a BNP leader’s request. He was held under a "rapid trial" procedure that allows the police to keep a suspect in custody until he has been tried but, under pressure from local journalists, he was eventually freed. Police in the Mymensingh district (north of Dhaka) arrested a freelance news photographer in May after he refused to surrender the negatives of photos showing police firing their weapons outside a polling station. They falsely accused him of murder in order to keep him in custody. He was finally released on bail a few weeks later.
Efforts to control the news became more pernicious. In the course of just one year, one of Khaleda Zia’s close advisors became the owner of the country’s only privately-owned broadcast TV station, NTV, and a new daily newspaper, Admadesh (My Country). Backed by significant financial resources, both of these news media avoided any criticism of the government. "They have bought the best journalists in the country with salaries two or three times higher than what the rest of the press offers," a freelance journalist said. "They are neutralising criticism before the next elections."
Journalists were not immune to the widespread corruption. Reporters close to Tariq Rahman, the son of Khaleda Zia, benefited from his largesse. Various forms of blackmail were also criticised by local press freedom organisations.
Although split into several associations, the journalistic community took action in response to the violence and harassment. All the regional newspapers in Sherpur and Bogra ran a blank front-page during the three days that followed Dipankar Chakrabarty’s murder. Most journalists also boycotted the activities of political leaders or staged silent marches in order to press for progress in police investigations or for the release of an imprisoned journalist.
Few foreign journalists go to Bangladesh. If they are granted a press visa, they must work with an information ministry official. "He constantly tried to prevent us filming scenes giving a bad impression of the country, while the secret services followed us all the time," said Amlan Dewa, the fixer for a France 2 TV crew that came to Bangladesh.
4 journalists were killed
96 were physically attacked
9 were arrested
175 were threatened
and 9 media premises were ransacked
A journalist forced into exile
Saleem Samad worked as a reporter, a correspondent for foreign media and a tireless activist for press freedom with Reporters Without Borders. He crisscrossed the country to defend and train his colleagues who live with the daily threat of violence that stalks the independent press. Following his arrest in November 2002 for working with a British TV crew he was constantly harassed by the security services. In October 2004, he decided to seek political asylum in Canada.
I have never approved of dissidents who leave their countries and seek political asylum in Europe or North America. I used to scoff at "committed" writers, journalists and artists or "free spirits" who seek refuge in the West to escape persecution. However I had no choice. I had to leave Bangladesh.
Today at over 50 years old, I am not at all sure I will find suitable work in Canada. It will take me months, even years, to understand this country’s history, culture, customs and language.
I have lost my job as reporter for a leading daily, the Bangladesh Observer, and as correspondent for Reporters Without Borders. My contract with the magazine Time Asia was suspended when I asked for political asylum in Canada. But I have been lucky because my request for refugee status has been accepted and I have started to receive a monthly allowance for my rent, food and transport. An international human rights organisation has also given me some money to help me survive for a few months.
However, I have no future until I get a positive decision from the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board. I am not allowed to work for now and worst of all, my wife and son have no right to join me here and they live in fear and under harassment from the authorities.
My son often asks me what I do all day. I always tell him the same thing: "Generally, I get up early. I have breakfast: toasted bagels, sausage and garlic cheese. I check my emails at least two or three times a day. I get a bus into the centre of Ottawa. At the moment the city is under snow. I go to the central library. I choose some discs, DVDs and, of course, some books. I take my time reading the magazines and newspapers. In the afternoon I walk from the library to the shopping centre, which is always busy and well-heated, especially in this winter cold. I buy sandwiches and drink a cup of tea and then I wait for my friends to return from work."
My problems began 24 years ago with the publication in the daily The New Nation of my first reports on the Buddhist uprising in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region, in southeast Bangladesh. Some human rights organisations used my reports to accuse the Bangladeshi military of ethnic cleansing, extra-judicial killings and arbitrary detentions. In March 1981, I was arrested by the dreaded general directorate of intelligence. I was left for five days, gagged and chained with nothing to eat or drink, stuck in a tiny dark cell. I was interrogated and tortured. Fortunately no charges were laid against me when I was released.
But the monster that is military intelligence never forgot me. In November 2002, things got more complicated when British Channel 4 television hired me as a fixer for a report on the religion and persecution of the minority Hindus. I made appointments and acted as interpreter for the reporters. The government accused the whole team of plotting against the country and a manhunt was launched. The two foreign journalists, Englishwoman Zaiba Malik and the Italian Bruno Sorrentino, were arrested. I was tracked down at the home of a friend who had agreed to hide me. The government imprisoned me under the sedition laws, accusing me of plotting to damage the image of my country. I was in danger of being sentenced to death by hanging.
Shortly after my arrest, military intelligence spent nine days hunting my wife Abida Sultana Jasmine and my son Atisha Rahbar. They managed to avoid arrest by moving constantly but the experience completely traumatised them and still haunts them today.
Over the five days of my interrogation, police detectives and military intelligence officers tortured me. They threatened to kill me if I refused to sign a false confession. Since I stuck to my refusal, they denied me food and drink.
Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Amnesty International and many others protested against my detention and the harassment of my family. Leading Bangladesh dailies also raised their voices on my behalf. I was finally released after 55 days, after the High Court ruled my detention illegal.
Shortly after my release, the government was once again infuriated by an article of mine carried by Time magazine and I was put under surveillance. I appealed to the High Court which ruled that I should be "neither arrested nor harassed". This ruling allowed me to resume work and to travel abroad.
But in April 2004, Time carried a by-lined article of mine headlined "A State in Disgrace" which described Bangladesh as a country of utter "dysfunction". Police arrested me again but the US ambassador to Bangladesh must have intervened to dissuade them.
I arrived in Canada on 21 October to attend an international summit on children’s rights. I visited Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto and then phoned my wife to say I was coming home. She asked me to say nothing on the phone and said I should urgently read an email that my son had sent me. Atisha told me that military intelligence agents had come to our house and asked when I was coming back. They were in complete panic at home. My wife begged me not come back, for my own safety.
Since my arrival in Canada, in October 2004, I have sometimes been asked to speak at meetings of representatives of the Bangladeshi community in Canada and on FM radio to talk about human rights in Bangladesh. I am as sad as I am bitter to describe it and, given the state of my country, I am afraid that I may never be able to return.
January 2005, Ottawa