Bangladesh and its culture of impunity over the killings of journalists
Author: Lucía Burillo Michó
Department: Bangladesh and Human Rights Researcher
On February 12th, 2022, on the tenth anniversary of the killing of two prominent Bangladeshi journalists, a group of UN human rights experts (composed of Ms Irene Khan, Ms Mary Lawlor, Mr Clément N. Voule, Mr Nils Melzer, and Mr Morris Tidball-Binz) issued a statement condemning the ‘appalling’ culture of impunity in the country over the persistent killing of journalists. “A decade after the killing of the two journalists, there is still no justice as a result of an appalling and pervasive culture of impunity in Bangladesh,” the five UN Special Rapporteurs said in their statement (UN, 2022). This comes as a reaction to the government’s inaction in tackling the issue.
Constant inaction regarding the killings
Mr Sagar Sarowar and Ms Meherun Runi, a journalist couple, were stabbed to death in their own home on February 12th, 2012. The UN human rights experts acknowledged that it is publicly known that they were targeted due to the investigative report they were about to publish concerning corruption in Bangladesh’s energy sector (OHCHR, 2022). While the High Court of Bangladesh tasked the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) to investigate the case back in 2012, no progress was made. On November 24th, 2021, the Court demanded for the 84th time that the RAB submit its findings, which it still has not done. “When crimes against journalists go unpunished, they embolden the perpetrators and encourage more attacks, threats and killings with the intention of intimidating the media into silence. We see those deeply worrying signs in Bangladesh”, said the experts (UN, 2022).
According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), at least 15 journalists have been killed in Bangladesh in the past decade (UN OHCHR, 2022). UN experts continuously receive reports on journalists, human rights defenders and members of several civil society organisations being arbitrarily detained, attacked, abducted, threatened (online and offline), and subject to judicial harassment. Such incidents show no signs of being investigated nor prosecuted, with the local authorities even being thought to be directly implicated in some instances. Back in 2012, UN experts sent a letter to the government of Bangladesh following the murder of Mr Sarowar and Ms Runi, but the government gave no response. In the letter, the experts expressed their deep concerns regarding the “alarming and increasing” violence and attacks that were taking place against journalists and other media professionals, along with the lack of safety and security they enjoyed when informing society on matters of public interest. Moreover, the experts expressed worry over the impact of such a situation on general media freedom in Bangladesh. Therefore, they asked the government to initiate “swift, independent and impartial investigations” into the attacks and bring perpetrators to justice (OHCHR, 2022). In addition, they appealed to the government to ensure journalists’ safety and security from further attacks and to fully guarantee media freedom. Now, ten years later, the experts call once more on the Bangladeshi government to act, expressing concern over the judicial inaction over the deaths of journalist and human rights defender Abdul Hakim Shimul in 2017 and of writer Mushtaq Ahmed in 2021, the latter having taken place while on pre-trial detention on charges under the Digital Security Act (DSA).
Bangladesh and the freedom of press
Bangladesh has a long history in terms of hounding the media. In 1974, the recently independent Bangladeshi government enacted the Special Powers Act, a law that allowed journalists to be jailed for up to 120 days without any possibility of bail or trial. In 2006, the Information and Communications Technology Act was adopted, hardening the existing regulations to include any online writing seen as a detriment to the “State, individuals, religion, or law and order in general” (Blair, 2020). In 2018, just three years ago, the government passed the Digital Security Act. The DSA’s restrictions on freedom of speech go beyond anything previously contemplated in Bangladeshi laws. According to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, “journalists who do not provide false news need not to be worried” (Koltonowski, 2018). However, this has proved not to be true.
Journalists’ safety in Bangladesh
The safety of journalists is generally seen as a context-specific concept (Hasan & Wadud, 2020). UNESCO has defined the lack of safety for journalists as the “attacks on media professionals often perpetrated in non-conflict situations by organised crime groups, militia, security personnel, and even local police, making local journalists among the most vulnerable” (UNESCO, 2019). Such attacks include murder, abductions, harassment, intimidation, illegal arrest, and arbitrary detention. A study on the re-conceptualisation of journalists’ safety in Bangladesh showed that most journalists and media professionals conceive safety as encompassing “job security, self-censorship, and the avoidance of bodily harm and harassment”. According to the participants in the study, it is nearly impossible to pursue objective news in Bangladesh due to the existence of a “censorship machine”, confirmed not only by the existing laws but also by the intimidation exercised by the political and security apparatus. Some experts have even gone so far as to describe Bangladesh as a hybrid regime since it combines democratic traits such as, for example, elections with autocratic traits such as severe political repression (Hasan & Wadud, 2020). Indeed, the 2021 World Press Freedom Index placed Bangladesh 152nd out of 180 countries regarding its press freedom (RSF, 2022). According to Reporters Without Borders, the 2018 DSA and the coronavirus accompanying lockdown have increased violence against reporters on behalf of the police and security forces. While no journalists or media assistants have been reported killed in Bangladesh in 2022, the situation has still not improved, and more killings are likely to happen.
Indeed, the number of cases filed under the DSA seems to have increased. According to the Centre for Governance Studies (CGS), at least 835 cases were filed under the DSA from January 2020 to January 2022. In a recent webinar, the CGS’ executive director stated that “around 80 per cent of plaintiffs were politically affiliated individuals who were somehow connected” with the ruling party. In light of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, on November 2nd, 2021, the Daily Star examined 13 cases of journalists killed in the last 25 years in Bangladesh, resulting in impunity (Islam, 2021). According to the newspaper, “the stories are the same for all of them – investigations navigating through a labyrinthine judicial mess, never-ending probes and traceless culprits – all in all, complete impunity” (Islam, 2021).
The UN experts bluntly put in their statement, “journalism should not carry the inherent risk of being attacked, intimidated or killed with impunity”. Unfortunately, Bangladesh still has a long road to achieving total and true press freedom. This can be inferred both from Bangladesh’s poor performance in the World Press Freedom Index, as well as in the government’s inaction regarding unsolved journalists’ murders. The government of Bangladesh must listen to those calling for actions and, as the UN experts asked, it must “swift, independent and impartial investigations” into the attacks in order to finally bring the perpetrators to justice.
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