Scores of reporters murdered in last 25 years but most cases have gone unsolved or unpunished
Journalists in Bangladesh’s Mymensingh city protest over a series of defamation and sedition cases filed against Mahfuz Anam, editor of leading English daily The Daily Star, in this Feb. 16, 2016 file photo. (ucanews.com photo)
In the early hours of Feb. 11, 2012, when Bangladesh was in the late throes of winter, local residents in the West Rajabazar area of central Dhaka woke up to the sound of screams and people in severe anguish.
The haunting noises emanated from a nearby apartment building where a journalist couple — Sagar Sarowar and Meherun Runi — lived among the tenants with their only son, 5-year-old Megh.
Sagar was a news editor at the private TV channel Maasranga while Runi was a senior anchor at ATN Bangla, another TV station.
On that fateful night, several home intruders stabbed the couple to death in front of their child, whose life they decided to spare,
The brutal murders sent shock waves reverberating around the nation and sent the press into a panicked frenzy.
Hundreds of journalists from various media houses swarmed the complex before the police came and sealed off the apartment.
After visiting the crime scene later that day, Sahara Khatun, the home minister at the time of the then-ruling Awami League, promised the killers would be found and arrested with 48 hours.
More than six years after that sensational and shocking double murder, however, the case remains in limbo and the killers’ identities unknown.
The police force’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) launched an investigation that lasted over three years without making any headway, before the case was transferred to the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite anti-terror unit.
To date, the RAB has also failed to press any formal charges against the perpetrators let alone launch court proceedings. In fact, the deadline by which the charges can be submitted has been extended no fewer than 57 times.
For months, local journalists waged protests and strikes demanding justice. But these have since cooled down, implying a tacit acceptance that these barbaric homicides were “unsolvable” — a mystery that could never be solved and another chapter consigned to the country’s dark past.
However not everyone feels that way. The murders remain forever imprinted in the minds of the couple’s relatives, who have vowed to continue fighting until the killers are found and put behind bars (or worse).
Runi’s brother, 34-year-old Nowsher Roman, believes the case has never been satisfactorily wrapped up because of a lack of genuine commitment on the part of the government.
“It puzzles us why the government has not been more proactive in terms of getting to the bottom of this case. Maybe the killers are being protected by very powerful or influential people, or maybe our law enforcement agencies are not competent enough to handle such murder cases,” he told ucanews.com.
Nowsher believes the couple was killed because of their investigative journalistic work, which may have annoyed or threatened to expose the wrongdoings of certain powerful individuals or groups.
“They didn’t have any personal grievances with anyone, so I have to assume this was related to their jobs as the killers didn’t take anything of value from their apartment except Sagar’s laptops and phone. It seemed to have been very well-planned,” he said.
As time marches on, relatives of the slain couple say they are losing hope.
“Over the past six years we have cried out for justice, and we have given statements to investigators again and again. We are losing hope that justice will ever be meted out,” Nowsher added.
Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority nation of 160 million with a fragile democracy, has catalogued a long list of cases involving abuses and episodes of violence against journalists in recent decades.
In some cases, the reporters were killed and the murderers never found; in others a culture of impunity seems to have prevailed.
The nation now ranks as the 10th deadliest place in the world for journalists to work, according to the 2017 Impunity Index released by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a global watchdog aimed at protecting the freedom of the media that is based in New York.
According to the CPJ, 21 journalists and intellectuals who were “guilty” of espousing anti-establishment or other views have been killed in Bangladesh since 1992.
And in nearly three-quarters (15) of those cases, the perpetrators have either never been found or otherwise gone unpunished.
Moreover, there have been another 19 attempted murders on journalists and writers over the same 25-year period.
The CPJ has repeatedly expressed concern about the implementation of various controversial or repressive articles of law they claim serve as tools to curb freedom of speech and gag the media.
Journalists and editors, they say, live with the constant threat of abuse and violence, as well as the specter of being sued for simply trying to report the truth.
Those laws include the British colonial-era Code of Criminal Procedure, the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act of 2006, and the upcoming Digital Security Act.
Journalists in Asia, including in Bangladesh, face various threats from both state and non-state actors, according to the latest report from the International Federation Of Journalists.
Anisur Rahman, 37, a journalist in northern Kurigram district who writes for the Sangbad (News), a national Bengali daily, has emerged as one of the latest “victims” of the ICT Act.
In October 2017, local police charged him under this law for publishing reports and photographs of a police chase that resulted in the death of a young person on alleged drug charges that have not yet been corroborated. Meanwhile, a known gambler who was suspected of being involved in the case was released without charge.
“The police were involved in peddling drugs and my ‘crime’ was that I felt there was a need to stand up and report this,” he told ucanews.com.
“This seemed to anger the police, who I believe persuaded a local man to press charges against me for uploading a ‘defamatory’ photo on Facebook,” he said.
“I downloaded the photo from another post by one of my Facebook friends, which means that, according to the law, I cannot be charged for this,” he said.
“The charges were trumped up and this was nothing more than an act of revenge and the case had no grounds,” he added.
“Sadly, this kind of thing is becoming very common in Bangladesh. It poses a grave threat to independent journalism on a national level.”
Police arrested and jailed Rahman on Oct. 31, 2017 despite not having secured a court warrant and he was later denied bail on multiple occasions.
Four days after his arrest, police seized his computer and mobile phone. Finally, on Dec. 20 after he had been detained for as long as 50 days, his friends and colleagues pooled their resources to secure his bail.
“The local police superintendent threatened to teach me a ‘lesson’ when the time is ripe, so now I am living in constant fear,” Rahman said.
About 700 cases, many against journalists, are pending at the country’s lone cyber crime tribunal, local media report.
In such a perilous context, journalists tend to refrain from reporting on sensitive issues and often apply “self-censorship,” according to one reporter who asked not to be named.
“You can’t be brave enough to be a real journalist if you are constantly afraid of being stalked, harassed and on the receiving end of violence by those who would do harm to you,” he said.
“Journalism is increasingly becoming a risky profession, which is bad news for our fledgling democracy,” he added.