A Joint Statement by the Asian Legal Resource Centre, and Odhikar
May 3 is the World Press Freedom Day. This day is an opportunity to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom; to assess the state of press freedom throughout the world; to defend the media from attacks on their independence; and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty. In Bangladesh, however, the day will be observed as yet another day, where scribes will continue to face physical threat and other harassment, falsely implicated in criminal cases, and arbitrarily detained for just doing their job.
Governments in Bangladesh have spared no resources to stifle the media with a view to silence critical voices. The incumbent government is no exception.
Today the government controls almost every media house in the country directly or indirectly. Broadcast licenses to television channels are issued only to those associated with the ruling elites. This has destroyed the professionalism of journalists. The incumbent government has successfully prohibited pro-opposition electronic and print media from publishing views that are critical against the ruling alliance.
The case against Mr. Mahmudur Rahman, Acting Editor of the daily Amar Desh, is an example of persecution of journalists by the state. Rahman is arbitrarily detained for more than two years, and is facing prosecution in 68 fabricated cases.
Five more persons including four journalists are currently in detention. They are: Mr. Kanak Sarwar, senior reporter at Ekushey Television (ETV), Mr. Mizanur Rahman, the Boufal correspondent of Prothom Alo, Mr. Hafizur Rahman, Mithapukur correspondent of Daily Sangram, and Mr. Shahnewaz Khan, the Jhenaidah correspondent of Somoy TV. The Chairman of ETV, Mr. Abdus Salam is detained since the past few months, charged with sedition.
The charges brought against Mahmudur Rahman, Abdus Salam, and Kanak Sarwar suggest that their detention was conceived at the highest offices in the government. The decision to stifle free and critical voices, taken at the highest offices, has traveled far and wide within Bangladesh. That scribes in distant areas also are proceeded against by the local police. This is used by local power centers that include politicians and the police, to arrest and detain journalists with critical voices like Mr. Mizanur Rahman, and Mr. Shahnewaz Khan.
The government has provided statutory as well as policy level protection to its actions against independent journalists. The Information and Communication Technology Act, 2006 – as amended in 2009, and 2013 – and the National Broadcasting Policy, 2014 are examples. The law as amended, and the policy forms the fountainhead of authority for the false cases registered at the behest of the leader of ruling party in Jhenaidah district against five newspapers.
The murder of Mr. Sagar Sarwar, and Ms. Meherun Runi are grotesque reminders of the government’s lack of sincerity in protecting free voice. In both cases, the real perpetrators are yet to be identified let alone brought to justice. Between 1 January 2009 and 30 April 2015, 11 journalists have been killed in Bangladesh. During the same period 1093 journalists have been injured, and assaulted for nothing more than engaging in their profession. At least 18 journalists have been arbitrarily arrested, 3 abducted, 293 threatened, 4 tortured in custody, 155 sued with false charges, and another 155 have faced persistent harassment from the authorities.
These wanton acts of abuse of authority with impunity against the journalists have divided the professional community. While some have chosen to either remain silent or to tow the line of the government, the rest who dare to weather the excesses risk their lives by remaining a journalist.
The absence of the professional freedom, which has also led to the disunity among the professionals, has contributed immensely to the existing democracy deficit in Bangladesh.
About the ALRC: The Asian Legal Resource Centre is an independent regional non-governmental organisation holding general consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. It is the sister organisation of the Asian Human Rights Commission. The Hong Kong-based group seeks to strengthen and encourage positive action on legal and human rights issues at the local and national levels throughout Asia.
About the Odhikar: Odhikar, means ‘rights’ in Bangla language, is a human rights organisation based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. A group of human rights defenders established this organisation in October 1994 to create a wider monitoring and awareness raising system on the abuse of civil and political rights in Bangladesh. The rights watchdog contributes to policy advocacy aiming to address the contemporary human rights situation in Bangladesh. It is registered as an NGO with the NGO Affairs Bureau of the Government of Bangladesh bearing registration no. 924, 1995. Odhikar has a special consultative status with ECOSOC at the United Nations.