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Bangladesh 13 March 2007

Concerns over unfair arrests after anti-corruption drive

Reporters Without Borders today called for the release of three imprisoned journalists. The security forces have in the past few days arrested the publisher of the national daily Janakantha and two local journalists. Both police and the army have been making use of emergency laws.

"We are worried that the security forces are confusing the fight against corruption with the crackdown on critics, particularly in the press," the worldwide press freedom organisation said.

The gains made in the battle against corrupt politicians, some implicated in serious attacks on the press, should not be turned into a witch-hunt against opponents. We call on the interim government to order the release of all journalists currently imprisoned in the country."

In January, the interim government launched a major anti-corruption campaign which has already led to the arrest of about 60 political figures, 13 of them former ministers, and the son of the former head of government. Those implicated in the attacks on journalists, particularly a former deputy from the Kushtia region, Shahidul Islam, are currently being sought.

The army on 7 March arrested Atiqullah Khan Masud, publisher and editor of the daily Janakantha, one of the country’s leading newspapers, at his Dhaka office. More than 200 soldiers and police took part in the raid. After arresting the editor they proceeded to search his home.

Two days later, police accused him of "corruption", "criminal activities" and "tarnishing the country’s image abroad". He was put in custody for one month under the Special Powers Act of 1974 and the courts have already rejected an initial application for bail.

Atiqullah Khan Masud is being held at Dhaka central prison where his family has been allowed to visit him. The management of Janakantha told Reporters Without Borders that he is in good health but depressed by his unfair detention.

Khan Masud was at the end of January one of the media editors to openly criticise the interim government’s decision to impose censorship under the state of emergency. "Why were journalists not consulted in advance?" he asked the interim government’s information adviser, Mainul Hosein.

Police on 9 March arrested Idris Ali, editor of a local weekly, and M. A. Muhit, correspondent for the national newspaper Jugantor in Moulvibazar district in the north-east, under the State Emergency Ordinance 2007. Security forces confiscated their computers and documents. According to the Daily Star, local politicians laid a complaint against the journalists after they wrote about corruption.

Police on 9 February searched the homes of seven journalists in Rupgonj, near the capital, after the publication of articles critical of a police officer.

Elsewhere, Mosaddek Ali Falu, head of TV channels NTV and RTV and the newspaper Amar Desh, was arrested on 5 February in the framework of the anti-corruption drive. Three weeks later, a fire of unknown origin ripped through a building in the capital housing all three media. The offices of NTV, RTV and Amar Desh, supporters of the former ruling party, the BNP, were all very badly damaged and three staff members died in the blaze.

Meanwhile, journalists and newspaper bosses in the privately-owned press are still being targeted by abusive defamation suits. Mahfuz Anam, Matiur Rahman and Hamrul Hasan of the newspaper Prothom Alo were summoned on 8 March by a court in Rajshahi, near Dhaka, based on a complaint from a local official. Editors and journalists on the dailies Inqilab, Amader Shomoy, Jugantor, Daily Star and Shamokal are also facing defamation cases, which are still punishable in Bangladesh by prison sentences.

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