Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) today said it was extremely shocked by a campaign of violence and intimidation by members of ruling party BNP against journalists in the southern districts of Jhalakati and Barisal.
The organisation said it had registered 10 physical attacks on journalists, two attacks against newspapers, ten abusive complaints against journalists and four threats against families of journalists in the past six days. The dailies Janakantha and Dakhinanchal are still banned in the region.
"The BNP’s activities against journalists in Jhalakati and Barisal is threatening the ability of the press to freely cover key issues such as the collusion between politicians and organised crime," Reporters Without Borders said in a letter to Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.
The organisation called for the immediate arrest of Mir Ziauddin Mizan, the alleged leader of those carrying out the violent attacks. It also offered to provide the authorities with the names of some 20 other ruling party activists who have been implicated.
Both the justice minister and interior minister were elected from these two districts and the activists involved in the violence claim to be acting on their behalf and to be protected by them.
Although 2003 is not yet over, the information so far available suggests that Bangladesh is this year yet again the world’s most dangerous country for journalists.
Dozens of members of the BNP and its youth wing, Jatiyatabadi Jubo Dal, prevented the Jhalakati Press Club from holding a meeting on 8 December and attacked at least six journalists. The reporters had gathered to protest against an attack two days earlier on Humayun Kabir of the regional Dakhinanchal in Jhalakati, in which BNP members clubbed and stabbed him to "punish" him for a report about Mizan, the local head of the BNP and Jatiyatabadi Jubo Dal. He was hospitalised for several days.
In the attack on the press club, five reporters for local newspapers were injured. They were Manabendra Batobayal of Dainik Sangbad, Azad Alauddin of Daikinanchanl, Shamim Ahmed and Shamim Azad of Bhorer Kagoj, and Akkas Sikder of Dainik Arthaniti. Mominul Islam Mehdi, the chairman of the Barisal Lawyers Association, and a driver who works for the journalists were also hurt.
In the same incident, some 10 journalists were trapped for several hours inside the press club premises because the BNP activists barred the doors. The activists also damaged the vehicles used by journalists from Barisal to come to the meeting with their colleagues in Jhalakati. The police, who had asked the journalists to cancel their demonstration, did not intervene to stop this violence.
The offices of the local daily Shatakantha were ransacked the same day, and BNP members threw stones at the home of the newspaper’s editor, Zahangir Hossain Monju, and cut his telephone lines. Monju had helped organise demonstrations in support for journalists who have been attacked.
Leaders of the BNP’s youth wing filed a complaint against 10 Jhalakati journalists on 9 December, accusing them of "extortion" on the bases of false testimony.
Anisur Rahman Swapan, the president of the Barisal Reporters Unity (BRU), said the police had become an accomplice to the violence by registering these false complaints.
Those in charge of the press club filed a complaint against their assailants but the police has not yet made any arrests. The same day, BNP activists ransacked a shop belonging to the family of journalist Akkas Sikder of Dainik Arthaniti.
Activists and police searched dozens of homes on 10 and 11 December in an attempt to arrest the ten journalists cited in the trumped-up extortion case. Some of the homes were ransacked. The wanted journalists, who had received death threats by telephone, decided to go into hiding. BNP activists have meanwhile banned local distribution of the dailies Janakantha and Dakhinanchal and their local correspondents, especially Shawkat Milton, have been told they cannot come to the district.
Journalists in the region have stepped up their protests as a result of the violence and black flags have been put up at the offices of news organisations.