While the interim government claims there is media freedom in Bangladesh, the reality is far different. The Emergency Rules impose severe restrictions on media freedoms, which limit criticism of the government. These include provisions that allow the government to censor any media, stop distribution of any news or information published in violation of a government order, or bring criminal charges against a person who makes provocative remarks against the government and its programs. Violations of the Emergency Rules subject an individual to up to five years of imprisonment and significant fines.16
The Emergency Rules violate media freedoms set out in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bangladesh is a party. They allow pre-publication censorship. They make provocative criticism of the government a crime. They are overbroad and vague, leaving journalists and editors unable to know what would be a violation and what would not. It is impossible to know, for example, what would be considered provocative. Because of their vagueness, the Emergency Rules are inherently subject to arbitrary application: media outlets favoured by the government may be left alone, while those disliked by the government can be sanctioned.
In September authorities shut down the only 24-hours news channel, CSB News, citing an irregularity in its registration process. Earlier in August CSB News and Ekushey TV were served with warning notices from the Press Information Department for broadcasting "provocative news" about anti-government protests by university students.17
In addition to the restrictions under the Emergency Rules, journalists face physical abuse. Bangladeshi intelligence agencies often threaten and intimidate journalists and editors.18 They issue unofficial press advisories threatening journalists who publish critical news or opinions. The security forces have carried out such threats and beaten journalists.19 Those taken into custody, like Tasneem Khalil, face even worse treatment.
A number of journalists are now arbitrarily detained.20 In March 2007, Atiqullah Khan Masud, the editor of Daily Janakantha, one of the most widely read Bengali newspapers, was arrested at his office in Dhaka for "tarnishing the image of the country" and was later charged with corruption.21 On October 17, a Dhaka court acquitted Masud of fraud charges but other criminal and corruption charges levelled against him are still under investigation and he is yet to be released from detention.22
Outside Dhaka, regional correspondents of national news outlets are regularly physically intimidated and threatened with arrest, often on false charges, if they run afoul of the local administration or the military.23
Intelligence agencies, including DGFI and National Security Intelligence, jointly operate a media cell from the DGFI headquarters in Dhaka cantonment. This cell headed by an army colonel routinely summons reporters and editors to issue directives, to interrogate them, or to admonish them for publication of "provocative, irresponsible news."24 The cell is also responsible for issuing unofficial press advisories by SMS and telephone. Operators from the cell are assigned as "minders" to reporters to monitor and advise them. The cell also issues programming instructions (such as with news, talk -shows, and interviews) to private satellite channels and editorial instructions to newspapers. Occasionally, it plants tailored reports in different newspapers.25
All of this encourages self-censorship. Under the interim government, the Bangladeshi media, with a few exceptions, has not reported government abuses such as the tens of thousands of arbitrary arrests that have accompanied the governments anti-corruption drive, the failure to provide due process to those arrested, interference in the independence of the judiciary, the many cases of torture and death in custody, and the continuing fake cross-fire killings committed by RAB and other security services.
16 Mahfuz Anam, Can this be the CAs vision of Bangladesh? The Daily Star, January 28, 2007, http://www.thedailystar.net/2007/01/28/d7012801033.htm (accessed December 3, 2007).
18 Odhikar, a Dhaka based human rights organization reported that at least 35 journalists were injured, 13 arrested, 35 assaulted, and 83 threatened in 2007. Odhikar, Annual Human Rights Situation in Bangladesh, 2007, January 1, 2008.
19 Mashuqur Rahman, A Journalists Tale, E-Bangladesh, August 24, 2007, http://www.e-bangladesh.org/2007/08/24/a-journalists-tale (accessed November 18, 2007). Also see: Newsmen beaten, harassed, New Age, August 24, 2007, http://www.newagebd.com/2007/aug/24/front.html#9 (accessed November 18, 2007).
20 Asif Saleh, Meet the Tipu Sultan of 2007, post to Unheard Voices (blog), October 30, 2007, http://www.drishtipat.org/blog/2007/10/30/meet-the-tipu-sultan-of-2007 (accessed November 18, 2007). Also see: Rab picks up Sylhet editor, reporter, The Daily Star, April 8, 2007, http://www.thedailystar.net/2007/04/08/d7040801119.htm (accessed December 2, 2007) and Reporters Without Borders, Concerns over unfair arrests after anti-corruption drive, March 13, 2007, http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=21306 (accessed December 2, 2007) and Reporters Without Borders, Cartoonist arrested over harmless play on name Mohammed, September 19, 2007, http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=23700 (accessed December 2, 2007).
21 In Bangladesh, editor of outspoken daily arrested in military raid, Committee to Protect Journalists news release, March 8, 2007, http://www.cpj.org/news/2007/asia/bangla08march07na.html (accessed November 18, 2007).
22 Janakantha editor acquitted, E-Bangladesh, October 17, 2007, http://www.e-bangladesh.org/2007/10/17/janakantha-editor-acquitted (accessed November 18, 2007).
23 In Bangladesh, reporter jailed for reporting on local mismanagement, Committee to Protect Journalists news release, March 26, 2007, http://www.cpj.org/news/2007/asia/bangla26mar07na.html (accessed November 18, 2007).
24 Human Rights Watch interviews with journalists who attended such meetings. Details withheld.
25 Human Rights Watch interviews with journalists and editors. Details withheld.