BANGLADESH: Government should stop the repression of freedom of expression and release the detained media-professionals 

Late in the evening of Tuesday, June 1, 2010, the government of Bangladesh closed a Bangla-speaking national daily newspaper, the Daily Amar Desh. They arrested the acting editor Mr. Mahmudur Rahman in his office in the early morning hours of June 2. The authorities cancelled the declaration of the newspaper, sealing off its newsroom and printing presses. Mr. Mahmudur was detained in prison together with a few of his colleagues. This arrest and detention took place after the alleged arbitrary detention of Mr. Hashmat Ali, the publisher of the Amar Desh, who was picked up at 9am in the morning of Tuesday by officials of the National Security Intelligence (NSI). Subsequently, there was a filing of a deception case against Mahmudur, allegedly forced by the intelligences agencies’ officials.

According to available information received from human rights defenders as well as the local and international media, a group of officials of the NSI picked up Mr. Hashmat Ali from his house in Dhaka. They detained him incommunicado without producing any valid arrest warrant or detention order. During his six hours of detention, intelligence officials allegedly forced Mr. Hashmat Ali to put his signature on blank pieces of paper as well as on statements and complaints prepared by the officials. These were later converted into two items: Hashmat’s statement claiming that he resigned as publisher of the Daily Amar Desh: a complaint of deception and defamation against the daily’s acting-editor Mahmudur Rahman. In the evening Hashmat reportedly returned home for a short period of time and then left again. Up to this time no one has been able to get in touch with him.

The acting editor of the Daily Amar Desh, Mahmudur Rahman, held a press conference at about 5pm on Tuesday, June 1. He described how he had already applied to the relevant authorities to change the publisher of the newspaper. He received “No Objection Certificate” from all government offices including the Ministry of Information. However, no response was received from the office of the Dhaka district’s Deputy Commissioner. He claimed that the Office of the Prime Minister interfered with the process of the official permission to replace the publisher of Amar Desh. He explained to enquiring journalists that the Daily Amar Desh published news on several alleged high profile corruption cases. These cases involved the Prime Minister’s son and some influential ministers and officials of the government. Because of these expose’, he was personally assaulted by activists of the ruling political party and had 31 cases brought against him, including defamation suits.

On the same evening of Tuesday, June 1, at about 10:30pm, an exceedingly large number of police cordoned off the daily’s Dhaka office. They sealed off the newsrooms as well as the printing presses while the printing of the newspaper was in progress. The police allegedly assaulted the journalists and employees of the daily when the media-workers challenged the police about their actions. All printing and distribution of the newspaper was effectively stopped by the police.

At about 4am on June 2, the police arrested the daily’s acting editor Mahmudur Rahman from the newspaper’s office. The Tejgaon Industrial Area police station’s Officer-in-Charge (OC) initially claimed that the police arrested Mahmudur regarding a case lodged by Hashmat under Sections 419, 420 and 500 of the Penal Code-1860. However, at 5pm when the police produced Mahmudur before a Metropolitan Magistrate’s Court in Dhaka, he was shown as arrested with an additional complaint. The complaint was lodged by a police officer for assaulting the police and obstructing the law-enforcers from discharging their official duties. The police wanted to place Mahmudur in police remand for five days when he left the court. However, the Magistrate rejected the request asking the police to interrogate him at the gates of the prison for three days. Nevertheless, he still ordered Mahmudur detained in jail in the case for assaulting the police but granted him bail for the allegedly fabricated charges by the instigation of the intelligence agencies.

Meanwhile, the Deputy Commissioner of the Dhaka district told the media that his office rejected the application of Mahmudur Rahman regarding the replacement of the publisher. This came following an objection from the Department of Special Branch (DSB), which recommended, on Tuesday, not granting Mahmudur permission to be the publisher of the newspaper. Accordingly, he cancelled the declaration of the Daily Amar Desh on the same evening as soon as he got the opinion from the DSB.

The Information Minister of Bangladesh Mr. Abul Kalam Azad told the country’s parliament that the closure and cancellation of declaration of the Daily Amar Desh was not a decision of the government, rather it was the action of the office of the Deputy Commissioner of Dhaka.

The process applied by the Government of Bangladesh in this case shows an extreme arbitrariness. This includes the sealing off of the newspaper and its printing presses; the hurried cancellation of the declaration after the alleged arbitrary detention of Mr. Hashmat Ali; the forced signatures on prepared draft statements; the complaints, arrest and detention of Mahmudur Rahman. These actions do not comply with the State’s obligation to promote and protect freedom of expression. The Information Minister gives the impression that the office of the Deputy Commissioner of Dhaka is alienated from the government itself. This is laughable. The authorities have failed to ensure credibility of the process. And they have not yet clarified whether they will take appropriate action against the responsible officials should anything have happened beyond the government’s own policy of promoting freedom of expression.

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has observed that the cancellation of the declaration of the Daily Amar Desh is not an isolated incident in Bangladesh. It is an observable trend that has happened as a continuous process in the closing of two private television channels, the blocking of Face Book in the country without any reasonable grounds. Rather the government has been suppressing the media in fear of criticism of its own actions that threaten the democratic process and the upholding of the rule of law in Bangladesh.

The AHRC urges the Bangladeshi authorities to restore the publications of the various closed or blockaded media, including the newspaper, television channels and the Face Book. They must release the detained media workers immediately, withdrawing the fabricated cases against them and follow up with a credible investigation. Government must ensure that the detained persons are protected from torture and any other ill-treatment at the hands of law-enforcing agents and security forces. The country’s civil society organizations should increase pressure on the government to stop its repressive actions against newspapers and television.

The international community, including the UN Human Rights Council of which Bangladesh is a member, should assess Bangladesh on the basis of the Governments’ actions including the attacks on the journalists and the media. An intervention should be forthcoming by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion in the situation of Bangladesh. Ongoing, arbitrary closure of the print and electronic media and subsequent attacks and harassment of professionals dedicated to the freedom of opinion and expression should not be tolerated.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-091-2010
Countries : Bangladesh,
Issues : Freedom of expression,