A sudden and sharp rise in attacks on journalists recently has raised several questions about press freedom in Bangladesh’s fledgling democracy.
Three attacks against journalists by police and others have been recorded since last week, showing how vulnerable the press is in the country.
Over the weekend police beat and badly injured three photojournalists from the Bengali daily Prothom Alo
, allegedly for driving a motorbike on the wrong side of the road in Dhaka.
The photographers were on assignment to cover a protest by female students at a state-run polytechnic institute.
The incident made headlines across the country and the policemen involved were temporarily suspended.
But a statement by a state official reveals the depth of the problem. “It is better for journalists to keep away from the police during protest rallies to avoid clashes and violence,” said Shamsul Haq, state minister for home affairs, said at a press conference last week.
In a much more disturbing incident earlier this week, a gang of a dozen or more unidentified attackers wielding machetes stormed the head office of bdnews24.com
, a bilingual national news agency.
At least nine reporters and other staff were injured, with three in critical condition.
Police arrested three suspects in connection with the attack, with one admitting he belonged to the Jubo League, the youth wing of the ruling Awami League.
In response to the bd24news.com attack, hundreds of angry journalists took to the streets and formed a human chain in front of the National Press Club in Dhaka yesterday to protest the attacks.
They demanded justice for the victims of the attack within the next six days, adding that they would submit a memorandum to parliament demanding the formulation of laws to better protect members of the media.
That same day, however, police assaulted three court reporters in Dhaka.
Local newspapers reported suggested that the police officers involved were enraged over the journalists’ work in exposing police harassment of a young girl and her parents.
These are only recent examples of the estimated hundreds of attacks against members of the press in Bangladesh.
According to statements by police, local media and hospital officials, at least 13 journalists have been killed and 150 more have been injured since 2008, when the Awami League-led coalition came to power. An additional 370 were allegedly tortured or abused by police in the same period.
The murder of journalists
Sargar Sarwar and Meherun Runi at their home in Dhaka in February shocked the country and spurred nationwide protests.
Authorities have yet to make any arrests or identify suspects. And yet again, a public official – this time, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina – made a revealing and embarrassing statement.
“The government can’t guard anyone’s bedroom,” she said after the double murder.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranks Bangladesh as among the worst (at No 11) in combating deadly anti-press violence last year.
“Due to lax rules and no justice after violence, Bangladeshi journalists are embattled to reveal the truth. It continues to obstruct freedom of press in the country,” a CPJ report stated last year.
Data compiled by local rights group Odhikar shows that 117 journalists were tortured in the first quarter of this year, and 3,782 journalists were victims of violence since 2001.
The obvious lesson to be learned from this is that whether attackers are state or non-state actors, journalists are being abused, tortured or killed on a regular basis, and the fourth estate of a democratic government is under real threat.
This situation has remained consistent since the restoration of a nominal democracy in the 1990s. Every government that has followed has been accused of suppressing or abusing the press.
If the government fails to ensure freedom of the press and security for journalists, while making public statements that prove their ambivalence to such things, then journalists will remain exposed and incidents of violence against them will continue to rise.
Outrage at murder of journalist couple
The Third Eye is the pseudonym of Dhaka-based journalist