Reporters Without Borders and the Bangladesh Centre for the Development of Journalism and Communication (BCDJC) voiced deep concern today about a mounting wave of Islamist terrorism in Bangladesh and its impact on the press. At least 50 journalists and 10 publications have been threatened by terrorist groups in the past four months over supposedly “anti-Islamic” articles yet the government seems unable to restore confidence in the face of this new danger for the media.
“After ignoring the terrorist threat for so long, the authorities now have a responsibility to come up with a response,” the two organisations said. “At stake is the safety of hundreds of threatened journalists who want to freely inform the public about the terrorism affecting their country. If the government fails to restore confidence among the journalists, investigative reports on jihadism will not be undertaken and self censorship will become the rule. We call on the authorities to establish a global plan for the protection of journalists and publications threatened by jihadist groups.
At least 55 journalists have received death threats since September from Jamatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), an Islamist group that has also promised to blow up eight newspapers and three press clubs. The latest victim, Amar Desh advisory editor Ataus Samad, received a letter from JMB on 22 December that said his newspaper would be “the next target.”
“The more we investigate and criticise blind terrorism, the more we are exposed, and the government is partly responsible for this deterioration in our security,” Bangladesh Observer editor Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury told Reporters Without Borders and the BCDJC.
The Islamist groups have systematically developed their harassment of the press. The threats began in the northern Rajshahi region where JMB founder Bangla Bai has launched an embryonic armed struggle for the introduction of Islamic law. According to Dainik Sangbad correspondent Jahangir Alam Akash, who is also a stringer for the German radio station Deutsche Welle, most reporters in Rajshahi censor themselves for fear of becoming targets for the Islamists. “I no longer visit areas where Bangla Bai has been active because it is too risky,” he told BCDJC.
Most of the journalists targeted in September were Hindus. At least 12 of them were threatened for writing about the activities of Islamist groups while not being Muslims themselves. In October, the jihadists harassed at least seven local news media - especially in the regions where they are most active - as well as the independent daily Bhorer Kagoj.
Eleven journalists and at least four press clubs - above all in Tangail and Natore - received letters in November saying their premises would be bombed. In December, it was the turn of national dailies such as Prothom Alo and Dainik Shamokal to be threatened with possible suicide attacks, while a total of 19 journalists in Barisal and Gazipur received written threats.
News organisations and press clubs have stepped up security measures to protect themselves from a wave attacks against targets of all kinds in which at least 20 people have been killed. People entering the headquarters of most newspapers and the national press club in Dhaka now have to pass through metal detectors. Protective measures have been installed in some press premises in the southern city of Chittagong. Some newspaper editors, such as the managing editor of the independent daily Janakantha, now have private security.
Dainik Sangbad executive editor Manjurul Ahsan Bulbul confirmed that he was now taking extra precautions when he went out. A Prothom Alo journalist said measures had been taken against a possible attack.
The police have offered protection in some cases, but newspaper executives and editors usually turned it down on the grounds that it offered no guarantees. Just a few policemen with old rifles have been stationed outside a small number of newspapers and press clubs.
The secret services meanwhile continue to harass publications that carry embarrassing reports. On 22 December, for example, the National Security Intelligence chief summoned the editors of the private press agency BDNEWS after it revealed that the phones of some of the leaders of the ruling Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami were being tapped.
Since 2001, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s government has tried to gag the press in order to play down the rise of armed Islamist groups. In 2003, after a series of press reports about growing religious intolerance, Zia accused journalists of trying to damage Bangladesh’s image at home and abroad by publishing false information.
Several journalists, including former Reporters Without Borders correspondent Saleem Samad, were imprisoned in 2002 for writing about the emergence of jihadism. The same year, then interior minister Altaf Hossain Chowdhury had a Reuters stringer arrested and tortured for reporting in a dispatch that a group linked to Al Qaeda could have been to blame for a cinema bombing.
In 2002, journalist and human rights activist Shahriar Kabir was the target of a smear campaign by several political parties - some of them in the government - in which he was branded as a “traitor” to Islam. One person was killed by Islamists during a demonstration in Chittagong against the release of a journalist. The authorities did nothing at the time to stop murderous appeals.
The authorities have also taken measures against foreign news media that tackled this subject. Distribution of the April 2002 issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review was, for example, banned because it contained a report about Bangladesh entitled “A cocoon of terror.”