Press Freedom under attack

The latest Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index has been released, and it makes for grimmer reading than usual. As blogs increase in importance, bloggers are increasingly being targeted, with 26 imprisoned from September 2006 to September 2007.

South Africa continues to slip, reaching its lowest ever rating. From it’s high of 3.33 in 2004 (0 is perfection) it slipped to 5.0 in 2004, 6.5 in 2005, 11.25 in 2006, and now, not unexpectedly, 13.0 in 2007. Since the rankings cover events up until September 2007, the threats to the Sunday Times editor since then, even if overblown by the newspaper itself, will probably further worsen matters next year. South Africa’s ranking by country has also fallen to a new low, from 26th in 2003, to 43rd now.

South Africa is now down to 4th in Africa, with Namibia and Mauritius (joint 25th, with 8.5) and Ghana (29th, 9.0) leading the way.

A number of major countries are seeing a deterioration in conditions. The US slips to its worst ever rating (14.5 for the US, leaving it in 48th position), with detained Al-Jazeera journalist Sami Al-Haj being tortured and held without trial in the notorious Guantanamo military base, and San Francisco journalist Chauncey Bailey being murdered in August because of his articles. The UK also slip to their worst ever ranking (8.25, and 24th for the UK), as do France, Germany, Spain and Italy.

Even Iceland, who’ve led the ratings every year, slip from 0.5 to 0.75 (though they’re still first), and last year’s other joint leaders Ireland and Finland, slip to 2.0 and 1.5 respectively.

With so many countries reaching a new low, there are very few countries hitting a new high, with Estonia (up to 3rd with 1.0), Mauritania (50th with 15.5 and Zambia (68th, 21.5) the only 3 in the top 100 to do so.

At the bottom, Eritrea have the dubious distinction of recording the worst ever rating, 114.75. Numerous reporters have been killed in detention, and no criticism is brooked. North Korea, Turkmenistan, Iran, Cuba, Myanmar and China bring up the basement.

Like most independent organisations, Reporters Without Borders attract criticism from all sides. A brief search reveals they’ve been accused of being anti-American, anti-Cuban, anti-Haitian, anti-Pakistani. Perhaps it won’t be long before we see anti-South African on the list.

Lists such as these, which allow a quick comparison over multiple years using the same criteria, are useful, as they highlight, with a few exceptions, a worldwide deterioration in press freedom, that may not be noticeable year-by-year.

Let’s hope that next year sees a drastic improvement.

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  1. Dhaka: March 5, 2009

    After one week of attack on the office of Weekly Blitz newspaper by armed hooligans belong to ruling party in Bangladesh, members of law enforcing agencies are reluctant in taking any action, as some high ups in the government and police administration instructed the investigation officer not to ‘harass’ any of the accused in this case as they belong to the ruling party.

    On February 22, 35-40 armed terrorists belonging to the ruling party, led by Ruhul Amin attacked the office of Blitz newspaper. They instructed the caretaker named Anwar of the commercial center named Skylark Point [where the Blitz office is located] to lock the outside gate and continued their notorious actions in the broad day light for hours in presence of members of law enforcing and various intelligence agencies. The CCTV of the building was also put switched off by the management of the building as the attackers were influential and notorious goons belonging to Bangladesh Awami League.

    Despite lodging of a case more than 5 days back [Case No. 65, under section 143, 448, 323, 342, 384, 380, 427 and 506], members of law enforcing agencies in Bangladesh are showing extreme reluctance in arresting any of the attackers, mostly belonging to the ruling party, who attacked the office of Weekly Blitz on Sunday [February 22, 2009], physically assaulted the editor and other members, abused the female staffs and looted laptop and other valuables in a broad day light, in presence of One Shamim from DGFI [Directorate General of Forces Intelligence]. Members of law enforcing agencies were witnessing the incident silently as the attackers were mostly activists and members of the ruling party in Bangladesh.

    Others who were in the gang are identified as Ruhul Amin, Shintu, Liton, Yunus, Anwar, Siraj, Lavlu, Kajol etc. According to police sources, most of them were thugs belonging to the ruling party.

    At 10am Sunday, local time, internationally-acclaimed journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, was attacked as he was working in the office of his newspaper, Weekly Blitz, by a gang of thugs belonging to Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League. Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is now under medical treatment for eye, neck, and other injuries those he suffered in the attack. The renewed violence marks the first against him since he was abducted by Bangladesh’s dreaded Rapid Action Battalion in March 2008. It may be mentioned here that, the military backed interim regime withdrew police protection from the residence of the Blitz editor in May last year.

    A large group of armed hooligans, co-led by one Shamim introducing himself to be an official of DGFI stormed Blitz premises and attacked newspaper staff until they found the editor. They locked the editor in a room and continued various forms of physical assaults thus abusing him to be a ‘Mossad Agent’, ‘Israeli Agent’ etc. Culprits are continuing to occupy the Blitz office.

    Meanwhile, one of the leaders of the attacker’s gang named Ruhul Amin is continuing to give threats to the Weekly Blitz editors and other members of the newspaper on immediately withdrawing the case. In a phone call, Ruhul Amin said, ‘I give you people only 24 hours time. Withdraw the case; otherwise our next target is Choudhury’s residence.’

    Earlier a person named Advocate Shintu, claiming to be the advisor of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, phoned the Blitz editor and demanded TK. 500,000 [US$ 8,400 approximately] as extortion. Shintu also told the Blitz editor that, he is one of the decision makers helping Sheikh Hasina in appointing her cabinet colleagues.

    Weekly Blitz tried to find the reason behind reluctance of police in taking any action against the culprits as to why the attackers are yet to be arrested. On condition of anonymity, a source in police said, ‘We have already become captive in the grips of the political government and its cadres. We can watch crime, but cannot take actions. Because, if we take any action against those party activists, then we shall face various forms of departmental harassments and humiliations.’

    An official of Weekly Blitz contacted some of the senior officials in Bangladesh Police, including the inspector general as well as Commissioner of Police [Dhaka] and informed them about lodging of the case on February 22, 2009. Copy of the FIR [First Information Report] was also sent to those officials with the appeal of initiating immediate investigation into the matter and arresting the culprits.

    But, none of these senior officials are taking any action in this regard. It is learnt that, several influential leaders belong to the ruling party are continuing to call the police officers asking the reason of recording the case. They are also warning the police officers of severe consequence if any of the accused in the case are arrested or interrogated.

    When contacted, an officer on duty at Paltan Police Station told Weekly Blitz that, they have specific instruction of neither investigating the case nor arresting anyone as the accused are from the ruling party.

    Since installation of government led by Bangladesh Awami League, reign of terror is established throughout the country by musclemen and hooligans belonging to student’s wing, youth wing, volunteer’s wing and other pro-ruling party elements in Bangladesh.

    Weekly Blitz editor and other staffs of the newspaper have made an appeal to the media community in the country and in the world for their kind and immediate help in this regard.

  2. Now it is almost one-month old story. An officer belonging to Bangladesh’s forces intelligence co-led the gang of armed thugs, who attacked the office of country’s most influential newspaper, Weekly Blitz on February 22, 2009, physically assaulted the members, ransacked the office, and looted properties in broad-day-light in presence of police and other intelligence agencies.

    DGFI officer Shamim (who gave his identity in presence of members of law enforcing agencies), told the members of Blitz that, he had instruction from his high-ups to “give a proper lesson” to the editor and other members of the newspaper as they advocate relations between Israel and Bangladesh as well as condemn radical Islam. According to DGFI officer Shamim, such actions and stands by Weekly Blitz were ‘tarnishing the image of Bangladesh’.

    Weekly Blitz editor, internationally known journalist and peace advocate Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury drew the attention of several high officials of DGFI in writing right after the incident. Surprisingly authorities in DGFI are continuing to maintain total silence on this matter.

    Although it was initially unclear as to why an officer from Forces Intelligence was leading the gang of attackers, recently the matter turned crystal clear when Bangladeshi commerce minister Col. Faruk Khan told reporters that, Islamist militants have penetrated inside the disciplined forces in the country.

    Commenting on the recent massacre inside the headquarters of Bangladesh’s Para-military force named Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), Mr. Khan on February 12, 2009 said the banned militant outfit Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) was involved in the BDR mutiny staged February 25-26 at the border force’s headquarters in Dhaka, in which a large number of army officers were brutally killed.

    The ex-military man now a politician, also the coordinator for the probe bodies extensively investigating into the mutiny compounded with the massacre at Bangladesh Riffles (BDR) headquarters.

    “We have so far identified some persons in the BDR who are associated with JMB,” Faruk said, claiming to be based on feedback from the investigators.

    It is evidently clear that Bangladesh’s present government has evidence of militants inside the disciplined forces. Otherwise, a senior minister would not have made such public statement. So, there is scope to question as to whether that militant group inside the disciplined forces decided to send DGFI officer Shamim to Weekly Blitz office to co-lead the gang of attackers. Silence of Bangladeshi intelligence agencies on the matter of attack on Blitz office also proves that, certainly the attacked was well planned and supported by influential members in the intelligence agencies as well as the ruling government.

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