While Iraq is currently the most dangerous country in the world in which to work as a journalist, the International Press Institute’s latest review of world press freedom cites Asia as ‘the world’s deadliest region for the media to practise their profession’. Bangladesh is reportedly one of the worst offenders. Last year five journalists were killed as a result of practising their profession. Leaving aside Iraq, the 2004 Human Rights Report prepared by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) states that ‘Bangladesh is, after Colombia, the second most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist.’
According to Amnesty International (AI), in Bangladesh it is those journalists attempting to expose human-rights abuses who are the most likely to suffer violent attacks. Hundreds have received death threats, which have at times been followed by assaults causing life-threatening injuries. The assailants are believed to be mercenaries hired by people identified in journalists’ reports as being involved in corruption or human-rights abuses. The FCO goes further, suggesting that collusion between local politicians and organised crime has created a climate of fear that prevents open reporting on such subjects.
One of the victims of this violence is the journalist Sumi Khan, Chittagong correspondent of the magazine Weekly 2000. She was stabbed and critically wounded in the Nandan Kanon area of the city on 27 April 2004, apparently in connection with her reporting, and has continued to receive threats since the attack. According to AI, the attack took place at night when Khan was travelling to a courier delivery service to send a report to her editor. Three men in an auto-rickshaw attempted to drag her into their vehicle, but she put up a fight. They then stabbed her several times in the face and hands. As people rushed to her aid, the assailants grabbed her handbag and drove away. Khan lost consciousness and was taken to hospital for treatment.
Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan in 1971, and a secular and democratic constitution was introduced in 1972. AI has highlighted the fact that successive governments have failed to curb serious human-rights violations, including torture, deaths in custody, the arbitrary detention of government opponents, and the harassment of journalists. On coming to power in 2001, the Bangladesh Nationalist government pledged to take a number of actions to improve human rights during its term in office, but progress has been slow. According to the FCO, political violence increased in the course of 2004 and has continued to do so in 2005, and Bangladesh has been ranked worst on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for the past four years. In addition, the police are frequently accused of a wide range of human-rights violations and of taking bribes. AI suggests the police are major perpetrators of torture and that deaths in police custody are high.
This sort of climate makes it difficult for journalists to practise their profession in safety, and covering the news in Bangladesh is seen by many to be as dangerous as reporting in a war zone.
Khan has written a number of investigative articles about the alleged involvement of local politicians and religious groups in kidnapping, land disputes, and attacks on members of the minority communities. Before the night-time assault, she reportedly received a number of anonymous threatening telephone calls warning her not to ‘defame’ people in her reports. Their intimidatory tactics included shouting at her that she would be killed if she did not stop writing. As well as the emotional damage inflicted on Khan in the subsequent attack, stabbing her in the hands was evidently intended to prevent her physically from practising her profession.
In March this year, Khan received further death threats, this time mailed to her office. The letter demanded that she immediately retract all the articles she had written about Islamist groups and threatened grenade attacks on her home and office if she reported on these groups again.
No one has yet been arrested or charged in connection with last year’s attack or the more recent threats. AI believes that the culprits of attacks of this sort are rarely brought to justice, as they reportedly bribe the police and in some cases, AI suggests, can also rely on support from influential politicians, who discourage the police from arresting the perpetrators. The government also demonstrates little willingness to bring the attackers to justice. This cycle of impunity is seen as one of the major reasons why violence against journalists and human-rights defenders persists in Bangladesh.
On 22 March 2005, the Committee to Protect Journalists sent a letter to the Bangladeshi Prime Minister, listing the most recent violations against journalists and demanding justice: ‘Those responsible for these attacks must be apprehended and held accountable in a court of law; otherwise, their impunity will perpetuate further violence.’
Free speech is guaranteed under Article 39 of the Bangladeshi Constitution and by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was ratified by Bangladesh in 2000.
Please send appeals urging the authorities to make a full and thorough investigation of the threats received by Sumi Khan and to bring those found responsible to justice. In addition, call for her and her family to be given full protection by the state.
Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia
Office of the Prime Minister
Old Sangsad Bhaban, Tejgaon
Fax: 00 880 2 811 3243 / 3244 / 1015 / 1490