Despite stated commitments to democratic reform and media freedom, Bangladesh’s military-backed government dealt a series of crippling blows to what had been one of the freest presses in Asia. Operating under an official state of emergency and faced with a series of written orders and verbal directives governing media coverage, a famously voluble press corps grew increasingly muted.
On January 11, in response to mounting political violence and unrest, President Iajuddin Ahmed declared a state of emergency, announced an indefinite postponement of the parliamentary elections due later that month, and stepped down as head of the caretaker government charged with administering the polls. The next day, Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former central bank governor and World Bank official, was appointed to head a new interim administration.
The Bangladeshi media generally were circumspect in discussing the precise role of the military in the transition, but the international press was free to be more forthright. In an article headlined “The coup that dare not speak its name,” The Economist noted that, “the army, in the tradition of guardian coups’ from Fiji to Thailand, has stepped in with the usual list of apparently noble goals” ?to ensure credible elections, fight corruption, and hold down food prices. “Although the state of emergency has supporters even among some liberal democrats, it is a high-stakes gamble,” the London-based weekly concluded.
The abrupt transfer of power, which Bangladeshis referred to as the events of 1/11, bore many of the hallmarks of a coup. On orders from the official Press Information Department (PID), private television stations immediately suspended independent news programming and instead carried broadcasts provided by state-run Bangladesh Television. Officials warned senior journalists and editors to exercise caution in their reporting and not to publish any news critical of the government. Journalists received verbal instructions from the PID that they should consult Inter-Service Public Relations—the office that serves the Ministry of Defense, the army, and other security branches—before publishing any news about the armed forces.
Two weeks after the emergency was first announced, the new caretaker government spelled out its intentions in the sweeping Emergency Powers Rules of 2007. The regulations, which remain in effect, are largely aimed at curbing political and trade union activities, but they also allow the government to censor news deemed “provocative,” seize publications, and confiscate printing presses and broadcast equipment. Those violating the restrictions face up to five years in prison.
Over the course of the year, as many as 200,000 people were arrested under the state of emergency, according to local and international human rights organizations. While most of those detained were accused of criminal activities, the arrests were often arbitrary and without adequate judicial oversight. Under the emergency laws, the right to appeal and recourse to bail were routinely denied.
Among those swept up in the anticorruption drive were some of the country’s leading politicians—including two former prime ministers—as well as powerful media executives. Local journalists told the Human Rights investigators that the arrests of media executives, who often had complex business and political dealings, were generally not considered to be press freedom cases. However, their arrests effectively weakened major media outlets by cutting off their primary source of financial support.
The anticorruption drive did provide the pretext for targeting some influential journalists, most notably in the case of Atiqullah Khan Masud, editor and publisher of the popular Bengali-language daily Janakantha. In a striking show of force, on March 7, more than 200 army and police personnel raided the newspaper’s offices to arrest Khan Masud. Police accused him of corruption, criminal activities, and “tarnishing the country’s image abroad” through his paper’s reporting, according to local news reports. Janakantha was one of the few newspapers to openly question the military’s involvement in the caretaker government.
The broad powers exercised by the security forces also led to serious abuses. On May 11, journalist and human rights activist Tasneem Khalil was taken into custody after midnight by men in plain clothes claiming to be members of Bangladesh’s “joint task force.” The men blindfolded him and took him to an interrogation center later identified as an extension of the military intelligence headquarters in Dhaka, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). Khalil was tortured and questioned about his work as a journalist, which included reporting for the Daily Star newspaper and CNN, his personal blog, and his research for a 2006 HRW report on torture and extrajudicial killings by members of the security forces. The organization reported that Khalil was forced to make false confessions, both in writing and on video, admitting to acts that could be considered treasonous. At one point, he was photographed with a revolver and some bullets placed before him, suggesting that he was being framed as a criminal and was at risk of being killed in custody, according to HRW. Khalil was released after 22 hours in custody following intense advocacy efforts.
The cases of Atiqullah Khan Masud and Tasneem Khalil were in many ways exceptional, but they provided stark reminders to journalists that they had few protections under the terms of emergency rule. Far more common than arrest or torture were the frequent verbal warnings from officials, including members of military intelligence. “They try to make us understand that they are watching us,” one journalist told The Human Rights investigators.
Journalists working outside the capital, Dhaka, were even more vulnerable to threats and harassment by members of the local administration and security forces. Daily Star reporter E. A. M. Asaduzzaman Tipu was arrested on March 21 in the northern district of Nilphamari after reporting on the local government’s handling of fertilizer distribution in the area. He was detained for nearly a week on false accusations of extortion. Jahangir Alam Akash, a reporter in the northwestern city of Rajshahi for the television news channel CSB, told The Human Rights Investigator in May that he received death threats from a major with the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) for his reporting on a raid in which the suspect was shot and wounded. In October, Akash was arrested and beaten in custody, according to his wife, after a local political figure believed to be assisting the RAB accused him of extortion. Local journalists told the Human Rights Organization name Odhikar that Akash was being targeted for his journalistic work and that he had committed no crime.
The national media faced a major crisis in August, when the government and security forces attempted to restrict news coverage of growing student unrest. Security forces assaulted and detained dozens of journalists reporting on the enforcement of a curfew and on clashes between the police and students calling for an end to emergency rule. In a pointed appeal to broadcasters, Information Adviser Mainul Hosein said, “We request channels to stop televising footage of violence until further notice because this might instigate further violence,” according to the BBC. Private television channels in Bangladesh abruptly stopped carrying reports about the street demonstrations and suspended political discussion programs. On August 23, two private television channels—CSB and Ekushey Television—received a written notice from the PID warning them not to broadcast “provocative” news.
Within weeks of that warning, on September 6, authorities took CSB off the air on allegations that the company had forged a document authorizing its frequency allocation. CSB, the country’s first private 24-hour news channel, announced its closure in October.
The government allowed the broadcast media to resume talk shows only in mid-September, after senior journalists repeatedly appealed to authorities to be permitted to air discussions on other matters of crucial public interest—including the devastating floods that submerged half of the country and displaced more than nine million people, according to U.N. estimates. On September 17, Hosein summoned TV executives to his office and handed them “informal guidelines” to govern talk shows. The written guidelines, which were not printed on official letterhead and carried no signature, included detailed rules specifying that talk shows must be edited and could not be aired live, that phone-ins and interactive discussions were banned, and that “statements that can create resentment towards the legitimate government of Bangladesh should also be avoided,” according to a report published by the newspaper New Age.
The government did not directly impose prior censorship of the local print media, but authorities literally ripped out politically sensitive news articles from Himal Southasian, an English-language political monthly published in Kathmandu, and The Economist before the magazines were distributed. In both cases, the articles remained accessible online.
Islamist groups demonstrated their still considerable power in September, when they exploited a controversy surrounding the publication of a cartoon that included a play on the use of the name Muhammad. The cartoon, published in the satirical supplement of the country’s largest-circulation daily, Prothom Alo, featured a small boy referring to his pet as “Muhammad Cat” after being told it was customary to put Muhammad before one’s given name. The newspaper fired the cartoonist and the subeditor of the supplement and apologized repeatedly for causing offense. Dhaka police arrested the cartoonist, Arifur Rahman, on September 17 under the provisions of Section 54 of Bangladesh’s Criminal Procedure Code, according to the Daily Star newspaper. Human rights groups say Section 54 gives the police broad powers to make arrests without a warrant. Islamist groups were not appeased and staged a series of street demonstrations—despite the ban on public protests—calling for the newspaper to be shut down altogether.
While Prothom Alo managed to survive the episode, the fact that the country’s most powerful daily could be brought to its knees sent a sobering message to the secular press. In October, an imam filed a court case in Jessore, about 170 miles (274 kilometers) west of the capital, against Prothom Alo’s publisher, its editor, and the cartoonist Rahman, accusing the three of “sacrilege,” according to the news agency United News of Bangladesh. The magistrate hearing the case authorized Rahman’s arrest and ordered the newspaper’s publisher and editor to appear before the court in early 2008. Rahman remained in prison when different Human Rights Organizations conducted their annual census of imprisoned journalists on December 1.