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Right to Freedom of the Press and Information

Md. Shahiduzzaman [*]

Freedom of expression has been constrained by outdated laws. This year new legislation was enacted which threatened to invade privacy of citizens. Further the press was subjected to legal actions, attacks by members of the Government and business syndicates. This chapter focuses on the limits placed on freedom of the press during the year, in the realm of legislation, legal action and illegal attacks. It also shows how political events became the main obstacle to freedom of the press and how reporters braved contempt charges, intimidation and physical assaults by police to publish reports on organised corruption and religious militancy, among other coercive tendencies. It identifies the failure of the Government to accede to the demand for freedom of information.

Legislative Developments

The Government pushed through several laws that were likely to impede the right to freedom of expression, to privacy and information. At the same time it held back the draft legislation on freedom of information which had been demanded by the journalist community and civic organizations. It also failed to table the promised law on contempt of court, which would have helped define the boundaries of contempt and enlarge the scope for ensuring press responsibility.

Bangladesh Telecommunications (Amendment) Act, 2006

On 12 February, the Bangladesh Telecommunications (Amendment) Bill 2006 was adopted without consulting any stakeholders, not even the Law Commission. It was passed during a five-minute walkout staged by the Awami League lawmakers, who dismissed it as a ‘black’ law, which violated citizens’ fundamental rights under the Constitution. Widespread protests by politicians, professionals, journalists and civil rights’ groups were ignored by the Government and Parliament. [1] On 16 February 2006, [2] the law was approved by the President. The Act authorised interception of telecommunications by State agencies.

The Cable Television Network Operation Regulatory Act, 2006

Parliament, on 17 September, enacted the Cable Television Network Operation Act, 2006, making provisions for banning the operation of any cable television network at any time in the public interest and for running operations contrary to the Act. [3] The US Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2006 , [4] criticised the law, thus:

“Over the course of the year, the Government increased efforts to tighten censorship laws. The Act authorised the Government to suspend broadcasts of any private satellite channel in the ‘public interest’. The law permitted the Government to close stations for telecasting ‘indecent’ movies and programmes and preventing the sale of foreign products.” [5]

Censorship of Films ( Amendment ) Act, 2006 [6]

The Censorship of Films (Amendment) Act, 2006 was passed in Parliament on 31 January, to amend the Censorship of Films Act, 1963; an official gazette to this effect was published on 9 February, 2006. [7]

According to the amendment, no Court shall grant an injunction or make an interim order in respect of any order passed under section 4, 5 or 7 of the Censorship of Films Act, 1965 without giving the Government an opportunity of being heard. [8] Under the same law, no case can be filed against the Government and concerned member or official of the Film Censor Board for taking any action in good faith. [9] In light of the Code of Criminal Procedure (1898) the Government also provided for summary trial of producers and exhibitors of obscene movies. A person involved in publication and exhibition of cinema, poster or advertisement without a censor certificate would be awarded imprisonment for a minimum of an year to a maximum of three years and a penalty of Taka 10,000.0 0 . If anybody committed the offence repeatedly, s/he would be fined Taka 5,000.0 0 per day instead of the existing Taka 500.0 0 .

The Film Censor Board reviews local and foreign films and is authorised to censor or ban films on grounds of state security, law and order, religious sentiment, obscenity, foreign relations, defamation, or plagiarism. Video rental libraries and shops stocked a wide variety of films, and Government efforts to enforce censorship on rentals were sporadic and ineffective. [10] The Government exercised censorship most often in cases of immodest or obscene photographs, perceived misrepresentation, hurt to religious sentiment, or objectionable comments on national leaders. [11]

Proposed Law on Contempt of Court

A move to enact a comprehensive law on contempt of court did not materialize. In response to a long standing demand from a cross-section of society, the Ministry of Law tabled a Bill in Parliament, on 2 May, to repeal the existing Contempt of Court Act, 1926, which was a major hindrance to press freedom. This obsolete law had only three sections and contained no definition of contempt. [12] A similar law had been repealed in India by the Contempt of Court Act, 1971 and in Pakistan by the Contempt of Court Ordinance, 1998, and it was expected that the Government of Bangladesh would follow the precedents to bring in a comprehensive law on contempt. [13]

The Bill proposed a four-point definition of contempt of court to include:

“…any willful act, statement or expression by words or visible sign that may be considered as a violation of any verdict, decree, order, writ or warrant issued by a court, or undermine any court, or may obstruct the process of justice, will constitute an offence of contempt of court; the slander or libel of a court and personal criticism of a judge while performing judicial functions will also constitute an offence of contempt.” [14]

In explanation of the definition, the Bill detailed seven conditions that would not constitute contempt:

  • An innocent and fair comment and publication of information on normal proceedings and functioning of the court in good faith and in the public interest;
  • Any statement made by a person in good faith and decent language in his/her application to the Government or any court seeking disciplinary proceedings against any judge;
  • A factual statement or news regarding the conduct of a judge or any act or statement by a person regarding a judge in a matter not connected with the discharge of his judicial functions;
  • Any constructive criticism of a judgment;
  • Any restrained and constructive criticism of the final judgment in a case;
  • Comments made or news published on any matter remaining uninformed about the proceedings of the court on the matter; and
  • Authentic news or comments published on any matter of public interest. [15]

Further, the Bill made the following proposals:

  • An accused contemnor to be allowed to contest the case along with tendering an apology and to offer an apology at any stage of the trial even in the appeal against her/his conviction.
  • No person to be convicted of contempt of court in an offence that may not be considered as an obstruction to the process of justice.
  • Maximum punishment of six months simple imprisonment or a fine of Taka 5,000.00 or both for contempt of court.

On the same day, the Public Servants (Dismissal on Conviction) (Amendment) Bill, 2006 was tabled in Parliament. The Daily Star and Prothom alo criticised both bills. They reasoned that the two bills were designed to save Government officials by maintaining their fines at no more than Taka 5,000.00 under the Contempt of Court Act. [16] Neither of the bills was passed by Parliament.

The Right to Information Bill

The media in Bangladesh is guided by at least 23 laws, most of which are archaic and have become obsolete. Recently enacted laws do not ensure the right to information. Freedom of the press and access to information is also being hindered due to misinterpretation of some provisions.

Legislation on right to information has so far been incorporated in the statutes of at least 69 countries, including in India and Pakistan in order to ensure the peoples’ right to information. Bangladesh has fallen behind most states in providing the right to information.

In Bangladesh, journalists and human rights’ groups have demanded legislation guaranteeing the right to information. In the face of such demands, the Law Commission, on 4 August 2003, had submitted a report to the Government recommending enactment of a new comprehensive law on right to information. It also submitted a draft of the Right to Information Bill to the Ministry of Law, but no Bill was tabled in Parliament. It was reported that , at the close of the year, the draft remained with the Ministry of Information.

Judicial Developments

The Judiciary and the Supreme Court in particular, played a pro-active role for establishment of freedom of press and expression. On the other hand, hearings in cases regarding those accused of murdering journalists were delayed due to problems in investigation and prosecution. The Court issued several contempt notices against journalists for their criticism of the judiciary.

Ban on ESPN and Star Sports stayed

The High Court on 1 August 2006 stayed operation of the Government’s order that banned the transmission of ESPN and Star Sports pay satellite channels. Justice Joynul Abedin and Justice Mashuque Hosain Ahmed issued a rule on the Government to explain why the order, issued on 24 July, banning the transmission of thirteen pay satellite channels (ESPN, Star Sports, Ten Sports, Set Max, Zee Classic, Zee Action, Zee Trendz, Zee Premier, VH 1, Zoom, HBO, Star One and Disney) should not be declared without lawful authority. [17]

Frequency Allocation to Ekushey Television

Although the Government had allowed ministers and lawmakers to establish and run satellite televisions, it did not grant any license to persons not affiliated with the ruling parties. Nor did it allow location of a frequency to Ekushey Television, even after the Court had directed the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (BTRC) to allocate a satellite frequency. Earlier, its terrestrial transmissions had been closed down by a court order on 29 August 2002. After a long legal battle Ekushey TV was able to start a test transmission, on 1 December 2006, during the tenure of the Caretaker Government.

Rule on Tele-tapping

The High Court, on 18 May 2006, issued a rule on the Government to explain within three weeks the legality of the provisions that entitled the law enforcers and intelligence agencies to tap the telephone conversations of any individual. Justice M Awlad Ali and Justice Zinat Ara directed the Government to explain why the Bangladesh Telecommunications (Amendment) Act, 2006 should not be declared unconstitutional and void. [18]

The same Bench, on 22 May, issued another rule on the Government to explain within three weeks why the Telecommunications Amendment Act, 2006 should not be declared unconstitutional and void. The Government and the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission were also asked to explain the legality of the actions taken by the Commission in issuing the guidelines on 16 March, adding new conditions on licensing of telephone operators under the amended law. The Court passed the orders after hearing a public interest writ petition, filed by the news editor of Prothom alo , M Sanaullah, and Abu Sayeed Khan, a freelance journalist. [19] At the end of the year, the hearing on the petition was pending and the Government had not replied to the rules.

Contempt of Court

The High Court, on 9 August, issued a contempt rule on Mahfuz Anam, Publisher, Matiur Rahman, Editor and Zahid Hossain, Reporter of Prothom alo for publishing a report on 16 July under the headline, “Harassment of people seeking hearing of cases in the High Court.” The petitioner had claimed that it lowered the prestige, dignity, integrity and high standing of the Supreme Court. [20]

Rule on Security of on-duty Journalists

The High Court, on 9 July, issued a rule on the Government to explain, within four weeks, why it should not be directed to provide proper protection to journalists during their professional duties. Justice Nozrul Islam Chowdhury and Justice Zubayer Rahman Chowdhury passed the order in a public interest writ petition, filed by Patrick D’Costa, senior reporter, and Jamal Uddin Ahmed, staff photographer of the daily Desh Bangla , against the backdrop of indiscriminate incidents of assault, harassment and humiliation of press reporters by both law enforcers and political activists who covered programmes of strikes and blockades called by the main opposition party. [21]

Two Cases against Prothom alo Discharged

Two defamation cases, one filed by former Chief Whip, Khondaker Delwar Hossain, and the other by a leader of the Islami Chhattro Shibir against Prothom alo , were discharged by two Metropolitan Magistrates in Dhaka on 5 November.

Delwar Hossain filed a case against Prothom alo , on 2 April 2006, for publishing reports on March 13, 14 and 16 alleging that he had appropriated rice and pulses for his two residences from Parliament and that he alone had spent half of the Taka 2.7 million entertainment allowance allocated for all the whips in Parliament in the last fiscal year. After hearing both sides on 5 November in the presence of Delwar Hossain, the Magistrate, Mohammad Rafiqul Islam, rejected the prosecution plea for framing charges against Prothom alo editor Matiur Rahman, publisher Mahfuz Anam, senior reporter Ashish Saikot and columnist Hafizuddin Khan.

Metropolitan Magistrate Quamrunnahar, on the same day, discharged Matiur Rahman and Mahfuz Anam from a defamation case filed by Shahadat Ullah Tutul, a leader of the Islami Chattro Shibir for a report on the organisation’s activities. [22]

Status of Trials regarding Murder of Journalists

According to reports, published in thirteen national dailies, four journalists were killed in 2006. [23] There was no progress in the trials for their murder.

The Khulna Division Speedy Trial Tribunal Judge Mohammad Abdus Samad, on 7 February 2006, acquitted all three accused for the murder of journalist Shaikh Harun-ar-Rashid, who was a senior reporter of Dainik Purbanchal , published from Khulna city. He had been gunned down at 7.30 pm on 2 March 2002, at Mujgunni under Khalishpur police station when he was going to his office on a motor cycle. The accused in the murder case were acquitted allegedly due to failure of the prosecution to conduct the case properly and the CID’s defective investigation. [24]

The trial regarding the murder of journalist Manik Saha continued in 2006. On 15 January 2004, Saha, a senior staff correspondent of New Age , stringer for the BBC Bangla Service and former President of the Khulna Press Club, was killed by a bomb thrown at him as he was leaving the Press Club. The gruesome murder was condemned by all, particularly journalists, who demanded a fair trial. The case was referred to the Speedy Trial Tribunal in Khulna, which referred it back to the Khulna Police Station, in April 2005, for further investigation after recording the statements of 24 out of 54 prosecution witnesses. Since then investigations have moved slowly and several investigation officers have been changed. On 11 November 2006, the case was sent to the Detective Branch of Police for investigation. [25]

The trial for the murder of Goutam Das, Faridpur Bureau chief of the Daily Shamokal , who was gunned down on 17 November 2005 in his office, was continuing.

Criminal cases

Journalists had to face criminal cases under the Law and Order Disruptive Offences (Speedy Trial) Act, 2002, [26] a draconian law. The driver of a Magistrate, on 19 April, filed a case against reporters of Gazipur, under this law, on allegations of their breaking the glass of a Government jeep during a sit-in staged by the journalists. They had protested against the granting of bail by the Magistrate to four persons, who had attacked the editor of a local daily at his office and stabbed him on 16 April. [27]

Legal Harassment

During the year, 111 journalists faced legal action on different charges, 86 of them for defamation. Six of them were arrested and others had to obtain bail, as the courts issued warrants of arrest in almost all cases.

The Parliamentary Chief Whip, Khondakar Delwar Hossain, on 2 April, filed a case against fourteen journalists, including the editors, of five Bengali dailies [28] on defamation charges for publishing reports between 13 and 18 March, alleging that he used to take essential commodities such as rice and lentils for his family from the VIP cafeteria in the Parliament. The Court of the Metropolitan Magistrate, Mohammad Mizanur Rahman, issued warrants of arrest against the editors and editorial writers and summoned the other accused journalists. [29]

On 9 November, former Housing and Public Works Minister, Mirza Abbas, filed ten criminal cases against the editors, publishers and reporters of four national dailies [30] and two weeklies [31] for reporting allegations by victims of his misuse of ministerial and political power such as land-grabbing, accepting bribes for recruitment of staff, violence and terrorism, and even taking away 60 files from the ministry. [32] The Court of the Metropolitan Magistrate, Mohammad Mizanur Rahman, on 3 December, issued warrants for arrest of the editors and publishers of dailies Janakantha, Inqilab and the weekly Shaptahik 2000 even though the summons on them were not served properly. [33] The Minister also filed a case against the editor and publisher of Prothom alo, on 2 February, for a report published on 5 January headlined, “The Public Works Minister has objection to a police complex being built at Rajarbagh.” [34]

Censorship

Ban on Media

The Government, on July 24, banned the transmission of thirteen pay satellite channels. [35] It also banned the import into Bangladesh of the 23 rd issue of the Kolkata fortnightly, Desh, published on 2 October 2006, as well as its marketing and reproduction. A Press Information Department handout, issued on 10 October, said the magazine was banned under Section 99A of the Code of Criminal Procedure 1898, but it did not clarify the reason for the ban. [36] Even though such bans no longer serve their purpose of withholding information from the public, since the content is now available on the web, the Government continued to try to control the flow of information.

Journalists barred entry into public offices

The Election Commission on 19 November took an unprecedented decision to bar journalists from entering its Secretariat. This came at the time when newspapers and television channels ran reports of various irregularities in the preparation of the voter list. Journalists staged a sit-in at the EC gate protesting the ban. The Commission also banned journalists from entering the secretariat for a few hours on 15 November. [37]

The Ministry of Home Affairs, on 31 October, imposed verbal restrictions on the entry of journalists into the Bangladesh Secretariat beyond office hours, though many offices of the administrative headquarters stayed open until midnight. The Home Secretary, SM Jahrul Islam, told reporters at his office on 31 October that no journalists would be allowed into the Secretariat beyond office hours (9 am until 5 pm) due to security reasons. [38]

Violence and Intimidation

The press operated throughout the year in a climate of intimidation, mainly caused by threats and violence instigated by powerful business and political syndicates including members of the ruling BNP-Jamat and their armed cadres. According to reports, published in thirteen national dailies, four journalists were killed in 2006, 72 journalists were assaulted or harassed by BNP-Jamat cadres, 80 by law enforcers and 97 by terrorists. Six were arrested and 114 journalists were threatened. [39]

Assaults by police

The police brutally beat an elderly photo-journalist and on-duty journalists, including an elderly photo-journalist, with batons and rifle butts in clear view of spectators, players and officials, during a Test Cricket Match between Bangladesh and New Zealand at the Chittagong Nurul Amin Stadium on 16 April. At least 20 journalists were injured when the police indiscriminately beat a number of photo-journalists, some representing foreign media, with batons and rifle butts. [40] At least 20 journalists were injured. A week after the incident, Deputy Commissioner of Police, Humayun Kabir, who played a key-role in the assault, was given a prize posting to Dhaka Metropolitan Police Headquarters on 23 April, 2006. [41] Punitive measures, however, were taken against three other police officials involved in the incident. In a public interest writ filed by the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association, the Court gave directions as to why proper investigations should not be held into the police action.

Journalists covering different agitation programmes of the main opposition alliance faced police assaults. On 11 June, at least 30 journalists were injured, even after they showed their professional ID cards, when they were covering the opposition-enforced ‘Dhaka Siege’ programme. Police also smashed the camera of Emshiad Sharif, a photo-journalist of a Bangla daily, Naya Diganta . [42]

Assaults by members of the Ruling Party Alliance

Although several incidents of assaults on journalists by the BNP-Jamat claimed news headlines, the most notorious incident occurred in Kushtia.

On 29 May, at least 25 journalists, including Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury, the editor of the Bangladesh Observer and President of the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists, were injured when BNP cadres attacked a journalists’ convention in Kushtia after the speakers criticised harassment of four journalists by the ruling BNP lawmaker, Shahidul Islam. [43] The four victims left Kushtia immediately after the incident. Others took shelter fearing further attacks. BNP cadres forcibly stopped publication of a local daily. [44] The police, under the influence of the MP, Shahidul Islam, refused to register any case. [45]

The following table compiled from reports in ten national newspapers indicates the nature of violence against journalists and the number of journalists victimised. It also identifies the perpetrators in some of the incidents. The term ‘terrorist’ was used by the media to refer to various criminals or sometimes political cadres.

Table VI.1: Violence against Journalists in 2006 [46]

Nature of Violence and Alleged Perpetrators

Persons/ Numbers

Murdered

4

Threats to life

48

Attempted kidnapping

2

Cases filed against journalists

86

Legal notice against newspapers

5

Cases filed against newspapers

10

Torture/threats/harassment by
80
Law Enforcement Agencies
97
‘Terrorists’
83
BNP Cadres
12
Awami League Cadres
3
Islami Chattro Shibir
4
Garment Workers
5


Burning of Newspapers

Newspapers were burnt by hirelings of powerful interests persons and at other times distribution of some newspapers was stopped in particular localities.

On 22 July, members of Jatiyo Party (Ershad) and Jatiyo Chhatra Samaj burnt more than 12,000 copies of daily newspapers and threw them into the river in Gazipur and Magura protesting a report published in the Prothom alo on alleged tax evasion by former military ruler General HM Ershad. [47] After Jumma prayers on Fridays, religious extremists were observed to burn copies of different newspapers on several occasions during the year.

On 12 October, BNP cadres angered by a negative newspaper report on a local lawmaker, Zahiruddin Swapan, hijacked a microbus carrying newspapers to Barisal district and afterwards burnt all the copies of the daily Jugantor in Gournadi. Jugantor had published a report against Swapan on 11 October. Although the Gournadi police recovered the microbus and found the burnt copies near a petrol pump on Gournadi-Agoiljhara-Poisarhat Road, they refused to register a case. [48]

Defamatory Remarks

On 18 January, the Minister for Housing and Public Works, Mirza Abbas, accused journalists of ‘pen terrorism’. [49] He was reported as saying: “…some newspapers are behind the destruction of the country. Some newspapers are out to assassinate the character of the BNP leaders… Having seen some newspapers it appears they are acting as foreign agencies.” [50]

Recommendations

  • Enact a Right to Information Act after wide public consultations.
  • Install mechanism to facilitate access to public information.
  • Review existing laws which restrict freedom of expression, including the Telecommunications (Amendment) Act, 2006, Section 99A of the CrPC, the Official Secrets Act, 1923 and hold consultations with experts and concerned groups to suggest their amendment or repeal.
  • Frame a law on contempt of court which would provide for truth as a defense.
  • Amend the law so that only summons, not warrants, are issued in cases of criminal defamation to reduce harassment of journalists.

Notes

[*] The author is the S special correspondent of the New Age , Dhaka.

[1] New Age, The Daily Star , 13 February, 2006.

[2] Bangladesh Gazette, Additional Issue, 16 February, 2006.

[3] See Chapter I, Legislative and Institutional Deve l opments, p .12 . —

[4] Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour on 6 March, 2007.

[5] http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2006/78869.htm, downloaded on 4 May.

[6] See also Chapter 1, p. 12 .

[7] The Daily Star, 1 February, 2006.

[8] Sec. 13, Act I of 2006.

[9] Sec.15, The Censorship of Films (Amendment) Act, 2006.

[10] US Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, 2006 .

[11] Ibid .

[12] New Age , 3 May, 2006.

[13] See Chapter 1, p .15. ….

[14] Sec. 2 of the Contempt of Court Bill, 2006.

[15] Sec. 3, ibid .

[16] The Daily Star , 18 April, 2006.

[17] Janakantha , 2 August, 2006.

[18] New Age, The Daily Star, Prothom alo, Jugantor , 19 May, 2006.

[19] Ibid.4 , 23 May, 2006.

[20] The Daily Star , 10 August, 2006.

[21] New Age, Inqilab, Deshbangla , 10 July, 2006.

[22] The Daily Star , 6 November, 2006.

[23] Prothom alo, Bhorer Kagoj, Sangbad, Ittefaq, Janakantha, Jugantor, Inqilab, Dinkal, Banglabazar, The Daily Star, New Age, Sangram and Shamokal.

[24] The Daily Star , 8 February, 2006.

[25] New Age , January 17, 2007.

[26] Ain Sringhkhola Bighnokari (Druto Bichar) Ain 2002.

[27] Prothom alo, Bhorer Kagoj, Shamokal , 20 April, 2006.

[28] The dailies were Prothom alo, Sangbad, Jugantor, Janakantha and Ajker Kagoj .

[29] New Age , The Daily Star, 3 April, 2006.

[30] Jugantor, Bhorer Kagoj, Inqilab and Janakantha .

[31] Shaptahik 2000 and Shirsho Kagoj .

[32] New Age, Prothom alo, Bhorer Kagoj , 10 November, 2006.

[33] New Age, The Daily Star, Prothom alo, Bangla Bazar , 4 December, 2006.

[34] The Daily Star , 21 February, 2006.

[35] The channels were ESPN, Star Sports, Ten Sports, Set Max, Zee Classic, Zee Action, Zee Trendz, Zee Premier, VH 1, Zoom, HBO, Star One and Disney. See New Age , 31 July, 2006.

[36] New Age, Bangla Bazar, Shamokal , 11 October, 2006.

[37] The Daily Star, New Age, Sangbad , 20 November, 2006.

[38] New Age , 1 November, 2006.

[39] Prothom alo, Bhorer Kagoj, Sangbad, Ittefaq, Janakantha, Jugantor, Inqilab, Dinkal, Banglabazar, The Daily Star, New Age, Sangram and Shamokal.

[40] New Age , 17 April, 2006.

[41] Shamokal , 24 April, 2006.

[42] New Age, The Daily Star, Prothom alo , 12 June, 2006.

[43] The Daily Star , 30 May, 2006, p 1.

[44] New Age , 31 May 2006.

[45] Sangbad , 6 June, 2006.

[46] Prothom Alo, Bhorer Kagoj, Ittefaq, Janakantha, Inqilab, Bangla Bazar, Jugantor, Shamokal, The Daily Star, New Age, Sangbad and Sangram.

[47] The Daily Star , 23 July, 2006.

[48] Ibid. , 13 October, 2006.

[49] Speech at a discussion organised by the BNP to mark the 70th birth anniversary of its founder late President Ziaur Rahman.

[50] Abbas blames journos for ‘pen terrorism, ‘ The Daily Star , 19 January, 2006.