Press Freedom Report: Bangladesh Journalists Face Arrest, Torture, Death

Ahammad Foyez
Press Freedom Report: Bangladesh Journalists Face Arrest, Torture, Death Bangladesh police escort photojournalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol from the Benapole border area 53 days after his disappearance, May 3, 2020.

In an online video of his sermons that went viral, a Muslim preacher called for journalists to be “slaughtered” in Bangladesh, where conservative ideology keeps shrinking the space for freedom of speech, a global media group said in a report this week.

The preacher and madrassa teacher, Wasik Billah Nomani, delivered the sermon in the presence of thousands of people, “repeatedly vowing to ‘slaughter’ journalists after establishing the caliphate,” the International Federation of Journalists said in its South Asia Press Freedom Report 2020-21.

The preacher, a prominent activist with the hardline Hefazat-e-Islam group, was arrested in the city of Mymensingh on April 11 for allegedly making provocative statements in his sermons, but social media is “overflowing” with Islamic lectures replete with “hate speech,” IFJ reported.

“The times have become increasingly challenging for the media in Bangladesh as Salafist (Orthodox Islamic) ideology is spreading and taking root under a so-called secular regime,” the report said.

“The increasing influence of a right-wing Salafist ideology is ... taking firm root in all sections of society and poses a challenge to freedom of expression and other democratic values,” it said.

That trend that has been underway for almost a decade in Bangladesh.

After Hefazat-e-Islam called for the hanging of atheists during a huge gathering in Dhaka in 2013, more than 10 writers, activists and secular thinkers were hacked to death over the next four years. The wave of “blogger killings” caused some intellectuals to flee the country and many more to self-censor.

Responding to the report, Mustafa Jabbar, the minister of Post and Telecommunications, told BenarNews that he partially agreed with its findings.

“That is true, extremist Islamist groups are massively using social media sites to organize themselves,” he said.

“Controlling such extremist activities is a challenge for us. We are trying to contain it through law because containing it through technology is tough,” Jabbar said.

Death on the job

Journalists in the country already labor under broad anti-defamation laws, leading to dozens of arrests and allegations of torture behind bars. Moreover, three journalists – Iliyas Hossain, Julhas Uddin and Borhan Uddin Muzakkir – were killed in the line of duty over the past year, the IFJ said.

Muzakkir, 25, a reporter for the news website Barta Bazar and Bangladesh Samachar, was shot in the throat as he covered street clashes between two factions of the ruling Awami League party in southern Noakhali district on Feb. 19.

Uddin, 35, a local television correspondent and vice president of the Dhamrai Press Club, was stabbed to death in Dhaka on Sept. 2, 2020.

Hossain, 45, a correspondent for the local Bangla daily newspaper, Dainik Bijoy, was hacked to death in a suburb of Dhaka while returning home from work on Oct. 11, 2020.

Photojournalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol, who went missing for nearly two months before spending seven more in custody, spoke to BenarNews on Thursday about his ordeal.

Kajol went missing on March 10, 2020, and turned up in police custody after a 53-day disappearance before being sent to jail. He was released on bail in December.

Kajol, editor of the biweekly magazine Pakkhakal, said he had not returned to work or recovered from the trauma of his incarceration.

“I have lost everything. Now I am passing my days with serious fear,” he told BenarNews. “Though I feel it is my new life, I am still confused about my future.”

In January, Kajol told the Daily Star about his disappearance followed by seven months behind bars under the Digital Security Act.

“It felt like I was in a grave. It was a very small enclosed space with no windows,” he told the Bangladesh newspaper. “My eyes were tied, my hands were cuffed behind, and my mouth was gagged for all 53 days up until I was dropped off to Benapole. I only kept count of the days.

“I feel like I have died and come back.”

Kajol also discussed his time spent in two Bangladesh jails over the seven months of his incarceration.

“The Jessore Central Jail was good ... they were humane. Dhaka Central Jail was the exact opposite,” he told The Daily Star. “There were inmates who could get restaurant food delivered to them, whereas I could not even see my son once.” he said.

Colleagues help photojournalist Harunur Rashid Rubel after he was attacked by Hefazat-e-Islam supporters during their clash with police while they staged a protest in Dhaka, April 2, 2021. [BenarNews]
Missing for four days

The only good news in a bleak year for Bangladeshi journalism, which was compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, was the Nov. 1, 2020, recovery of journalist Golam Sarwar, who went missing four days earlier. Heavily bruised and stripped of his clothes, Sarwar was found unconscious on the ground near a bridge in Chittagong’s Sitakunda upazila.

Sarwar, who works for a local news portal, went missing following the publication of an article about the alleged involvement of a minister’s family involved in a land grabbing case.

A video clip capturing his rescue shows a barely conscious but deeply traumatized Sarwar begging for relief from torture. He is heard saying: “Bhai, please don’t beat me. I won’t write news anymore!” the report said.

Minister Jabbar challenged the report’s claims about Sarwar and other journalists.

“There were no incidents of harassing journalists of any mainstream media, as the government believes in freedom of the press,” he told BenarNews as he responded to questions about the IFJ report.

He also said that the allegation of a government crackdown on media during the coronavirus was “totally wrong.”

The IFJ released its report on Wednesday, just two days after World Press Freedom Day when eight rights organizations sent a letter urging the United Nations to address “the Bangladesh government’s increasingly violent crackdown on media freedom.”

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) released the letter sent to U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.

It asked that she and other U.N. experts publicly and vigorously express concern over attacks on the media, including arbitrary arrests and torture, “and use all possible means to urge the Bangladeshi authorities to protect and respect freedom of expression.”

Bangladeshi authorities have used the draconian Digital Security Act against people questioning its handling of COVID-19, including writer Mushtaq Ahmed, who died in custody – of natural causes, according to the government – and cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore, released on bail in March, who said both he and Mushtaq Ahmed had been tortured in jail.

Khwaja Mia, the secretary of Bangladesh’s Information Ministry, rejected the groups’ allegations by pointing to the number of newspapers and television stations operating in the country.

“This indicates how much the government believes in the freedom of the media,” he told BenarNews.

IFJ challenged a similar statement by the Information Ministry that numbers make the case for press freedom.

“The official version, that the 1,227 daily newspapers with a total of 10 million daily circulation, are ‘enjoying more freedom than many developed countries across the globe’ as stated by Information Minister Mohammad Hasan Mahmud on March 29, 2021, seems to be in stark contrast to the realities on the ground for journalists in Bangladesh.”


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