A perpetual political crisis prevented the press from working normally in 2006. Politicians pursued numbers of abusive defamation cases, putting journalists at risk of arrest. But for the first time in several years, no journalists were killed while doing their job.
Although no journalists lost their lives in 2006, there were almost daily violent attacks on the press by political militants, criminal gangs or the security services. Militants in the ruling political parties, especially the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) were behind the majority of press freedom violations. Threats, beatings, torchings and abusive legal action were all put to use by deputies and ministers in Khaleda Zia’s government in a bid to silence the press. Threats forced more than 30 journalists to flee cities run by the BNP during 2006.
Nearly 25 news correspondents were targeted for intimidation for writing articles seen by armed groups as “un-Islamic”. After a long period of playing down the existence of jihadist groups within the country, the government, through its Interior Minister, Lutfuzzaman Babar, was forced to admit the extent of the danger they represent. However, it was this same minister and his predecessor who had cracked down on journalists and human rights activists who were investigating this new threat.
Police and the justice system also lacked determination and efficiency in pursuing investigations or trials connected to the murders of journalists Manik Shaha, Humayun Kabir Balu and Dipankar Chakrabarty, in 2005, mostly in the Khulna region. On the other hand, in March, police arrested the chief suspect in the murder of Gautam Das, of Dainik Shamokal who was killed in 2005. At the same time, the courts handed down sentences against 12 defendants in the 2004 murder of Kamal Hossein, of the daily Ajker Kagoj. Five of them were members of the BNP.
Despite an apparent commitment to press freedom, Prime minister Khaleda Zia has proved incapable of curbing the daily incidents of violence against the press. This has made it extremely difficult for them to freely cover crucial subjects, such as collusion between political leaders and organised crime, corruption or human rights violations. In March, members of the BNP youth movement beat up 11 journalists at an opposition press conference in Sharishabari, in the north-west. In May, 25 journalists were injured in Kushtia, (western Bangladesh) by henchmen of deputy in the ruling party Shahidul Islam, as journalists demonstrated against an assault on three colleagues a few days earlier. BNP MP Manjurul Ahsan Munshi had beaten up journalist Mizanur Rahman Kawser in Comilla, in the south-east in September. Kawser was also arrested and freed later on bail. A few weeks before, members of the politician’s family forcibly prevented the holding of a conference on press freedom in the constituency.
Reporters and photographers struggled to do their job during the many street demonstrations which marked the country’s political life in 2006. Fifteen journalists were injured at the end of October, either by police or demonstrators in Dhaka, Rajshahi and Mohonganj. Eight others were hurt in the capital, including Shafique Kajol, an experienced reporter from the Daily Shamokal, who was viciously beaten by members of the opposition Awami League.
Some journalists were threatened both by extremist groups and by the authorities. Editor Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury of the Weekly Blitz, who spent several months in prison in 2003 for “sedition”, was targeted in July when two bombs exploded outside the weekly’s offices. Then in October he was attacked in his office by unknown assailants. Police have always refused to protect the Weekly Blitz, despite threats from the radical Khatmey Nabuat (KNM) movement. Shoaib Choudhury is still facing the charge of sedition for having written articles on the role of the media in dialogue between Muslims and Jews, and for trying to travel to Israel.
Despite violence and harassment, the media, and in particular the national dailies, continued to investigate the corruption and nepotism which undermine the entire country. As well as the BBC World Service, there are two independent radio stations broadcasting on FM. The country has eight privately-owned TV channels but their licences are always conditional on a degree of submissiveness towards the government.
Abusive complaints brought against the press
The privately-owned press was confronted with a significant rise in defamation cases in 2006 - more than 40 - launched by BNP deputies or ministers. Former minister, Mirza Abbas took legal action against six publications. A total of 18 publishers and journalists faced legal action over articles deemed to be “defamatory”. One of whom called, Shahadat Chowdhury, had died two years earlier.
Control of news was stepped up at the highest political level. An advisor to Khaleda Zia is still head of the country’s sole terrestrial TV station, NTV, and of a new daily Admar Desh (My Country). These two media, which have huge financial resources, only showed any views critical of the government in the run-up to general elections in January 2007.