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Bangladesh Centre for Development, Journalism and Communication (BCDJC)

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State of Press Freedom, 2007



A SUMMARY

The situation of press freedom in Bangladesh was markedly different in 2007. At least 90 incidents related to violence or harassment of journalists occurred throughout the country of which 1 murder, 27 cases of threats and 20 incidents of physical assaults were recorded. A total number of 34 police cases were lodged and at least 12 journalists were arrested.
Only in the first quarter of this year, at least 150 journalists were harassed in 50 incidents. Another 40 journalists and media professionals assaulted by law enforcers during the first few hours of curfew that government imposed in Bangladesh on 20 August.
In 2007, violent behavior, threats to and censorship on journalists and media respectively by the authorities concerned were the dominant form of exercising control over media rather than the direct physical attack on journalists that was the dominant form of control in past few years. One unique observation on 2007, it was the first year in last one decade when no journalists were either threatened or attacked by the underground militants.
Press reports suggest that since the promulgation of state of emergency, journalists are not facing political intimidation or harassment. The interim administration apparently took the media on board in their fight against corruptions and other social injustices.
However, access to information or lack of it to be precise has remained a big issue for the media people. Although it must be acknowledged that there are regular briefings (not daily) from the office of the Chief Adviser while other advisers are also talking to the media. A number of advisers acknowledge the crucial role the media is playing at this crucial moment of the nation. Some commentators term the media as the 'parliament' for representing people's voices in the absence of a political government during the emergency rule while some others claiming that the media is now working like a Fourth Estate under this regime.
However, one thing remains uncommon in media- many reports critical to the interim administration, which indicates a culture of 'censorship' or 'self-censorship' being prevailed.
Talk shows, news analysis, newspaper reviews, sensitive opinion columns, and commentaries critical to the government were not rare in both the print and electronic media, a general sense of insecurity and fear of consequences prevailing in the media had led to a practice of self Though sporadically, both in print and electronic media criticisms of present government were very much visible throughout the year. A number of newspapers and columnists have published reports, commentaries, opinion pieces, post editorials or columns criticizing various government actions and policies.
In the Electronic Media, Television talk shows, often have broadcast opinion of a number of talk show guests who were highly critical of present government, mostly of its managerial and other shortcomings. However, it should be noted, those who have made strong criticisms of various government actions or in some cases inactions have sometimes indeed "mysteriously" gone absent from TV screen for a while. It is a widely believed perception that the TV stations might have acted to temporarily take off those talk show guests from TV screen on "advises" from various government agencies.
Day to day coverage was also treated with extreme caution after the authorities took punitive measures to contain the violence that flared up in Dhaka University and other parts of the country. The government reminded the media organizations that they were under a state of emergency so they should behave 'responsibly.' In the second quarter of the year, the government took steps to muzzle the media.
On 17 April, they sent letters to all newspapers, television channels and radio stations requesting them to refrain from publishing/ telecasting/ broadcasting all kind of "ill-motivated" or "misleading" reports. The letter, signed by lftekhar Hossain, Principal Information Officer of the Press Information Department under the Ministry of Information, read: "The government hopes that the country's mass media will take greater care in publishing/broadcasting apolitical and substantial news, features, discussions, satirical sketches and cartoons, in order to maintain the positive role of the electronic and print media." The letter also read: "Because of this positive role, the government is always proactive in maintaining the freedom of the electronic and print media in spite of the country being under state of emergency."
On 22 August, immediately after the curfew was imposed in six divisional cities, government through its "press advice" over phone asked all the private television channels not to telecast any news, views on the then current situation and also not to criticize government's steps that were taken to tackle the situation.
Journalists became the target of harassment and maltreatment of a section of law enforcing agency-men during curfew hours although there was clear public statement made by the government that the press ID cards would be treated as curfew passes until such passes were obtained by the journalists from the authorities concerned.
Anis Alamgir, Dead of news of 'Baishakhi TV- a private television channel, told BBC about the abuse and physical assault he suffered from the members of joint force on his way back from work. Alamgir was one of the at least 40 other media professionals assaulted by members of the law enforcing agencies during the first few hours of curfew. Most of them were beaten and arrested in the middle of the night when they were going back home from office after a long days work.
A handout issued from the Press Information Department (PID) on 23 August categorically reiterated that press cards would be treated as curfew pass, so there should not have been any ambiguity on this issue any more. But due to some mysterious reasons, the government's directives regarding the free movement of journalists were not implemented on streets resulting in enormous sufferings to the media people in carrying out their duties.

One journalist MURDERED

JAMAL UDDIN, 25, went missing from his home in Kathaltala area on March 5, 2007, and he was found dead on the following day (March 6) near the Rangamati Lake, adjacent to the Bangladesh Tourism Corporation complex. There were marks of injuries and scars on his face and other parts of the body. A rope was also found tied around his neck. The post-mortem report from the Rangamati hospital released on 18 March, 12 days after the body was found, concluded that Jamal committed suicide. But Jamal's colleagues and relatives rejected the findings on the basis of circumstantial evidence, and alleged that he was murdered. Police, in the meantime, claimed to have recovered an audiocassette from Jamal's belongings in which he reportedly had given statement for committing suicide. But, police did not let his colleagues or relatives listen to the audio. Police arrested one suspect but the motive of the murder or death remained unclear. Jamal was the correspondent for the news agency 'ABAS' and a reporter of the local daily 'Dainik Giri Darpan'.

Media Owners behind the BAR

Meanwhile, the joint forces have arrested at least 19 well-known media owners since the promulgation of state of emergency and the subsequent launch of anti­corruption drive in January. They have been facing various charges including money laundering, abuse of power and authority, extortion and having links with outlawed JMB. None of them is facing any charges related to publishing any particular report in their respective newspapers or for broadcasting any news/ views on television, which might be considered as a violation of emergency laws.
After the detentions of top media owners, panic gripped among the journalists working in those organizations, as there are dangers of possible job losses. There are no sign of their immediate release, which might result in squeezing of the sources of fund needed to run the organizations.

Cancellation of Frequency of private television 'CSB News'

On 6 September, Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) suspended the frequency allocation of the CSB News - the country's first 24-hours news channel launched by the Focus Multimedia Company Limited, and issued a show cause notice giving seven days to explain why the frequency allocation should not be cancelled because of an alleged forgery in the process of obtaining the allocation of frequency for the channel. As the authorities concerned found that the reply to the show cause was not satisfactory, the frequency allocation was cancelled and a number of BTRC officials with law enforcers went to CSB News office at 6 pm and ensured the immediate implementation of the order by stopping its broadcast immediately.
Although the closure of CSB News was a result of a forgery in legal and procedural ground it was widely believed that the main reason that prompted the authorities concerned to act was CSB's live broadcast of the students' protests in Dhaka University. It should be noted that the Channel along with another private channel ETV was warned not to broadcast such "provocative footage" in August.

CARTOON controversy of Daily Prothom Alo

In the third week of September, the Daily Prothom Alo suffered from a 'cartoon controversy' published in its satirical weekly supplement 'Alpin'. The newspaper had to withdraw the copies of the supplement and issued an apology for hurting the sentiment of people of predominantly Muslim country. A number of Islamic groups and Muslim leaders launched a vitriolic verbal attack on the newspaper and demanded its closure saying that the cartoon was highly disrespectful to Prophet Mohammad (peace be up on him). The cartoonist, Arifur Rahman (22), was arrested and newspaper declared suspension of the publication of'Alpin'that caused such stir among the Islamic groups. The Daily Prothom Alo terminated both the cartoonist and the editor of 'Alpin'.

EXTORTION cases and arrests

EAM ASADUZZAMAN TIPU, The Daily Star correspondent in Nilphamari- northwest of Bangladesh, was arrested from his home on 21 March 2007, Wednesday morning by the police. He was produced before the court on 27 March and charged with extortion. Tipu, the journalist above 50 years of age, was accused of extortion in connection with a report about urea fertilizer crisis which was published in the daily on 17 March. After a proceeding in the speedy trial tribunal, he was finally acquitted from the caseon 26 April.
JAHANGIR ALAM AKASH, reporter for the Dainik Sangbad, CSB News and DW in Rajshahi was charged of extortion and detained on 24 October around 2 in the morning. He released on bail on 19 November and confirmed that he was blindfolded and tortured in the custody and was even given electric shock. He was in the jail hospital for a week.

Collection of journalist's info and Internet control

Council of Journalists in Bangladesh has expressed their concern, in an urgent meeting at the National Press Club in Dhaka on 31 October, over the government's intelligence move to gather very personal details of journalists across the country. They called on the government to stop such a move and to ensure positive and enabling environment to perform their professional duties. This intelligence drive saw distribution of a questionnaire of about 36 questions to collect their family and personal information. The questions specially include getting details of their professional involvements with different media outlets at home and abroad.They are also gathering information and preparing list of journalists who contributes news and information to overseas media and rights watch groups.
Bangladesh government has stepped in to control the use of Internet in Bangladesh on 4 October. Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) has circulated a memo to gather customer's information in order to prepare a database with the help of a law-enforcing agency RAB.They also decided that any ISP would not be able to sell their bandwidth to another ISP without having any license. BTRC would prepare a database of both the ISP and the Internet users in the country to bring their work under control and law. In the drive of collecting data of Internet users, BTRC also collects technical data such as - admin password of Internet gateway servers.They will also help law enforcers to establish traffic scanners on the gateway routers to trace any user. BTRC warned in the memo issued to ISP's regarding client data collection that failure of complying with the memo might result closure of ISP.

 

Foot Note: For further details of the press freedom situation in Bangladesh during 2007 monthly/quarterly reports are available at BCDJC and its website: www.bcdjc.com.

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