Bangladesh: Journalists become main targets as govt cracks down on dissent

DHAKA–Nearly two weeks after his arrest, senior Bangladeshi journalist Shafik Rehman was sent to jail by a Dhaka court on April 27, 2016. The 81-year old veteran was arrested from his house in Dhaka on April 16 for his alleged involvement in a plot to abduct and kill Sajeeb Wazed Joy, son of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Shafik Rehman

Shafik Rehman

The court sent Rehman to jail after 10 days in two consecutive police remands. The incident has sparked a debate on whether the charges against Rehman are justified to put him behind bars. Most argue that Rehman is being targeted for being an adviser to the opposition leader and BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia.

They also point to recent persecutions by ruling party leaders and activists against senior journalists including Mahfuz Anam, editor of The Daily Star, and Matiur Rahman, editor of the Prothom Alo, Bangladesh’s largest circulated daily.

After being picked up from his house by plain clothes policemen, Rehman was put on a five-day remand on April 16. He was charged with plotting to abduct and murder Wazed who is also an adviser to Hasina.

A US court had sentenced BNP leader Mamun’s son Rizve Ahmed Caesar on March 4, 2015 for bribing a former FBI special agent in New York for confidential information on Wazed. Bangladeshi police claim that Rehman was physically present at a meeting on January 29, 2012 with Rizve and the former FBI agent, Robert Lustyik, where they allegedly conspired to abduct and kill Joy.

Soon after Rehman was taken on remand on April 19, the Detective Branch of police claimed they had found documents from the FBI on Wazed during a raid of Rehman’s home.

After the second remand on April 24, the police again informed the media that Rehman disclosed names of three people who were involved in a plot to abduct and kill Wazed.

Soon after Rehman was sent to jail, Mahmudur Rahman, editor of Bangla daily Amar Desh, who was arrested in 2013 for three charges including sedition, was taken on a five-day remand for his alleged involvement in the same case.

Mahmudur is also a pro-BNP journalist and a former energy adviser during the BNP regime.

While the ruling party has been alleging the involvement of these journalists along with opposition politicians in the plot against Wazed, a few reports have surfaced refuting Rehman’s direct involvement in the plot.

Also, Rehman’s family members have gone on record to confirm that he had met one of the individuals mentioned in the 2015 case in the US court.

Shumit Rehman, his son, told the Guardian recently that his father “had told him he had been approached in the US in 2011 by a man claiming he had details of Wazed’s financial affairs, which had been obtained from an FBI agent who had sold the man the information.”

It has been confirmed that the man in question is former FBI agent Robert Lustyik.

Shumit said, ““My dad met him in America with a view to using the documents… Both the FBI agent and the man who bought the information were arrested in 2013 and sent to jail in America. When the Bangladeshi man was released, for some reason, the story evolved into one about a plot to kidnap the prime minister’s son.”

Shumit maintained that his father is innocent and the charges brought against him are “farcical”.

There has been a prevalent notion that the charges brought against Rehman and other senior journalists are fueled by a tendency to silence voices from the opposition camp. While Rehman is the third pro-opposition editor to be detained in Bangladesh since 2013, there were others who were fairly neutral but still faced legal troubles in recent times in the country.

A total of 83 lawsuits were filed against The Daily Star editor and publisher Mahfuz Anam till April 2016 on charges of defamation and sedition from 53 districts of Bangladesh.

With one of these being rejected by a Sylhet court, Anam challenged the legality of 72 from the remaining 82 lawsuits. Anam got bail on 10 cases. On April 11, the High Court in Bangladesh stayed for three months the proceedings of 72 cases while also ruling upon the government authorities concerned to explain why the initiation and continuation of the cases should not be declared illegal.

The number of cases against Anam were filed days after he commented on a TV talk show on February 3 about a lapse in his editorial judgment in publishing some reports during the 2007-2008 military-backed caretaker government rule, based on information given by the Taskforce Interrogation Cell. On the talk show, he had admitted that he was not able to verify these information independently.

During the caretaker government rule between 2007 and 2008, many senior leaders of the opposition and ruling party were arrested and investigated for corruption and other charges.

Similarly, more than 50 cases were filed against Matiur Rahman, editor of the daily Prothom Alo.

The cases against Anam drew condemnation from local and foreign journalists associations as well as human rights bodies.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) said in February: “The high number of cases and the filing of these across the country indicates an aggressive politically-motivated effort to harass a senior editor and a key newspaper in Bangladesh .… The use of sedition and defamation laws in this case is extremely concerning …. This is a worrying development in an already extremely challenged media environment of Bangladesh.”

Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch said: “Criminal charges against editors of the leading newspapers in Bangladesh are a clear attempt to intimidate all media in the country .… A government controlling almost all seats in parliament and all national executive authority has to be particularly protective of a free press – or risk turning Bangladesh into an authoritarian state.”

The concerns of the journalist associations and human rights bodies are appropriate for the Bangladeshi media which has been experiencing intimidation and harassment for criticisms and investigative reporting.

If the trend continues in Bangladesh, soon there may be nobody to blow the whistle and steer the nation toward the path of development.

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