Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the leaders of the Awami League, the party that has ruled Bangladesh since 2009, to end all intimidation of journalists who dare to continue criticising Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s policies after fleeing the country.
Pressure on family members, judicial harassment and even physical violence have been used by Awami League supporters since the start of September, with the backing of the authorities, to persecute Bangladeshi journalists covering Bangladesh from abroad.
“The recent surge in acts of intimidation by Awami League members against Bangladeshi journalists based abroad is totally unworthy of a party that claims to defend a democratic ideal,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “Since the party’s return to power 12 years ago, Bangladeshi journalists have been subjected to so much pressure that self-censorship has gradually become systematic.
“While this has been happening in Bangladesh, journalists covering Bangladesh from abroad have enabled Bangladeshi citizens to have access to independent reporting and, as such, they play an absolutely vital role. We urge the party’s leaders, and above all its chief, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, to put a stop to all forms of harassment and intimidation against these extremely valuable journalists.”
The latest target of the Bangladeshi authorities is Tasneem Khalil, the editor of Netra News, an investigative news website, who fled to Sweden after being tortured by the security forces in 2007. On 18 October, the Dhaka cyber-court told the police that any property Khalil still has in Bangladesh should be seized as part of a judicial investigation into his activities under the Digital Security Act. The same court issued a warrant for his arrest in September.
Khalil is facing a possible 10-year prison sentence on charges of disinformation and insulting the nation because of articles criticising the government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis. Two co-defendants in the same case, the cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore and the writer Mushtaq Ahmed, were tortured by the police after their arrest in May 2020, as RSF reported at the time.
Khalil owes his safety to his status as a political refugee in Sweden, which has allowed him to continue reporting freely from the city of Malmö, where he lives. Ahmed wasn’t so lucky. He died in prison in February after months of arbitrary detention and mistreatment.
But Khalil has additional grounds for concern. The All European Awami League, the party’s European wing, announced on 7 October that it had filed a complaint with the Swedish police based on the same charges. This has been denied by the Polismyndigheten, the Swedish Police Authority, in Stockholm.
The announcement seems to have been made above all for its media impact, in yet another ploy to intimidate Khalil, who is well known for his coverage of government corruption and abuse of authority. He recently reported that his mother, who still lives in Bangladesh, is often harassed by the authorities. Police officers and intelligence officials have been to her home several times to question her about her son, telling her – according to a tweet by Khalil in April 2020 – that he “tarnishes the image of the country.”
Family members still in Bangladesh are increasingly the collateral victims of the ruling party’s reprisals. The latest victims include Nusrat Shahrin Raka, the sister of Kanak Sarwar, a journalist based in the United States. She was arrested with her three children at their home in a Dhaka suburb on 5 October.
The children spent 30 hours in police custody before being released. Raka’s request for release on bail was rejected on 11 October, so she is still being held on trumped-up charges of drug trafficking and – under the Digital Security Act – of “propaganda against Bangladesh” for supporting her brother’s activities.
While working as a reporter and programme presenter for Ekushey Television (ETV) in 2015, Sarwar was arrested for broadcasting a speech by Tarique Rahman, the son of the leader of the the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. After his release, he fled to New York, where he now runs his own online TV news station, Kanak Sarwar News.
Beaten for an annoying question
Even abroad, Awami League activists no longer hesitate to use physical violence against journalists who criticise the government. Farid Alam, a US journalist of Bangladeshi origin working for the US TV channel News Communication Network, discovered this on 22 September while covering a press conference that the Awami League’s New York branch gave in connection with Sheikh Hasina’s arrival for the UN General Assembly.
When he asked a relatively harmless question about the large size of the Bangladeshi government delegation, given the Covid-10 pandemic, press conference organisers and party activists surrounded him, hit him and even tried to rob him of his phone, wallet and other personal effects. Since then, he has received many threats from Awami League members, he told RSF.
The Bangladeshi authorities are so irritated by foreign-based Bangladeshi journalists that they now trying to prevent independent journalists or their family members from leaving the country. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a journalist told RSF that the police confiscated his passport while investigating his coverage of a case of government incompetence.
“Their main reason for taking my passport is to prevent me from going abroad,” he said. “They are afraid because I’ve written hundreds of stories about corruption and irregularities. But this is new. Previously they didn’t dare to take passports from journalists working for news organisations.”