- The Washington Times - Friday, October 21, 2005

DHAKA, Bangladesh — A chill ran down the spine of journalist Mizanur Rahman when a neatly folded white cloth symbolizing an Islamic burial shroud tumbled out of a package he received by mail last month.

An accompanying letter addressed to Mr. Rahman, a reporter for the Dhaka daily Janakantha (People’s Voice), said that because of his “anti-Islamic” reporting, his days were numbered and he would soon be in a white burial shroud.

White shrouds and death threats also reached eight other journalists the same day in Satkhira, a district in southwestern Bangladesh.

The letters were signed by leaders of the outlawed militant group Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (Awakened Muslim Citizens of Bangladesh, often referred to by its initials, JMJB), the orthodox Islamist movement Ahl-e-Hadith (followers of the Sayings of the Prophet) and Jamat-e-Islami Bangladesh, an Islamist political party in the ruling coalition in Bangladesh. The letters threatened that the journalists would be “slaughtered” because their writings attacked clerics who want to transform the country into a pure Islamic state.

“We are determined to bring total Islamic rule in Bangladesh through an armed revolution,” the letters said. “You are some of the obstacles on our way to achieve these goals. You are the country’s enemies, so you face removal from this Earth.”

Of the nine reporters who received these death threats, five are Hindus, and the letters warned them that as non-Muslims, they had no right to report on Islamic matters.

Kalyan Banerjee, a Hindu reporter for the popular Dhaka daily Pratham Alo (First Light), said: “In the letter accompanying the kafan (burial shroud) they said to me, Hindu religious functions would not be allowed in Pak Bangla (Holy Bangladesh) and no Hindu will be allowed to vote in the next parliamentary elections in Bangladesh. They will be slaughtered if they try to vote.”

Mr. Banerjee, who reported on growing Islamist extremist activities in the area in a recent series of reports, said that he is also getting threatening calls from unknown people on his cell phone.

JMJB and Ahl-e-Hadith, among other Islamist groups, were accused of masterminding the Aug. 17 violence in which more than 400 bombs exploded simultaneously across Bangladesh, killing two persons and injuring more than 200.

This month, the authorities announced a reward of $15,200 for information leading to the arrest of underground JMJB chief Siddiqur Islam, alias Bangla Bhai.

Also this month, JMJB claimed responsibility for a series of Oct. 3 courtroom bombings in three towns that killed two persons and injured more than 50. The radical group has been campaigning to establish strict Islamic rule in Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority country governed by secular laws.

Statistics suggest that journalism is a dangerous profession in Bangladesh. In the past10 years, at least 19 journalists have been murdered and more than 800 have been injured in attacks by Islamist fundamentalists, political parties, criminals and various government agencies including the police.

Dipankar Chakrabarty, editor of a regional daily Durjoy Bangla (Invincible Bangla) was hacked to death with a machete in the central town of Sherpur last October.

Before his death, he told Reporters Without Borders that anonymous callers were threatening him by phone with death if he did not stop reporting on the ties between some powerful politicians and a criminal organization in the area.

In January 2004, a bomb in the southwestern district of Khulna killed Manik Saha, a reporter for the Dhaka daily New Age and stringer for the British Broadcasting Corp.

Some of his colleagues think Mr. Saha was killed because of his book investigating shrimp mafias who were converting paddy fields into shrimp farms, damaging the environment. The veteran journalist received many death threats by phone before he was slain.

A banned extremist Maoist group called Purba Bangla Communist Party (PBCP) claimed responsibility for the Saha murder. A week after the killing, PBCP threatened nine other reporters with death if they did not stop writing about the dead reporter.

In another bomb attack at Khulna in February, the PBCP injured three journalists and killed Belal Ahmed, a reporter with the national daily Dainik Sangram (Daily Struggle). The Maoist group — which claimed to have killed four journalists, all “enemies of the poor” — says it has 30 other journalists on its hit list.

Golam Mortoza, executive editor of Weekly 2000, an investigative weekly, recently received a death threat from unknown groups. He said in Dhaka that many politically frustrated ex-Maoist cadres had formed criminal gangs who are targeting journalists reporting on extortion and racketeering.

Sumi Khan, a Weekly 2000 crime reporter who was stabbed by unidentified assailants last year, agrees. “I was targeted because I reported how religious extremists, criminal mafias and illegal gunrunners were thriving in my area,” she said. “Such attacks on the media throughout the country try to block the free flow of information.”

Mrs. Khan, who narrowly escaped death, was awarded the Guardian newspaper’s Hugo Young Award for courageous journalism in London this year.

Although most of the journalists threatened in Bangladesh exposed corruption, crime and growing religious extremism, some have been targeted for revealing the covert activities of politicians.

“At election time, the major political parties accept help from shady political elements to win votes,” said Naim Islam Khan, president of the Bangladesh Center for Development, Journalism and Communication.

“Some take donations from criminal gangs, providing protection in exchange,” so reporters exposing such politician-criminal connections face threats to their lives.

Although police have registered more than a thousand cases of violence against journalists in the past10 years, nearly all cases remain unsolved.

Journalists in Bangladesh have even been targeted by the government.

Nurul Kabir, executive editor of the Dhaka daily New Age, thinks reporters in Bangladesh are targeted by parts of the government because they expose activities or plans that many citizens oppose.

“Journalists who are critical about corruption and malfeasance in ruling circles are being targeted — especially outside the capital — by activists supporting the ruling coalition. They are also attacked by supporters of the main opposition Awami League when they reveal its indifference toward people’s suffering,” Mr. Kabir said.

In 2002, Saleem Samad, a stringer for Time magazine, was detained by the army for helping a British Channel 4 team film a documentary on Islamist extremism and persecution of minority Hindus in Bangladesh.

Mr. Samad was released after 55 days of detention, following protests from human- and media-rights groups outside the country.

“[The army] told me to sign a statement admitting that I engaged in activities detrimental to the national interest. When I refused to sign the false statement, they started torturing me in a dark, tiny cell. They did not give me enough food and water. I was released only after the High Court ruled that my detention was illegal,” said Mr. Samad.

Last year, when Mr. Samad was in Canada to attend an international seminar, the army, apparently at the behest of the government, raided his home in Dhaka looking for him. Friends and relatives advised him not to return to Bangladesh, and the 52-year-old journalist has applied for political asylum in Canada.

“Although I don’t like to live in a foreign land, I cannot return to my country. I know this time they would kill me. They are angry because of my last Time write-up which described Bangladesh as a country in utter ‘dysfunction,’” said Mr. Samad, who is now living in Ottawa as a refugee as the Canadian government considers his application for asylum.

“Death threats are becoming a pervasive and insidious part of daily life for journalists in Bangladesh,” said Christopher Warren, president of the International Federation of Journalists. “The intimidation [of journalists] is a direct violation of civil rights and liberties, which are the basic tools for a successful democracy.”

The bitter rivalry between Begum Khaleda Zia, the prime minister of Bangladesh, and opposition leader Sheikh Hasina Wajed has polarized the whole country. Even journalists are now politicized to a point where individual editors, reporters and newspapers are better known for their political leanings than for the contents of their work.

A senior editor at a popular daily in Dhaka said: “Until a few years ago, you would find most of us with independent views, but now we are either Khaleda Zia supporters or belong to Sheikh Hasina’s camp. Unless the two groups are reunited, journalists will continue to be attacked in Bangladesh. But this will never happen unless the two top political leaders come to good terms.”

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