“Under attack, pray for us.” is the cryptic message from a journalist colleague in Bangladesh that was received with dismay and circulated hurriedly among the Bangladeshi journalistic Diaspora across the globe. Another journalist posted a comment saying “we’re facing state-sponsored terror.”
As the democracy in Bangladesh encounters one of the most intractable challenges of its life time, journalists face as much random attacks and deaths as do opposition leaders and activists. Dozens of opposition political leaders have headed for imprisonment since the coming to power of the Awami League- led administration in early 2009; many were kidnapped; and, attack on journalists continued unabated.
The BBC claims at least nine journalists of the bdnews24.com were injured by a bunch of knife-wielding miscreants during an attack on Monday night at the publication’s office, two of them critically. The following day, about 200 journalists staged a protest rally in front of the national press club in Dhaka. Demonstrations also took place in other press clubs around the country.
Such demonstrations have occurred almost frequently since February 11 when, in a pre-dawn attack at their residence, assailants brutally murdered journalist couple Meherun Runi, a senior reporter of ATN Bangla Television, and her husband Sagar Sarowar, news editor of Maasranga Television.
Although a number of media reports linked that bone-chilling dual murder with the couple’s probing into a corruption scandal involving power sector deals in which favouritism and handing of kickbacks were discovered, the investigation remained stalled and the killers are at large.
Likewise, the attack on bdnews24.com’s office has led to an arrest which is directly linked with a ruling party cabal. Jahidul Islam Sourav, one of the three suspects arrested on Tuesday, confessed to police of being a member of the Juba League, the youth organ of the ruling Awami League. He also admitted to attacking the journalists at the bdnews24.com office.
Our investigation and the prima facie evidence indicate that the trend in attacking journalists is part of a move to throttle any kind of dissents in the country.
Only two days prior to the attack on badnews24.com, police have attacked the court correspondents of the Bengali dailies Prothom Alo, Kaler Kantha and Bangladesh protidin in front of Dhaka’s court house. Hours before, three photojournalists -Khaled Sarker, Zahidul Karim and Sajed Karim – from the Bengali daily Prothom Alo, were beaten by police in Dhaka’s Agargaon area while covering a student demonstration.
Such intolerance of the government with all forms of dissent manifested in a brazen manner on March 12 when cable operators were compelled to block television channels ready to telecast an opposition rally live, according to a cabal company executive who insisted not to be named.
The attack on the media aside, at least 22 opposition political activists have disappeared during the first four months of this year, according to the rights group Ain-O-Salish Kendra. According to another rights watchdog, Odhikar, 30 persons were victims of ‘enforced disappearance’ in 2011, 18 in 2010 and 2 in 2009; a pattern that validates a plethora of media reports that human rights violations and extra-judicial killings became one of the main tools of suppressing dissents by the regime.
At the same time, a discernible change of policy also became evident. Enforced disappearance, locally known as goom, appeared to have replaced as a policy prescription for the much criticized cross-fire-killings by law enforcing agencies. Data shows, with the instances of enforced disappearances increasing, cross fire killing ebbed. Cross-fire killing reduced from 127 in 2010 to 84 in 2011.
The policy is crafty and it’s efficacy lies in the fact that none of the recent instances of kidnapping and killing of political dissents could be blamed directly on the government due to the culprits being often plain-clothed party operatives working under hand-picked security stalwarts of the regime’s inner coterie.
That is part of the story, as, in the media, one only hears or reads the news of high profiled murders.
According to one report (The New Nation, 09 May, 2012), police have recovered 100 mutilated corpses from different parts of Dhaka and 60 other from adjoining areas during the last four months. The report cautioned, “The actual number of unidentified bodies would be much higher as all of them could not be traced after they went missing. Many of the bodies might have been dumped into rivers which were carried away by strong current.”
Who has the mandate and the audacity to conduct such systematic killings within a sovereign nation? Despite denial from the government that it’s law enforcing agencies are not involved in these killings and disappearances, facts tend to contradict such an assertion.
For instance, another recent high profiled incidence involving Taka 7 million discoveries in the car of a minister’s aide has met with no justice, and, the government failed to explain why and how the main witness of the case, the driver of the car, has disappeared despite being in the custody of the mighty Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) troopers.
As well, two of the main witnesses in the sensational murder in early March of a senior Saudi diplomat stationed in Dhaka, Khalaf Al Ali, are missing and feared to have been forcefully abducted by the same state-sponsored cabal.
Even an international uproar following the kidnapping of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s ( BNP) organizing secretary, Ilias Ali, on April 17, has made little dent in convincing the government that democratic governance entails accountability, pluralism, tolerance and rule of law.
It’s pretty obvious from hindsight that Ali’s kidnapping was orchestrated to arouse the opposition’s anger and use the instability to arrest and charge main opposition leaders as the main culprits. And that’s what has happened exactly. Concocted charges have netted dozens of senior BNP leaders and most of them have been denied bails.
The autocratic character of the government manifested further when a number of senior leaders and ministers started hurling invectives at the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, following her expression of deep concerns and demand for investigation into the ‘disappearance’ of Ilias Ali and a trade union leader, Aminul Islam, during her recent Dhaka visit.
Global impression about the autocratic nature of the current Bangladesh regime has also solidified in recent months as attacks on the media intensified amidst publication of stories of failed governance, subservience to foreign powers and unfettered corruption. As if the messenger is culpable for the bad message, in response, the media has been vilified, ostracized and victimized for stories that are made by rogue apparatuses and their loyalist cronies.
The World Bank was compelled lately to censor a $2.5 billion funding for the construction of a bridge due to procedural anomalies created under the influence of kickbacks. Yet, the sordid chronicle of stream-rolling the media is a voluminous one by now.
In April 2010, private TV Channel 1 was forced to close its broadcast. In June 2010, the Bengali daily Amar Desh faced an order to stop publication for printing reports critical of the government. The acting editor of the paper, Mahmudur Rahman, was later arrested under the Anti-Terrorism Act.
Rahman disclosed during a court hearing that his captors had beaten him and the notorious Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) officers tied his hands with window bars prior to depriving him of food and sleep.
Other journalists were not as lucky as was Rahman, who carries the stature of being a former adviser to the BNP government and a high-profiled business magnet of the country. According to a 2011 report by the Odhikar, 15 journalists were killed, 740 injured, 299 assaulted, 911 threatened, 45 arrested and nine abducted from January 2004 to April 2011.
BY : M. Shahidul Islam