Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) today wrote to Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, information minister Tariqul Islam and interior minister Altaf Hossain Chowdhury to voice outrage at the level of violence against the press in recent months in Bangladesh, one of the few countries in the world where journalists face violence and open hostility from political leaders on a daily basis.
Since the beginning of the year, Reporters Without Borders has registered 51 physical attacks against journalists (including 10 attempted killings), 50 death threats, 13 arrests, 14 abusive lawsuits and prosecutions and five abductions. Members of the ruling BNP party or police were involved in more than half of the cases of physical violence and threats.
As the letter was being drafted, it was reported today that the Bhorer Kabgoj’s correspondent in Jhalakati was arrested by police. The same day, Daily Star’s correspondent in Dhaka university was attacked with iron bars by members of the BNP’s student wing. Three days before, the daily Sangbad’s correspondent in Rajshahi was kidnapped by thugs and subjected to mistreatment for several hours.
The Reporters Without Borders letter urged the government to call its supporters and the police to order. It asked the prime minister and interior minister to take the necessary measure to put a stop to the violence against journalists and, in particular, to punish those responsible for the murder attempts.
The letter also called on the government to amend the defamation law which, contrary to UN recommendations, provides for prison sentences for offending journalists, and it urged the prime minister to reject a bill currently under discussion which would introduce heavy prison terms for journalists found guilty of defaming a parliamentarian.
Reporters Without Borders has often condemned political violence against journalists in the past, but none of the succeeding government has been able to give a concrete response. Above all, they have done nothing to prevent their supporters attacking the press. This recurring violence has been compounded in recent months by judicial harassment of the main privately-owned news media.
The daily Janakantha was the first target of the ruling coalition of conservatives and Islamists. Then, in June, an influential adviser to the prime minister brought a libel suit against the Daily Star and Prothom Alo over the publication of a letter from an opposition leader. In July, senior staff members of the privately-owned satellite TV stations ATN Bangla News and Channel-i were detained and questioned by police about reports of the discovery of a stash of arms in the north of the country.
Despite reassuring statements by senior government officials about respect for press freedom in Bangladesh, the evidence is overwhelming that the authorities are unable to protect journalists, especially in the provinces. The daily violence against journalists encourages self-censorship and inhibits reporting on such issues as corruption, the activities of criminal organisations and violence of a political or religious nature.
Reporters Without Borders nonetheless welcomed progress in the judicial proceedings against those responsible for a murder attempt against journalist Tipu Sultan in 2001 in Feni, in the southwest of the country. The letter said regarding this case that: "The proceedings initiated against the members of a criminal gang and the parliamentarian Joynal Hazari are proof that one can combat impunity in Bangladesh. It is a quetion of political will."
But the organisation condemned the lack of progress in the investigations into the murder of Shamsur Rahman in 2000 and the attempted murder of Prabir Shikder in 2001.