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Dozens of Bangladeshi journalists who were brutally attacked while covering a student protest in 2018 are yet to get justice. Experts believe a culture of impunity keeps the attackers beyond accountability.
Dozens of Bangladeshi journalists who were brutally attacked while covering a student protest in 2018 are yet to get justice. Experts believe a culture of impunity keeps the attackers beyond accountability as they work as an ‘auxiliary force’ of the government.
For photojournalist Palash Sikder, getting a phone call from an unknown number is still a nightmare. He gets death threats even at midnight by strange people since an incident that took place two years ago while he was covering a student protest demanding road safety in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.
“I was attacked along with some fellow other journalists by a group of young political activists, who were wearing helmets and carrying machetes and guns. They have started beating us up all of a sudden while we were in Dhanmondi, a busy suburb of Dhaka,” Sikder remembers.
“We were attacked in front of the police and other security forces. But, nobody tried to protect us from the attackers, which indicates that they were very powerful,” he told DW, adding: “We have been beaten up three times by the group on that day until we were able to escape the area.”
Bangladesh has seen a surge of protests in July and August 2018 by junior students from schools and colleges demanding public transport safety reform after two students were killed in traffic accidents in the capital. Law enforcement agencies responded to the movement with excessive force.
Protesters and journalists covering the event reported that the police attacked them with teargas, rubber bullets, and high-pressure hot water cannons. Unidentified armed individuals believed to be members of the student wing of the ruling Awami League party operated as an auxiliary force to Bangladeshi security forces to attack protesters and journalists at that time.
No justice served
Palash Sikder reckoned that some journalist organizations have protested against the attack afterward, but no cases were filed against the attackers.
“We were very scared to file a case. We thought nothing would happen if we file a case as the attackers were potent,” he told DW, adding: “Although local journalist organizations have protested against the attack. Still, none dare to file a case against the attackers.”
A new report titled ‘Crushing Student Protests’ highlighted the use of excessive force, arbitrary arrests, and allegations of torture by the Bangladesh security forces during the student protests in 2018, as well as attacks by non-state actors perpetrated with impunity against the students and journalists who were covering it. Nearly two years have passed since the protests, but there is still no accountability for human rights violations. International civil society groups Front Line Defenders, CIVICUS, and South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR) have published the report on June 10, 2020.
“Our research as well reports from international media groups showed that dozens of journalists covering the protests were attacked, beaten, their cameras smashed and vehicles vandalized by either police or armed individuals,” Josef Benedict, a civic space researcher at CIVICUS, told DW.
“Despite demands at the local level by the National Press Club as well as human rights groups, there has been virtually no accountability for these abuses, and we are not aware of anyone being held to account. This highlights the climate of impunity in Bangladesh today,” he added.
Still at risk of 14 years imprisonment
Shahidul Alam, another photojournalist who was actively covering the event, was picked up by plainclothes detectives from his home in Dhanmandi on the night of August 5, 2020. He was allegedly tortured by the forces that night and later presented before a court where his bail petition has been rejected. A case was filed against Alam under the country’s controversial Digital Security Act, which has been slammed as “draconian” by human rights activists.
The internationally celebrated photojournalist had to stay behind bars for 107 days just for fulfilling his journalistic responsibility before getting bail from a higher court. “The case is still ongoing, and I potentially face a sentence of 14 years if found guilty,” Alam told DW.
He thinks that the current freedom of expression situation in Bangladesh is the worst he has ever experienced. “The idea that people can be jailed for criticizing the prime minister is unthinkable in a working democracy,” he said.
“Even singers like Shariyat Boyati are in jail for expressing their opinion. This is unprecedented,” Alam told DW, adding: “Photojournalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol who had been reporting on sex scandals involving ruling party members, disappeared, and as usual, there was complete denial of any involvement by the government, who later ‘found’ him, in a story that almost follows a set script. He is still in jail.”
No room for free speech
The state of civic space in Bangladesh is rated as “repressed“ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has ruled the South Asian nation since 2009, who has often been criticized by rights groups for suppressing freedom of expression and imposing censorship on press freedom.
“The authorities of the country have blocked numerous news portals and websites critical of the state. Scores of critics, as well as journalists, have been persecuted under the Digital Security Act, Josef Benedict told DW, adding: “Some also have been forcibly disappeared.”
Human rights experts believe both online, and offline surveillance is on the rise in the country. The security authorities of the country allegedly use modern and sophisticated technologies to tap phone conversations of dissidents and political opponents.
“I no longer use a SIM card because I know it will be tapped and that it will be used to track me. One is always wary of who is listening,” Alam told DW, adding: “Surprisingly, however, when activist friends receive death threats, or when people disappear, these same intelligence forces seem clueless. So their efficiency is very selective.”
Photojournalist Palash Sikder prefers not to talk freely about the attacks he faced two years ago. He thinks talking about it won’t help much as journalists hardly get justice in his country.
“I might lose my job if I say who attacked us in 2018 in detail. I can’t put my colleagues in trouble by expressing my opinion freely, he said.
Rights activist Josef Benedict, however, thinks that the Muslim-majority country has an international obligation to respect and protect free speech.
“Bangladesh has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which means it has an international obligation to respect and protect freedom of expression, which has been violated as our research shows,” he emphasized.