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ATTACKS ON MEDIA AS POLITICAL CRISIS INTENSIFIES

Emergency laws that have been in place in Bangladesh since March continue to create an atmosphere ripe for harassment and violence - including for the country's journalists, say Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF).

In some districts, the army has summoned journalists and photographed them "in blatant efforts at intimidation," says Human Rights Watch. Journalists from print and broadcast media outlets also have been receiving telephone calls from military intelligence officials warning them not to publish anything critical of the security forces.

The warnings have resulted in widespread self-censorship, particularly among broadcast outlets, the IFEX members say.

"The political crisis will only be exacerbated by attempts to suppress news and opinion," says CPJ. "This government must not abuse the extraordinary powers it has under the state of emergency to keep the public in the dark."

According to Human Rights Watch and RSF, the interim government pulled the country's only privately owned 24-hour news channel off the air for allegedly operating with a fake broadcasting licence. The 6 September move came days after it warned the channel not to broadcast footage of recent anti-government riots. Another private channel, Ekushey Television, was also given a written warning not to broadcast "provocative" news.

Government censors have also recently ripped out two articles in "The Economist" about protests and Bangladeshi politics before the magazine could be distributed, says Human Rights Watch.

The intensified targeting of the media follows on from an imposed curfew in the capital, Dhaka, and five other cities in late August that had been the scene of violent clashes between police and students calling for an end to emergency rule.

Although officials had provided assurances that the media could operate freely during curfew hours with only their press identification, dozens of journalists were assaulted and detained by members of the security forces while they were working, say CPJ and local news reports. The daily newspaper "Samakal" reported that 14 of its journalists were beaten up by the security forces.

During the curfew, law and information advisor Mainul Hosein reminded journalists that emergency regulations were in force and urged them to "play a responsible role." According to the BBC, Hosein said, "We request channels to stop televising footage of violence until further notice because this might instigate further violence."

Private television channels in Bangladesh abruptly stopped carrying reports about the street demonstrations, suspending even the popular political discussion programmes about the day's news.

"When a senior government official starts telling media what they can and cannot publish or broadcast there is a real danger of censorship being imposed," says IFJ.

The Emergency Powers Rules of 2007, announced after the interim government took over in January to clean up corruption, restrict political and trade union activities as well as press coverage of political news. Those who violate the restrictions face up to five years in prison. The regulations allow the government to ban or censor print and broadcast news about protests and other political activities that are "provocative or harmful." The government can also seize printed material and confiscate printing presses and broadcast equipment.

Human Rights Watch says tens of thousands of people have been arrested under the state of emergency without proper judicial oversight. A large number of offences have been made "non-bailable" - detainees can face indefinite detention without trial.

Although the caretaker government decided to partially lift the ban on political activities on 10 September - allowing for "indoor" politics in Dhaka, to let political parties hold dialogues with the Election Commission on electoral reforms - it is not nearly enough to address widespread restrictions on basic freedoms and rampant human rights abuses in the country, Human Rights Watch says. The ban on all other political meetings will remain in force.

Visit these links:
- Human Rights Watch: http://tinyurl.com/2ttg7b
- Human Rights Watch Bangladesh page: http://tinyurl.com/37v777
- CPJ: http://www.cpj.org/news/2007/asia/bangla23aug07na.html
- IFJ: http://www.ifj.org/default.asp?index=5245&Language=EN
- RSF on closure of private news station: http://tinyurl.com/2tetpr
- RSF on curfew: http://tinyurl.com/38fhul
(Photo: Students destroy a car near Dhaka University during a protest to demand an end to emergency rule - August 2007. Photo courtesy of e-Bangladesh.org)

(18 September 2007)

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