As the general population of Bangladesh switched on their television sets on the night of July 25 and opened their newspapers the next day, most of them were stunned by the news of an attack on 20 media personnel at the hands of Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH) doctors and staff. The incident was at the time the latest, and most widely covered, in a series of cases over the past one year where media personnel in Bangladesh were violently assaulted.
Journalism, a once highly respected profession in Bangladesh, has become an increasingly dangerous practice. Statistics compiled by Odhikar, a Dhaka-based non-government organization (NGO), indicate a distressing rise in violence against members of the fourth estate in Bangladesh, showing an especially marked increase in the harassment, torture, and murder of journalists over the past four years.
The Hospital Attack
The assault at DMCH stimulated public curiosity about the status of media freedoms in Bangladesh, a concern that had been until recently limited to Human rights workers and the journalists themselves.
During the July 25 incident, about 20 journalists were assaulted at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH) premises as they tried to rush into the hospital. The reporters were responding to a tip that several employees of DMCH had detained a patient named Ariful Haque Chowdhury, known also as Ripon, in a hospital room.
A week earlier, Ripon’s ordeal at DMCH was reported by some dailies in Bangladesh. He was allegedly struck by a doctor on July 19, following arguments between him and some hospital interns. Ripon, who had underwent a surgery a few days earlier, did not allow any of the intern doctors to dress his wounds for two days from July 17. On July 19, when a senior doctor of the DMCH came to check up on Ripon, Ripon allegedly created a scene. As the doctor could not calm the patient after some attempts, he “inadvertently” struck him. The news, which reached the local media in the next few hours, was reported by most of the dailies the very next day.
DMCH authorities differed with the report saying that it did not contain the take of doctors and hospital staff regarding the incident. Ever since then while reporters followed up on the fate of Ripon, who was still a patient at the DMCH, bad blood had persisted between the media personnel and DMCH.
On July 21, vehemently criticizing the reports, the DMCH authority said in a press release that the alleged senior doctor and the interns were not guilty. That very day, aggrieved interns observed two hour-long work abstentions, and announced tough agitation programs if the DMCH authority did not restrict media entry into the hospital premises.
On July 22, four journalists including Mozahid Hasan of Ekushey TV, Uzzal Das of Banglavision, Abaduzzaman of Shokaler Khobor and Bulbul Chowdhury of ABC Radio were heavily wounded by agitators when they tried to enter the DMCH. Hospital interns allegedly locked up the journalists in the temporary media room of DMCH and damaged their cameras.
On July 23, the DMCH authority officially imposed restrictions on the media’s entry inside the hospital, and asked media personnel to get permission from the authority before entering. A letter signed by the DMCH director Brigadier General Mustafizur Rahman indicated that the decision to restrict media access was made in consultations with patients, doctors and visitors. The impetus for the new restriction was in the words of the letter the “false and ill-motivated” reporting on the recent hospital incident.
But when journalists were tipped off on July 25 that Ripon was still being detained by hospital staff, they tried to enter the premises. This is when, according to several dailies and television channels in Bangladesh, DMCH interns aided by members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League (the student wing of the Awami League Party) attacked the journalists. During the altercation, the temporary media room of DMCH was vandalized while the cameras and motorcycles of journalists were damaged in full view of law enforcers.
Two cases were filed on behalf of the wounded journalists on July 25 with Shahbag Police Station. Shahadat Hossain of Bhorer Kagaj and Bulbul Chowdhury of ABC Radio lodged complaints, mentioning 10 doctors and 100-150 unnamed attackers. A day later, on July 26, doctors lodged another case accusing 15 journalists on counts of theft and robbery.
As the nearly week-long feud seemed to turn into something worse, ruling party officials stepped in. Bangladesh Awami League’s joint secretary Mahbubul Alam Hanif negotiated with the doctors and journalists and calmed the two sides. However, reporters still have to obtain permission to gain entry into the DMCH. Some reporters even complain about the behavior of doctors and hospital staff toward them when they realize that the said individual is a reporter or photographer of a media organization.
Journalist Persecution in 2012
The ongoing year could be regarded as the year of journalist persecution in Bangladesh, as the highest number of journalist murders, assaults and harassments had occurred during just the first six months of 2012.
Prior to the July incident, on June 15, Jamal Uddin, a reporter of a Bangla newspaper in the Jessore district of Bangladesh, was brutally murdered. Jamal had earlier been threatened for writing reports against local drug lords.
Before that on May 26, three photojournalists of the most circulated Bengali language daily in Bangladesh, Prothom Alo, were beaten up by the police while the journalists were on an assignment. The journalists were injured and had to be admitted to a nearby hospital.
Two days after this, on May 28, a group of miscreants stabbed two journalists of bdnews24.com, the most read online news portal in Bangladesh, with sharp weapons and iron rods. Both the journalists survived the attack after being taken to the hospital. Local hoodlums attacked the journalists following an altercation between the organization staff and locals in Mohakhali area, where bdnews24 had just moved.
Immediately the next day, on May 29, six journalists from several newspapers while covering assignments at the Dhaka Chief Metropolitan Magistrate’s Court were seriously injured by the police. The journalists were protesting on behalf of a 15-year-old girl and her family. Earlier, the girl had claimed that two police officials had snatched her from the court premises, while she was with her father and mother. Two police officials had allegedly taken the girl to a secluded room and tried to sexually assault her.
Also in the month of May, Abdullah Al Mamun, a regional correspondent in the Pabna district of the Bangla daily Kaler Kantho, was attacked by a group of criminals. It is alleged that the attack was led by Aminul Islam, nephew of Advocate Shamsul Huq Tuku, State Minister for Home Affairs of Bangladesh, for publishing a report on corruption by the family, as Kaler Kantho and Daily Sun reported later.
Before all this, on February 11, journalist couple Golam Mostafa Sarowar (Sagar), more commonly known as Sagar Sarowar, and his wife Meherun Runi, were brutally killed by perpetrators during the early hours of the day at their Indira Road flat in Dhaka. Sarowar was the news editor of Maasranga Television, a private TV channel in Bangladesh, while Runi was a senior reporter of ATN Bangla, another TV channel.
As the double murder had stirred up public frustration about the deterioration of law and order in the country, Home Minister Sahara Khatun had declared a 48-hour deadline, within which she had assured that the murderers of the journalist couple would be brought to books. However, on August 11, after nearly six months, the case remained unsolved with no tangible leads.
A Hazardous Profession
Bangladesh has the largest number of media amongst Least Developed Countries (LDC) in the world. Besides 28 nationwide dailies, including eight English newspapers, there are around 23 television channels, seven FM radio stations, 14 community radio channels and numerous internet news portals. Also, the monthly and weekly magazines in Bangla and English can be summed up to over 50. These numbers do not take into account the regional media.
Almost all these media provide regular news to their audiences and require skilled journalists, photojournalists, cameramen, presenters and other professionals from the reporting fields to properly function. Due to the increasing number o
f these media, the pool of skilled professionals who work in the associated media trades is thinning and demand for such workers is high.
However, all the sectors are more or less threatened right now due to the murder, torture, assaults and other excesses against these professionals.
According to latest statistics from Odhikar, besides three journalist murders in the first half of 2012, 72 were injured, 35 were assaulted and 43 were threatened, during this time. The data is alarming compared to 2011, when no journalists were murdered. However, there were 139 reported cases of injury, 43 assaults on journalists, 24 were attacked and 53 were threatened.
The Odhikar report says that since 2004 till June 2012, 21 journalists have been killed, 67 have been injured, 368 were assaulted and 1,019 journalists were threatened. However, none of the 21 incidents of murders of journalists have been solved to date.
In a July 2012 article by Abid Azad, published in the Daily Sun, Shakhawat Hossain, president of Dhaka Reporters’ Unity (DRU) commented, “Such incidents would not have occurred if the previous cases regarding journalists’ murders and attacks were resolved.”
Also, in the same article, Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator at The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent and non-profit organization that promotes press freedom worldwide by defending the rights of journalists, was quoted as saying, “A free press is fundamental to any democratic society. CPJ has found that no convictions were recorded in the journalist murders in Bangladesh over the last decade. It is a stunning record of impunity that gives the country one of the world’s worst records in terms of securing justice when journalists are murdered, and this trend does not seem to be getting any better. That, and the frequency of physical attacks on journalists doing their jobs around the country, indicates a troubling decline in press freedom in Bangladesh this year”.
Reasons Behind the Wrath
Some media personnel in Bangladesh believe that violence towards journalists is tacitly encouraged by the government, who have failed to bring to justice perpetrators of the anti-journo aggression, and who regularly voice their displeasure at media outlets that report critically on their actions and policies.
The level of ruling party leaders’ irritation with the media is apparent through the sheer number of comments and statements they’ve made about journalist and media personnel activities over the past three years.
For example, on June 2, while addressing a view-exchange meeting with the Awami League Kurigram district unit at her office, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina claimed that the Bangladeshi media enjoys full freedom, as her government never interferes in media activities, even when harmful items are published against the ruling party. “Some reports published by the news media were not based on facts. They were harmful for the country. But, the government did not take any action against them,” she added.
She went on, “I read newspapers daily. I mark some of the items that are completely bogus.” She said: “Journalists are not satisfied until they write something against the government every day. They don’t feel the need to check the authenticity of what they write.”
The PM was also critical of talk show guests in different television channels, saying that the television talk shows portrayed a distorted image of the country, contrary to the real situation.
Referring to the recent assaults on journalists, the ruling party chief said: “A total of 14 journalists were killed, and 1,400 were injured during the term of the [previous] BNP-led four party alliance government.”
She said many journalists were crippled for life. “Many were not allowed to file cases. They had to change their residences. But, newspapers and the electronic media did not cover those incidents at that time,” she added.
The Prime Minister said that her government has never tried to control the media, although she conceded she feels that their “independence is being misused.”
Faizul Abedin Khan, Senior Staff Writer and Music Editor of the Independent in Bangladesh, opined to South Asia Journal that journalists and media personnel “are being persecuted badly because they disclose corruption by the government to the public, although they themselves often engage in dishonesty and fiascos.”
Another experienced reporter working for the Daily Star in Dhaka said, “Journalists were previously seen as powerful entities that were almost untouchable. Now, after a few such incidents the urban myth is broken. They may have power, but they can be beaten and as seen, in some cases, nothing will happen to the perpetrators for it.” He pointed out that due to these reasons the number of such incidents are increasing alarmingly.
Khan felt that most of the media houses in Bangladesh should also shoulder some of the blame for this. He explained, “Recently, there has been plenty of both print and audio/visual media houses and they don’t necessarily hire journalists from a journalism background. The media houses do not conduct any on-the-job training, which is why many of the reporters fail gaining adequate knowledge on media law and journalist etiquettes. They end up engaging in malpractices and illegally force their power of the Fourth Estate, which is one of the main things that agitates law enforcement agency members, politicians and government officials and hence, the abuse against media personnel continues.”
Sadiqur Rahman, a reporter of New Age who had investigated into the DMCH incident where 20 journalists were beaten up, shared with South Asia Journal that the DMCH authorities were wary of journalist months before the incident. While talking to Rahman, DMCH’s director Brigadier General Mustafizur Rahman told him that the rage against journalists had built up over the past two months before the incident.
The DMCH authorities told Rahman that there were two incidents where journalists had entered the DMCH premises without considering the rules of the hospital. In one of the situations, TV reporters with cameramen tried to enter an operation theater where a bullet-injured patient was about to be operated. As the intern doctors obstructed the journalists, a scuffle had ensued.
A few days after this, another group of journalists had also tried to get comments from a female patient who was a rape victim. According to DMCH policies, except for close relatives of the female patient, no one is allowed to enter the female ward without permission. But this group of reporters still tried their luck. When the authorities stood in their way, the agitated reporters broke a window of the ward.
Much like these incidents, there are numerous allegations including extortion against unscrupulous journalists.
Journalists in Bangladesh demand that the murder cases of all journalists be solved and the perpetrators be brought to book.
Some reporters have admitted that because of a few “bad apples” in the country, the entire community is facing disrepute. They urged people from all walks of life to come forward and complain against dodgy media personnel who try to make illegal money through their position and influence.
Khan explained that an ideal situation for any economy is when “activities of a democratic government are scrutinized for both discrepancies and positive authority by the Fourth Estate, which is the journalists from media houses.” He added, “Also, the government must look after the safety and rights of all the journalists and reporters, if not welfare, and it should be done with caution. Primarily because journalists are involved in risky work environments and since not all media houses in the country can provide the same support (ethical, legal, financial), it is a moral and legal obligation of the government to keep all citizens safe, especially journalists during their times of trouble.”
He elaborated, “Most journalists are after all involved in a profession which does not only defame the government but highlight their positive actions most of the time in both home and abroad, which most often the government tends to disregard.”
“But that said, it is high time, there should be an independent monitoring service which will not only ensure rights of the reporters but also should oversee that journalists do not take advantage of their privileges at any levels,” Khan concluded.