Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sri Lanka: Media Freedom a Neglected Dimension of Post-War Politics

Consultations carried out by the IFJ and its partners in recent months, suggest that media freedom is a neglected dimension in Sri Lanka’s post-war politics. Within the wider landscape of diminishing hopes, marked by the fading of early optimism of a peace dividend accruing from the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in May 2009, the country’s media practitioners continue to face formidable difficulties. Overt measures of coercion are less conspicuous than during the war years. But there are fears that free speech is falling victim in a media environment in which political and financial power is deployed to silence dissent.

The restive new mood is represented among other things, in the recent teachers’ strike which led to a three month long shutdown of the country’s universities. The stated reasons for the strike were a perceived decline in pay and working conditions in the teaching community, though the larger reason was the continuing damage inflicted on Sri Lanka’s once highly regarded education system. As the strike entered its third month, official spokespersons using their monopoly over the state-owned media, denounced it as an effort to topple a democratically elected political regime and reverse the gains of the decisive victory achieved in a quarter-century long civil war. Specific individuals were named among the leadership of the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) – all of them highly regarded academics – as bearing responsibility for this conspiratorial plan.

The FUTA agitation drew wide public support. And this has not by any means, been the only stirring of discontent beneath the placid surface of post-war Sri Lankan society. Workers at the public sector Ceylon Electricity Board have shown signs of restiveness in recent weeks over stagnant pay. Industrial action within the sector has led to power cuts in parts of the country. Observers believe that the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa is investing too heavily in large-scale infrastructure such as ports and expressways, stretching the economic and financial capacities of the country beyond tolerable limits. Human rights lawyers and civil society campaign groups believe that pension funds which are mandated to function under the central bank and keep their investments long-term and safe, are now being induced by subtle government pressure to buy up shares in crucial public institutions, such as banks. The growing concentration of power in the hands of the government is enhanced by an accretion of economic power. Placements of advertisements by the government are being used with specific intent to control editorial agendas. As a final enforcer of the ruling party’s will, money power could also be deployed to directly take over media outlets.

The media terrain itself remains contested, with the few platforms that are willing to offer a fair voice to the Tamil community often being accused with little subtlety of being terrorist sympathisers or “treasonous” in intent. Within the media, the failure to take a leap across a crucial divide and achieve a state of genuine diversity is best represented by government control which remains significant, both in terms of ownership and advertising spending, as also content decisions.

Media freedom as essential component of national reconciliation
In July 2012 the Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) announced a “National Action Plan” (NAP) to give effect to the recommendations of a commission on national reconciliation. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) as it was called, was appointed with a presidential mandate a whole year after the war’s end. Despite early scepticism about its terms of reference, the hearings of the commission did manage to unearth some important – if partial details – about civilian suffering in the north of the country in the last years of the war. In a report running to over 400 pages, submitted in November 2011, the LLRC had no more than two pages that were of direct relevance to the media. But the few recommendations that it did make in this respect, were deeply consequential.

The commission had recommended steps to prevent attacks on media personnel and institutions, the investigation of such events from the past and deterrent punishment where appropriate. It also urged the restoration of full rights to free movement for media personnel and the enactment of a right to information (RTI) law. The observations of the LLRC that have a bearing on media freedom, deserve to be quoted at some length:

Freedom of expression and right to information, which are universally regarded as basic human rights, play a pivotal role in any reconciliation process. It is therefore essential that media freedom be enhanced in keeping with democratic principles and relevant fundamental rights obligations, since any restrictions placed on media freedom would only contribute to an environment of distrust and fear within and among ethnic groups.
This would only prevent a constructive exchange of information and opinion placing severe constraints on the ongoing reconciliation process.
The Commission strongly recommends that:
a. All steps should be taken to prevent harassment and attacks on media personnel and institutions.
b. Action must be taken to impose deterrent punishment on such offences, and also priority should be given to the investigation, prosecution and disposal of such cases to build up public confidence in the criminal justice system.
c. Past incidents of such illegal action should be properly investigated. The Commission observes with concern that a number of journalists and media institutions have been attacked in the recent past. Such offences erode the public confidence in the system of justice. Therefore, the Commission recommends that steps should be taken to expeditiously conclude investigations so that offenders are brought to book without delay.
d. The Government should ensure the freedom of movement of media personnel in the North and East, as it would help in the exchange of information contributing to the process of reconciliation.
e. Legislation be enacted to ensure the right to information.

The IFJ and its partners are concerned that despite these very clear action points, the NAP does not set down any time-line for the passage of an RTI law and probably glosses over the need to dispel the climate of impunity for attacks on the media. A regime of transparency and the assurance of free movement for media persons, also seem a remote prospect.

There is at this time a degree of confusion over the nature of the relationship between the NAP and an earlier action plan announced in December 2011, titled the National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights (referred to commonly as NHRAP). The latter programme of action was evolved by the GSL as part of voluntary commitments made at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Sri Lanka at the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in May 2008. Key commitments under the NHRAP that have a direct bearing on media freedom, include the enactment of an RTI law within a year, a review of the Official Secrets Act within six months, and comprehensive legislation on internet access within a month. None of these commitments has been met. If anything, there has been a contrary trend as this report records in a later section, with the introduction of an arbitrary rule for registration of news websites, establishing a de facto norm of restraining the freedom of expression without a clear legal or constitutional mandate.
Similarly, in relation to the right to information, the last demonstration of intent by the GSL, has been contrary. In June 2011, the ruling alliance organised its formidable numbers in parliament to vote down a freedom of information bill introduced by the deputy leader of the opposition as a private member’s initiative. Despite the NHRAP and the NAP being announced since, there has been no explicit assurance from the highest level of the Sri Lankan political leadership, that they intend to reverse course in the practical realm.

Free movement far from assured
Towards the end of September 2012, the GSL declared the closure of the Menik Farm camp for internationally displaced persons (IDPs) in Vavuniya district in the north of the country. Vavuniya is one of four districts in the Vanni region, which bear the worst scars of the war’s last phase. In the months after the end of the war, Menik Farm had 300,000 inmates, vulnerable to the elements, deprived of basic amenities and unsure about life beyond the perimeter of the camp. From the early part of 2010, the GSL began allowing IDPs housed in the camps that were beginning to earn worldwide notoriety as internment centres, to return home. This was heralded in official statements as the beginning of a rapid process of normalisation in a country ravaged by years of ethnic hatred and killing. But more sensitive elements within the Sri Lankan media found on tracking those who were seeking to rebuild their lives, that they had little to return to. They lacked the resources to begin life afresh after the devastation inflicted in the last phases of the war and they had no clear idea of the lands they had tenure over, when intensive military colonisation in the north and the east had been adopted as a part of the national security strategy.

By September 2012, fewer than 1,200 remained in Menik Farm. Though officially portrayed as an important milestone, in the prevalent mood of scepticism, the closure of the camp was seen as a cosmetic makeover in preparation for the Universal Periodic Review to be undertaken in the U.N. Human Rights Council session, beginning end-October. Beyond the propaganda mileage gained in the rapid downsizing of the IDP camp from its maximum expanse in the post-war months, there were questions posed about the quality of life assurances that the GSL was extending to the resettled population.

Soon after the GSL announced its intent to close down Menik Farm, a news team from the English language daily Ceylon Today travelled to Vavuniya district to record the last days of post-war resettlement. The team had much to say about the state of uncertainty that Menik Farm went back to, even when they were able to run the gauntlet of the heavy military presence and find their last place of settlement. It also found that in post-war Sri Lanka, “unearthing information in the interest of Sri Lanka’s war-displaced can prove daunting”. The obstacles that the news team faced as it went about the job of documenting the closure of Menik Farm, are narrated in first person in the following terms:

What is going on in a little-known place named Seeniyamottai in the Mullativu District is a well-guarded secret, with different agencies offering different interpretations. Often, the answer is to declare that they are not authorized to speak to journalists, unless papers are processed through the one powerful agency, Ministry of Defence, permitting officials to speak.

There was no expectation of a cordial welcome on our part, but it was made very clear that the new resettlement initiative was to be a hush-hush operation, at least for the time being. We were rudely told that there was nothing for anyone to see inside a welfare camp and we should not be ‘overly curious.’ Facilitated largely by the military, it bore all signs of a camp that is still being set up.

“Go elsewhere. Visit Prabhakaran’s swimming pool[1]. There is nothing for you here,” a junior officer on duty told us. The style of operation, the refusal to share any information, was in contrast to the government’s lofty claims of transparency and accountability in the resettlement process, and to the many assurances offered to us in Colombo that ‘there are no IDPs now. Feel free to visit any place.’

The journey and the information blockade in Seeniyamottai demonstrated that though it is now post-war, resettlement, like many other issues connected to the concluded war, still remained taboo a topic. So, Seeniyamottai saga was not up for discussion. There was no surprise when we were denied entry into the new ‘welfare’ village. If the relocated are to be believed, there is very little welfare within the site, with no water, electricity or even cooked food being available. Wednesday’s rain caused the IDPs to get drenched in their new-found home, with tents being scarce.[2]

Similar experiences were narrated by a reporter for the news portal Lankastandard from an expedition into the Vanni to determine the how true the official narrative on resettlement was:

Suriyapuram camp which is situated in close proximity to the Security Forces Head Quarters in Mullaitivu is guarded by a group of army personnel and the media is not allowed to visit the IDPs, in fear of the facts being reported.... When The Lankastandard visited Suriyapuram camp in Nandikadal on Wednesday September 26, 2012 to report on the efficacy of the ‘re-settlement’ programme of the IDPs and the progress thereof, the army stops us in our tracks. The military personnel at the check point told us we could not proceed unless we had either the permission of the District Secretary Mullaitivu or the Civil Affairs Officers of the Security Forces Headquarters Mullaitivu...   My photographer and I who were in Mullaitivu on Wednesday and Thursday were stopped from entering the Suriyapuram camp in Nandikadal by the army officers on guard. This was the camp where the last batch of IDPs from the Manik Farm was brought to although the government claimed they were re-settled in their villages... Not only did they stop us from entering the Suriyapuram camp, they threatened us not to write anything detrimental to them... One of the army officers inside the makeshift camp shouted at me to leave the area immediately and warned me not to write anything against the camp and the IDP grievances but to ‘mind my own business’.[3]

Clearly, there is abundant basis to believe that even with the best of intentions to report on the state of post-war rehabilitation, the media would face active impediments from the security forces and other state agencies. This is one important respect in which actions by the Rajapaksa regime fall short of LLRC recommendations. In the matter of attacks on journalists, the LLRC had voiced its outrage at a near lethal attack on G. Kuhanathan, news editor of the Tamil daily Uthayan, even while its deliberations were on. Kuhanathan, 59, was reportedly left for dead after being attacked with iron rods by two unidentified men while on his way home on the evening on 29 July 2011. He was discovered in a critical condition by passers-by and taken to Jaffna General Hospital where he was put on life-support.

No end to impunity
In elections that had just been concluded the previous week to local town councils in the northern province, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which strongly opposes the ruling coalition of President Rajapaksa, won 18 of 23 councils. Uthayan’s editorial policy in backing the TNA appeared the direct provocation for the near lethal attack on its senior news editor. This was the second attack on an Uthayan staffer in Jaffna in the space of a few months. On 28 May, S. Kavitharan, a reporter with the newspaper, was attacked in the city in a similar manner while on his way to work. No investigations were conducted.

Kuhanathan and Kavitharan have since been granted political asylum in Switzerland.

These two were the latest in a long sequence of targeted attacks on the staff and premises of Uthayan in Jaffna city and elsewhere. In January 2006, S.S. Sukirtharajan, a reporter for Sudar Oli, a newspaper from the same group, was shot dead in Trincomalee in the eastern province, in evident retribution for his role in exposing the execution-style killing of five Tamil students by Sri Lankan armed forces. In May the same year, two employees were killed in an armed attack on the Uthayan premises in Jaffna that may have had Kuhanathan as target. Later that month, a delivery van belonging to the newspaper was attacked and its driver killed. Another attack on the Uthayan office occurred in August 2006. And in April 2007, S. Rajeevarman, an Uthayan reporter in Jaffna, was shot dead after reporting on disappearances in the northern province.

In January 2012, a diplomatic cable from the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka at the time came to light, recording a 4 October 2006 conversation with Basil Rajapaksa, brother of the president and his officially designed “senior adviser”. Basil Rajapaksa is described as speaking with “surprising candour” and admitting that a Special Task Force comprising elements of the Sri Lankan military and police, may have carried out the execution of the five students in Trincomalee. Basil Rajapaksa’s candour in identifying the agency responsible for this atrocity, must be counted as a rare interlude in recent diplomatic history, though he was evidently banking on confidentiality. In the course of the same conversation, Basil Rajapaksa is also recorded telling the U.S. ambassador that two close allies of the President – Douglas Devananda and Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan (alias “Colonel” Karuna) – were posing problems in the northern and eastern provinces, by letting their armed cadre loose on political enforcement missions. The August attack on the Uthayan premises, said Basil Rajapaksa, was probably the work of Devananda’s political party, carried out in all likelihood with the support of elements from the Sri Lankan Navy.[4]

N. Vithyatharan, editor of Sudar Oli at the time of the Trincomalee incident, recalls how Sukirtharajan alerted him to the possibility that the death of the five students was not caused by an accidental detonation of a bomb they were assembling, as the official story went. He had arrived at this finding after making inquiries with staff at the morgue where the bodies were kept. With a specific directive from his editor, Sukirtharajan then used his contacts to enter the morgue at a time when it was thinly guarded, to take the photographs which Sudar Oli published the following day, effectively debunking the official narrative. Two days later, as he prepared to go to work, Sukirtharajan was called out of his home by a group that drove up on motorcycles and shot him dead at point blank range.

With Devananda and Karuna still being indispensable allies of the President and key to sustaining the fortunes of the ruling coalition in the north and east provinces, media freedom bodies in Sri Lanka think there is little possibility of any manner of accountability being enforced for these crimes. Since the U.S. ambassador’s cable was leaked, a number of media platforms in Sri Lanka to publicised its contents. Among all these, Devananda has chosen to file a defamation suit against Uthayan alone.

Progress in the investigation of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickramatunge’s murder in January 2009 and the disappearance of cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda in January 2010 has been negligible. Despite occasional statements from investigation agencies that dramatic discoveries were imminent, hearings in both these matters have repeatedly adjourned with the police reporting nothing of consequence.

Meanwhile, efforts by journalists through professional bodies – including IFJ affiliates, the Free Media Movement (FMM) and the Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association (SLWJA) – to highlight the issue of impunity have been likened by official spokespersons to high treason. In the second week of January this year, the government-owned TV channel launched an attack, bristling with unseemly aggression, against the FMM. While playing footage on its main news programmes of FMM members and activists from past campaigns, the channel ran commentary attacking them in virulent terms. According to a reliable translation provided by IFJ sources in Sri Lanka, the commentary accused these activists of “betraying” the “motherland for gold and titles”. With mock regret that the descendants of individuals who were “killed” during the reign of the kings “live on today”, the commentary promised that those who “do no good to the country, would some day face no good”.

Verbal abuse as the norm
On January 10, the government-owned newspaper accused the FMM of petitioning the European Union (E.U.) to terminate Sri Lanka’s bilateral trade preferences. Two former convenors of the FMM and, by subtle implication, the current holder of that post, were accused of seeking to undermine a concession that many industries in Sri Lanka benefit from. The report did not stint in the use of suggestive and extremely hostile rhetoric, describing the individuals named as “anti-national elements” who were sustained on “foreign funds”. The accusations were provably false, since the FMM has never advocated the withdrawal of trade concessions to Sri Lanka.

This particular round of hostile rhetoric may have been provoked by the FMM resolve to observe a “black day” on January 25 to commemorate the major atrocities committed on journalists in that month over preceding years: including the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunge and the disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda. Prior to the FMM’s planned demonstration, the government secured a court injunction restricting the protests to a narrow area around the Fort Railway Station, a major landmark in the capital city. Gangs of stick-wielding toughs reportedly took over the place where the demonstrations were planned. Placards carried by these gangs explicitly identified the FMM as an ally of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the ethnic insurgent group defeated by government forces in 2009 after a civil war marked by gross human rights violations by both sides.

On January 25, the government-controlled newspaper, the Daily News, carried an editorial which warned that any effort to “sabotage the progress of the country by disruptive elements (would) be put down”. The editorial identified the FMM as “one of those organisations which have been in the forefront of lambasting the Lankan state on numerous issues”. The FMM, the editorial warned, “has been steeped in controversy and has a lot of soul-searching to do”.

On January 26, Dinamina, the Sinhala-language daily from the state-owned Lake House (or Associated Newspapers Ceylon Ltd) group, carried a story which had senior minister, Keheliya Rambukwella, saying that exiled journalists who had taken up the campaign for human rights and reconciliation were “traitors” bringing the country into “disrepute”. Later, the English-language daily from the Lake House group, the Daily News, reported that human rights defenders, including press freedom campaigners identified by name, were betraying Sri Lanka and continuing to work with the terrorist rump of the defeated Tamil insurgent group.

The abuse rose in intensity as the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) opened its session in March 2012 and began to consider a resolution critical of Sri Lanka’s record. In an editorial on March 16, Dinamina described human rights defenders as “degenerates” and denounced particular press freedom campaigners as “mouthpieces of the LTTE”. It warned that in a country like Iran, “these kinds of bastards would be stoned to death”.

Dharmasiri Lankapeli, a veteran leader of the Federation of Media Employees’ Trade Unions (FMETU) -- a body representing in the main, workers at the Lake House and other state-owned groups -- was among the main targets of abuse. The attacks also extended to social scientists and political commentators such as P. Saravanamuttu, Nimalka Fernando and Sunila Abeysekara, and prominent figures of the church who have argued the cause of national reconciliation and accountability for human rights abuses since the end of the civil war.

The government-controlled ITN TV channel has been another easily accessible platform for severe verbal assaults against journalists and human rights defenders. Between January 9 and 24, the channel carried no fewer than five programmes in its daily slot titled “Vimasuma” attacking journalists present during the nineteenth regular session of the UNHRC, for having allegedly “betrayed” the country. Vivid and graphic photo-montages were circulated by various political actors, which depicted journalists and other prominent human rights defenders as terrorists and traitors, working at the behest of alien forces.

On March 23, Mervyn Silva, Minister for Public Relations, addressed a public demonstration against the UNHRC resolution, threatening to “break the limbs” of the exiled journalists if they dared set foot in the country again. Among the journalists mentioned was Poddala Jayantha, who was left with permanent disabilities after suffering brutal assault in Colombo city in June 2009. Silva has been known for several bruising encounters with the media and was in July 2009, reported as publicly claiming credit for the Wickramatunge murder in January 2009 and the assault on Jayantha. Though he later disavowed the statement attributed to him, Silva’s record as a baiter of journalists, has continued to cause deep unease.

On March 22, the state-controlled ITN channel carried a news item claiming that it would soon be exposing a “traitor”, while showing pictures of Gnanasiri Koththigoda, then the president of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA), in the background. The anchor-person referred to a number of journalists forced into exile by the climate of intimidation as “media traitors” and suggested that Koththigoda was through his news reporting, aiding the cause of secession espoused by sections of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora.

The SLWJA (since renamed the Sri Lanka Journalists’ Association, or SLJA) is an IFJ affiliate of long standing. Poddala Jayantha, who preceded Koththigoda as president of the association has been living in exile since January 2010 after the brutal assault he suffered six months earlier. On March 23, Koththigoda himself took up the explicit threats he faced in ITN’s coverage with Sri Lanka’s Media Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene. The minister then reportedly called up ITN’s director for news, Sudarman Raddeligoda, and obtained an assurance that the attacks would cease. Yet the attacks have continued, according to reliable IFJ sources in Sri Lanka.

Two media personalities are identified as particularly abusive in their public commentary over state-controlled channels. Hudson Samarasinghe, chairman of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, runs a daily radio talk-show where he is known to be relentless in pursuit of supposed enemies of the nation, sparing no epithet in his condemnation. And so too is Mahinda Abeysundara, former editor of Dinamina, who now enjoys a regular spot in talk-shows hosted by ITN.

Crackdown on news websites
It is a particularly alarming feature of the current state of the media in Sri Lanka, that the parliamentary opposition, which has the unabridged right under the constitution to call into question this manner of management of the air-waves, has chosen to opt out. Late-September, a meeting of the Parliamentary Committee on the Media Ministry adjourned within half-an-hour without any discussion, since the members were not presented with an agenda and could find no issues to talk about.

The opposition leadership argues that it is under no obligation to stand up for media freedom when it gains little time or space in the media. Ranil Wickramasinghe, leader of the opposition in parliament, recently attracted criticism when he called on the public to boycott all state-owned media. He followed up with an exhortation that the public should boycott all media platforms that are seen to uncritically parrot the line of the regime, singling out one particular media group with broadcasting interests in Sinhala, Tamil and English. He remains unrepentant about this seeming rabble-rousing. The political opposition he claims, is doing all it can to bring about a degree of sanity in governance. But the media for narrow commercial reasons has given it little traction. Indeed, the media has in his portrayal, become a willing tool in the hands of the current regime, indulging its every whim.

The opposition seems to have responded with a strategy that utilises online resources to counter-attack. And news websites hosting content on Sri Lanka have been subject to arbitrary rule changes and frequent obstruction in recent months. In December 2011, the Media Ministry introduced a rule requiring the registration of all websites hosting news content on the country.  An FMM petition challenging this notification under fundamental rights clauses, was dismissed by the Supreme Court in May on grounds that the petitioners had no locus standi in the matter, since the websites themselves had complied with the registration requirement.

On June 29, Colombo city police raided the offices of two news websites, SriLanka-X-News and SriLanka Mirror, took into custody all the staff present and impounded all their equipment. A team of approximately 25 law enforcement officials arrived at the shared premises of the two websites that morning. All media workers present were detained within the locked premises for three hours and questioned by the police, following which they were taken away to the headquarters of the Crime Investigation Department (CID). Computers and other equipment were confiscated from the premises of the news websites.

Concurrently, the police also raided the residence of Ruwan Ferdinandez, formerly with the SriLankaMirror and then editor-in-chief of SriLankaXNews. Ferdinandez is a close political associate of the opposition politician Mangala Samaraweera and his websites are in all but name, associated with Sri Lanka’s principal opposition, the United National Party (UNP). Just the day before the raids, Sri Lanka’s government had ordered the country’s main internet services to cut off access to five Tamil-language news websites: TamilWin, Athirvu, Sarithan, Ponguthamil and Pathivu. SriLankaMirror was one of five websites blocked by the government in November 2011, following a directive that all websites carrying news and current affairs content on the country should be registered. It was subsequently unblocked on condition that it would not provide links to any unregistered websites.

It was noted at the time that the June 29 crackdown on news websites occurred soon after the
government ordered the dissolution of the elected governing councils in three provinces of the country, including the politically sensitive east. The raids on independent media may have been part of a strategy to curb critical commentary during the campaign and run-up to fresh elections in these provinces. A fortnight after the raids, the Media Ministry issued a directive reaffirming a registration requirement for news websites and adding on the additional requirement of an annual fee.

Though these directives have not been subject to judicial scrutiny, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court warned in September, while hearing a fundamental rights petition by the owners of the websites that had been raided, against any misinterpretation of its earlier ruling in the matter of registration. It also ordered all equipment confiscated from the websites’ offices returned within two weeks. Website staff taken into custody meanwhile had been released after a day in detention, on the orders of a city magistrate. Samaraweera believes on the evidence of the most recent hearings of the case in the court, that the prosecution is not keen to pursue the case since it could potentially prove embarrassing. Indeed, the Supreme Court had been visibly disdainful of the prosecution case that the warrant for raiding the website offices had been granted on the grounds that they had been guilty of violating the “majesty of the presidential aura” (in Sinhalese, “rajakeeya mahima”).

The day that the website offices were raided by police, Shantha Wijesooriya, a journalist working with SriLanka-X-News was in a busy marketplace attending to routine chores, when a group of toughs approached with evident intent to snatch him and bundle him into a waiting van. Wijesooriya managed to evade his intending captors and run to safety. He spent the next two weeks in hiding in numerous places in Colombo city and its suburbs, before securing passage out to the relative safety of a neighbouring South Asian country.

The reasons for the attempted abduction remain obscure. Reports in the Colombo press after the event suggested that Wijesooriya was seen to be a person with inside knowledge of the manner in which the opposition websites were sustained.

Revival of Press Council
The media community in Sri Lanka is also concerned at the revival of the long dormant Sri Lanka Press Councils Act of 1973. This is an act which incorporates several draconian provisions, including the power to prosecute under criminal law for any perceived violation of the laws in force. Since the law was revived two years back, the body has remained fairly dormant and the President's efforts to bring on board a number of journalists have failed because most have declined the invitation. The nomination of Ariyananda Dombagahawatta apparently changed the equation since he was the first journalist with a public profile who signed up with the newly revived Press Council. The Committee on Public Enterprises of Sri Lanka’s Parliament recently went into the whole question of the expenses incurred in maintaining the Press Council and suggested that it be shut down. But the administration is unlikely to heed this directive since it needs to keep the body in existence for the punitive power it can exert over the media.

The self-regulatory body set up by the newspaper industry, the Sri Lanka Press Complaints Council (SLPCC), meanwhile has enjoyed a reaffirmation of commitment by its stakeholders, though a withdrawal of donor support in the next two years could imperil its continuing relevance. Despite being under-resourced in relation to the Press Council – it works with three complaints officers as against the 16 full-time staff that the Press Council employs – the SLPCC is seen to be a more credible body, because it enjoys the confidence of the newspaper industry.

Provincial journalists, whose role would be especially crucial in the post-war context, continue to suffer from unequal wages and working conditions, seriously impairing their motivation and commitment. They find themselves marginalised in terms of information sources and ignored by main governmental agencies, which only feel obliged to talk to the Colombo media. A right to information legislation is particularly important for this category of media professional, who have special reason to insist that this recommendation of the LLRC be implemented with appropriate seriousness.
The tenuous financial state of the Sri Lankan media makes it vulnerable to advertiser pressures. The situation is not helped in any way by the weighty presence of the government and its agencies in the world of ad spending. According to a recent estimate by the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI), government sources account for 16% of total advertising spending in the country. And with the significant ownership that the government has in the media, it absorbs an even larger part – estimated at 38% -- of ad expenditure. To this source of power may be added the influence acquired by the creeping takeover of public institutions such as banks, by the current administration. A number of media institutions have become vulnerable to government diktat for this reason and some of them have had to accommodate pressures for effecting change at the top of the editorial hierarchy.

Chopping and changing editors
In June, Lalith Allahakkoon, editor-in-chief of Ceylon Today was abruptly relieved of charge by the newspaper management. Four among his colleagues resigned in protest against this seemingly arbitrary decision by the owners. Full editorial control at this point passed to Hana Ibrahim, who was already designated editor, though under the oversight of the editor-in-chief. There was much adverse comment, especially since Ibrahim has a professional profile that includes work with international press freedom bodies.[5] She had also served in the elected position of FMM convenor for two years.

The Ceylon Today editorial team took a while reconstituting its professional capacities. Despite the turbulence, the editorial team today insists that there was no other motive for the changeover than the need for improved oversight of published content. Press freedom bodies in Sri Lanka were reluctant initially to take a stand in this matter but came around within a week, to a mild deprecation of the Ceylon Today management decision.

Ceylon Today is owned by Tiran Alles, a businessman with interests in a variety of sectors and a longstanding political profile. Though once associated with the opposition politics of Mangala Samaraweera, and instrumental in propping up the candidacy of the former Sri Lanka Army commander, General Sarath Fonseka, in the presidential contest of January 2010, Alles has since parted ways. Samaraweera who then headed a dissident faction of President Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has since merged his unit into Wickramasinghe’s UNP, to be part of the mainstream opposition. Alles has stayed outside this arrangement and kept faith with Fonseka, in a political formation that is part of the opposition, but regarded by the UNP as a tacit ally of the Rajapaksa regime.

These pressures originating within the interface between media ownership and active politics, have been transmitted into the community of journalists, often causing serious schisms within the ranks. On July 8, Ceylon Today ran an editorial titled “When Media Freedom is Abused”. With Ibrahim now holding editorial authority, the tone and content of this leader was easily and accurately, attributed to her. Referring to the June 29 raids on the offices of two websites associated with the political opposition, the editorial commented:

... lost in the blanket vilification of the government action is a simple, yet disconcerting reality – the misuse and abuse of media freedom by a significant segment of the online media community, to hurt, vilify and defame others under the guise of unfettered journalism. ... (I)f media, online, print or even television, is to be treated with dignity and respect, it also needs to accept that media freedom is not so much a right as a responsibility... that demands that we abide by an ethical code.. a responsibility that demands we ensure news and views published, telecast or broadcast are unbiased and impartial, not distorted, skewed or part of a slander campaign... Unfortunately, this was a responsibility missing in web journalism.... In an environment where space for dissent is becoming increasingly sparse and mainstream media is under constant threat, news websites attained greater significance, holding the promise of going where the mainstream media feared.... In this context, the manner in which the online portals have been abusing media freedom not only betrays the hopes of the masses, but also portend a greater danger, in that they provide the necessary ammunition for the government to carry out its vindictive actions against the press en masse... No regime is happy with absolute online freedom, and many find the issue of striking a balance between freedom of expression and free access to information a grave challenge. But to act irresponsibly in the manner the news websites have done so, is to give legitimate clout for the government to clamp down on online dissent, making it easier for it to further subjugate the media... This is why, it is important for journalists; web based or otherwise to accept the freedom they enjoy as a serious responsibility and practice the kind of journalism that really matters.

Despite Ibrahim’s background in working on press freedom issues, this editorial provoked a reaction of outrage from the opposition press. In a letter addressed to CPJ’s Asia programme coordinator, Samaraweera accused Ibrahim of “negative, inflammatory and inaccurate reporting”. Under Ibrahim’s editorial guidance, said Samaraweera, Ceylon Today and its associated Sinhala-language newspaper Mawbima had “taken a stoic position to defend the Sri Lankan government’s illegal action against the websites, in some cases going beyond the call of duty to report, and descending to actually provoking further action and arrests against journalists at the website and its administrators”. The two newspapers, he continued, had “failed to publish a single statement issued by foreign governments and the UN expressing concern over the raid, in its print edition”.

Independent journalists in Sri Lanka admit in moments of candour, that much of the material that is published on opposition websites would not meet professional standards. Samaraweera though, is convinced that the standards that these websites have set are considerably superior to those of state-owned media. Few would disagree. And this is an ethical conundrum that underlines yet again, the longstanding IFJ insistence that state-owned media in Sri Lanka should be transformed into public service media.

FMM activist Sunil Jeyasekara, who worked as deputy editor of Irurasa, the Sinhala language weekly published by the Sunday Leader, came to accept the many months of salary denied as a consequence of the financial distress the group was going through. He continued working out of a sense of commitment, but was told in July by the group chairman, that his services were no longer needed. It is not clear if the termination of his services then had anything to do with a number of hostile articles that the Sunday Leader published around the same time, about the FMM.

Frederica Jansz, editor of the Sunday Leader was forced to resign at the end of September, within months of the newspaper passing into the ownership of a stockmarket investor. Asanga Seneviratne, who now owns a substantial stake in the newspaper, insists that he only came in to retrieve the Sunday Leader from a precarious financial situation. Jansz was in this account, instrumental in bringing him in as an investor and was paid a substantial commission as part of the deal. When Seneviratne later decided to switch the editorial management, he paid Jansz an agreed amount as severance pay.

The narrative that has gained ground though, is of Jansz having been forced out because of her history of taking on the ruling dispensation and especially her many bruising encounters with Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, another brother of the President’s. This is a history that goes back to stories run in the Sunday Leader under Lasantha Wickramatunge’s editorship, alleging serious corruption in the acquisition of defence equipment under Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s watch. Just prior to the January 2010 presidential election, the Sunday Leader ran a front-page story putting down the summary execution of LTTE leaders who were surrendering under a white-flag after painstaking negotiations brokered by international actors, to an explicit order from the Defence Secretary. Fonseka was quoted definitively making this pronouncement, though a study of the fine print seemed to indicate that he was actually speaking on the basis of information received from journalists embedded with the army unit in the area. The public revelation of this information in the mood of post-war triumphalism, was a considerable public relations setback for Fonseka’s candidacy in the presidential election. Despite President Rajapaksa’s comfortable victory in the January 2010 election, the family seemed intent on pursuing a vendetta against the former army commander, placing him under arrest shortly afterwards and putting him on trial in a variety of cases.

In October 2010, Jansz took the stand as a witness for the prosecution in a case brought against Fonseka under the Army Act, for putting out details of what came to be called the “white flags story”. There were questions then raised about the ethics of a newspaper editor taking the witness stand against a news source for a story carried in her own newspaper under her byline. Jansz proved eager to prove the case against the former army commander, handing over her notebook from the purported interview at which he made the “white flag” revelations. This led to Fonseka’s conviction in November 2011 under the Army Act, for causing disaffection within the ranks and violating principles of the “chain of command”.[6]

In July 2012, Jansz called up the Defence Secretary to verify information gathered on the change of duty rosters in a scheduled flight of the Sri Lankan national airline, to accommodate a family intimate of his in bringing home a pet dog from Switzerland. The public interest angle here was the supposed cancellation of twenty passenger bookings on the flight in question, since the pilot assigned to the task of transporting the Defence Secretary’s pet was not licensed to fly the large aircraft normally deployed on the route. The change in duty roster had been revoked after senior pilots of the airline registered their protest. Jansz’s call to the Defence Secretary quickly descended into bitter acrimony. A few days later, Jansz called up the Defence Secretary again to inform him that the Sunday Leader was not carrying the story, though not because the facts were in question. Again, the Defence Secretary erupted in anger and intemperate abuse. The Sunday Leader carried the transcript of both conversations prominently on front page the very next week, causing great public outrage.

As this situation report is prepared for publication, the Sunday Leader is believed to have acceded to a directive by the Press Council to publish an apology for this story, which brought the Defence Secretary into disrepute. If true, this would be the first exercise of authority by the Press Council, with serious long term consequences for the Sri Lankan media.

Aware of the inherent dangers, Sri Lanka’s media community is seeking to reaffirm its commitment to the self-regulatory body set up by the newspaper industry, the Sri Lanka Press Complaints Council. This is a body that faces a possible existential threat on account of a withdrawal of donor support. However, the current management of the body, which comes under the Sri Lanka Press Institute, is positive about keeping it running, and even renewing its relevance. The plans, which include the transformation of the SLPI into an international training hub with all appropriate certifications, are credible, though they could well come to nothing without the unconditional support of the media industry and broader civil society. The alternative may well be an erosion of media independence and with it, the rapid receding of all realistic prospects of national reconciliation.

This report is the outcome of the IFJ’s continuing engagement with partners in Sri Lanka. The IFJ’s South Asia coordinator, Sukumar Muralidharan, visited Sri Lanka at the end of September 2012 to gather information for this report. The effort put in by Sharmini Boyle and Sunil Jeyasekara of the Free Media Movement (FMM) in coordinating this mission is gratefully acknowledged. In addition, the following individuals and the institutions they represent were of utmost help with their insights and information:

  • DIlrukshi Handunetti, Senior Deputy Editor, Ceylon Today
  • Hana Ibrahim, Editor, Ceylon Today
  • Imran Furkan, Chief Executive, Sri Lanka Press Institute
  • J.C. Weliamuna, Lawyer and human rights activist
  • Kamal Liyanarachhi, Sri Lanka Press Complaints Commission
  • Kumar Nadesan, Chairman, Sri Lanka Press Institute
  • Lasantha Ruhunage, Sri Lanka Journalists’ Association
  • Mangala Samaraweera, Member of Parliament, United National Party
  • M.T.M. Muzammil, Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum
  • N.M. Ameen, Editor, Navamani and Convenor, Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum
  • Ranga Jayasuriya, Sri Lanka Journalists’ Association
  • Ranil Wickramasinghe, Member of Parliament, United National Party
  • Ruki Fernando, Human rights campaigner
  • Sanjana Hattotuwa, Editor, Groundviews
  • Shan Wijethunge, Transparency International
  • T. Premananthan, Editor, Uthayan
  • Thilanga Sumathipala, Chairman, Lakbima group
  • Udaya Kalupitharana, Human rights campaigner, Inform
  • William Sukumar Rockwood, Sri Lanka Press Complaints Commission

[1] This is a reference to Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the Tamil insurgent group that went down in defeat to the Sri Lanka Army in May 2009.
[2] “Relocated to Nowhere”, Ceylon Today, September 29 2012; extracted on October 25, 2012 at: http://www.ceylontoday.lk/59-13681-news-detail-relocated-to-nowhere.html.
[3] “The Menik Farm Lie: ‘Who Says We Are Resettled?’ asks an IDP”, Lanka Standard, published 30 September 2012; available at: http://www.lankastandard.com/2012/09/the-menik-farm-lie-who-says-we-are-resettled-asks-an-idp/.
[4] The full text of cable from Robert Blake, U.S. ambassador in Sri Lanka at the time and later Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia in the Barack Obama administration, is available at: http://www.wikileaks-forum.com/index.php?topic=8231.0.
[5] Hana Ibrahim’s contribution to IFJ’s 2010 report on South Asia, “Freedom in Solidarity: Media Working for Peace in South Asia” is explicitly acknowledged in the report, available at: http://asiapacific.ifj.org/assets/docs/021/100/f7cf615-b115064.pdf. Other contributions have remained unacknowledged because that was considered the discrete strategy in the broader context of post-war Sri Lanka.
[6] This was one among a number of convictions that the former army commander was given. He was granted a presidential pardon in May 2012 soon after a meeting between the Sri Lankan foreign minister and the U.S. Secreary of State, though the GSL insisted that this was a decision made independently, without external pressure having any role.

Bangladesh: Journalism in the Political Crossfire

The deeply polarising effect of politics in Bangladesh has been felt in various domains, the media included. As Bangladesh prepares for another round of general elections to the national parliament at the end of 2013, political discord and disharmony are rising. The years since the last general elections in 2008 have been politically stable since the Awami League (Awami League), the party that led the country’s movement for liberation from Pakistan, has secured alongside its allies, an impregnable majority in parliament. But there has not been any manner of political concord. Opposition boycotts of the proceedings of parliament and allegations of unfair pressures on political and civil society elements inclined towards the opposition, have been frequent.

In June 2011, the Government of Sheikh Hasina Wajed piloted the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution through Bangladesh’s parliament, providing another potential flashpoint for acrimony as elections near. Among other things, the Fifteenth Amendment does away with the process of conducting national elections under a neutral caretaker government. It reaffirms Islam as state religion, but then enshrines the values of secularism and freedom of faith. It officially raises Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to the status of “father of the nation”, mandates that his portraits will be displayed at key sites of the Bangladeshi state and the offices of its main functionaries, and incorporates into the official text of the constitution, two historic speeches that he made in March 1971 as Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan. It institutes strong safeguards against regime change not based on an explicit electoral mandate. Finally, it effectively makes itself a permanent feature by stipulating that “basic provisions of the constitution are not amendable”.

The AL has worked on the premise that its comfortable majority, secured in the December 2008 elections, is a mandate to restore what it portrays as the underlying values of the Bangladesh war of liberation: modernity, secularism and equality. It also saw the electoral verdict as sanction to conclude the unfinished agenda of its earlier term in office: bringing to justice the assassins of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Verdicts had been handed down after a trial that began in 1997, more than two decades after the killing. But a change in government in 2001 resulted in the trial process being stalled at the appeals stage. All appeals were finally exhausted only after an elected government under the AL assumed office in January 2009, with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, only one among two members of the immediate family to survive the mass murder of 1975, winning a second term as Prime Minister.

Of the nine individuals convicted of Sheikh Mujib’s assassination, all five within reach of Bangladesh’s legal system, were executed in January 2010. Even the many who oppose the death penalty on principle, recognised that accountability was long overdue for an act of brutality that included the killing of Sheikh Mujib’s nine-year old son. The AL reasoned that the executions were an important part of the country’s reaffirmation of its foundational values. The main opposition parties, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) remained discretely silent, choosing a quiescent mode of expressing dissent when the public mood and media commentary seemed overwhelmingly to favour the executions of individuals who enjoyed the BNP’s protection through the years it was in power.

The media in Bangladesh made note of the symbolic quality of the event and its value in reaffirming the nation’s commitment to the rule of the law. Among all Bangladesh’s newspapers, the English-language daily New Age had perhaps the most distanced and critical attitude. The “political debates over the murderous ouster of (the) Mujib regime”, it commented editorially, “would not be buried with the burial of the bodies of the convicts”. Rather, for this to happen, “society would require threadbare discussions and informed debates on the political events leading to the murderous political misadventure, its political and cultural consequences and the ways of freeing (Bangladesh’s) history from the political hangover that the misadventure had caused 34 years ago”.

Daily Star, Bangladesh’s largest-circulated English daily, had a more positive assessment:“It was for this nation, simply and very logically, a return to the great idea that rule of law matters, that justice is all, that anyone who commits a crime should not expect to get away with it. Indeed, now that the legal process has ensured a restoration of the principle of justice, it is time for all citizens, irrespective of political belief or party affiliation, to reflect on the dark shadows that for long impeded our march to a better and an egalitarian future”.

The January 2010 executions may have been one point of closure, but several issues in the country’s contested past continue to cast their shadow. Through 2009 and the following year, when the Sheikh Hasina government made clear its intent to bring to trial those guilty of the worst abuses during the 1971 war of liberation, there were hopes that a new consensus would emerge on the four decade-long history of the country since independence. There were realistic expectations that this in turn would be an antidote to the divisions that have plagued civil society and the media community, especially since the murder of Sheikh Mujib and most of his family. The institution of the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) soon afterwards and the opening of the war crimes trials were thought to be the occasion for finally bringing all unsettled disputes of ideology to consensus

The ICT has since had a troubled course, belying some of the hopes with which it was set up. On 2 October 2011, New Age ran an article on its op-ed page titled “A crucial period for International Crimes Tribunal”. The author David Bergman, is the New Age editor for special investigations, a British national resident in Bangladesh since 2003, with a long-standing interest in the Bangladesh war of liberation. The ICT took objection to certain of the points made in the article and three days later, issued a notice asking why the writer, along with the editor and publisher of the newspaper, should not be cited for contempt.

Particular sections of the article that found mention in the notice, referred to the public mood which seemingly had prejudged the guilt of some of the individuals up for trial before the ICT, as also the procedural weakness of seeking convictions merely on the basis of single witness testimonies on events four decades past. The article also pointed out that the ICT had allowed fifteen unsigned witness statements out of the forty-seven that the prosecution had moved for. It raised questions about the ICT’s rigour in assessing all witness depositions before purported offences were taken cognisance of.

No contempt involved in demanding fair play
Nurul Kabir, the editor of New Age, presented a detailed response to the ICT on 23 October 2011, speaking of the wide range of issues involved in establishing accountability for crimes committed during Bangladesh’s war of liberation. Far from seeking to dishonour the procedures adopted by the ICT, he said, New Age had been consistently engaged in “truthful coverage of the proceedings of the historically important trial”. The occasional “critical analysis of the mode of operation” of the ICT was published with a view to strengthen the judicial body’s effort at promoting “the proper administration of justice”. The article called into question by the ICT, Kabir averred, was published in an identical spirit of constructive criticism, to identify certain decisions which had been “made in deviation, most likely unintended, from the standard procedure of conducting the trial”. In the light of the “unambiguous support that New Age (had) provided over the years to the cause”, its readers would be left in little doubt that the intent of the impugned article was to “help the Tribunal modify its course for the greater credibility of its conduct”.

Kabir recalls that soon after he presented his defence, he was complimented by the ICT on the wide range of his legal knowledge and the skill with which he had made the case for critical scrutiny over its proceedings. However, when the judicial body rendered a final determination on the matter in February 2012, it was in a tone of marked asperity. The three media persons held liable for contempt were discharged, though not without the judicial body observing in its obiter dicta that the article in question was indeed contemptuous. The New Age editor and the author of the impugned article were issued a grave “caution” by the ICT and told to be more mindful of the spirit and process of the law. In sharp contrast to its tone when hearing Kabir’s oral testimony, the tribunal held the editor ignorant of the “procedure of law”. Despite this, the ICT observed that the newspaper editor chose not to engage an attorney and argue his own defence. Though the ICT did not view the journalist’s seeming reluctance to express any form of regret with favour, it had decided to discharge him as a gesture of its magnanimity.

Since the hearings of the ICT commenced, there have been reservations voiced over procedure and also its potential contribution to national reconciliation. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon described the process as “essential” when he visited Bangladesh in November 2011, but international human rights bodies have been careful to underline the need for appropriate procedures and assurances of fairness. A leading figure of the civil society effort to document war crimes and build a broad consensus on the need for the trial, M.A. Hassan, has conceded that the manner in which it has been undertaken, is “fragmented”. “We have not being able to touch the tip of the iceberg even, because 95 percent of the crimes were committed by the Pakistani army”, he says.

Odhikar, a leading human rights monitoring and campaigning body, has cautioned against the manner in which prosecution teams have been conducting themselves in the full glare of the media. “Witnesses were seen giving testimonies to teams in the presence of television cameras, which were later broadcast. The investigation must protect the rights of victims and witnesses, including their privacy and above all, safety”. Odhikar has drawn attention to the need for a witness protection programme. International observers have also cautioned that “trial by media” could jeopardise chances of fair judicial procedure and undermine public faith in the integrity of the trial.

Despite these well grounded reasons for close public scrutiny over the judicial process, there is within the ruling dispensation in Bangladesh today, an inordinate sensitivity towards any manner of criticism of ICT proceedings. And this is a sentiment often enough, articulated through sections of the media. In February this year, the Qatar-based satellite news channel Al-Jazeera broadcast a report on the ICT proceedings, focusing particularly on the trial of Ghulam Azam, former head (or ameer) of the Jamaat e-Islami, a political party committed to religious precepts. Azam’s opposition to the Bangladesh’s freedom was an openly-stated commitment and following the end of the war of liberation, he spent many years in exile before returning three years after Sheikh Mujib’s assassination. The Jamaat has since become a significant element in Bangladesh politics, often in partnership with the BNP. Though its ability to win seats in Parliament on its own political programme is virtually negligible, it can often serve as the swing element in various constituencies. And its international linkages have ensured it a vast resource base. The Jamaat is also known to operate through a number of business front organisations, including banks, that enhance its political clout.

In opposition circles, the prosecution of Gholam Azam, now ninety years old, is seen as a means of quashing dissent. Within AL circles, it is seen as a long overdue process of accountability against a political element that has leveraged international connections, including in the oil-rich kingdoms of the Arab world, to sustain an undeserved prominence within local politics.

Al-Jazeera’s reporting on the ICT was seen as an element within the broader geopolitics of Islam. Daily Star responded within a day quoting a number of legal authorities, journalists and historians, in a news-report that concluded that Al-Jazeera could “provoke instability in Bangladesh”. This was a riposte, direct and intended, to the Al-Jazeera reporter’s concluding lines, which said: “Whatever the decision this court comes to, it will have dramatic consequences. It may bring justice to many but at the price of throwing Bangladesh into further political instability”. The following day, the newspaper ran an editorial which opened with a strong affirmation of the right to freedom of opinion, but went on to express “consternation” at the Al Jazeera report “saying that the ongoing war crimes trial in Bangladesh will push the country into political instability”. The editorial concluded by exhorting all “established international, regional and national news organisations to avoid unnecessary speculations (sic) and understand the fundamental purpose of international war crimes trial”.

Senior journalists that this mission met in Dhaka spoke of the ICT as a very sensitive process. The Al Jazeera report may have been overly critical and needlessly supportive of Islamist groups. A contrary opinion within the media community in Dhaka, held the fuss rather misplaced. The Al Jazeera report was no more than three minutes long and the editorial outrage that it provoked may have been, they commented, more an index of extreme insecurity than anything else.

In April 2012, the ICT summoned the editor and a reporter of the Bangla daily Sangram after it had published a report, sourced to a group of lawyers in the district of Feni, criticising the decision to take on board fifteen witness testimonies gathered by a police official as evidence in the trial of another Jamaat leader, Delawar Hossain Sayedee. After hearing their defence, the tribunal ordered the two journalists detained till it rose for the day. Since the contempt matter was taken up towards the end of the day’s deliberations, this did not mean more than a half-hour’s detention for the journalists, within the ICT premises.

Journalists in Bangladesh are worried that under the law that invests the ICT with its powers, all its verdicts can be appealed before the Supreme Court. A conviction for contempt, which could run upto a year’s imprisonment, a fine of BDT five thousand, or both, cannot be appealed. Spokespersons for the ICT that this mission met, concede that this is an extraordinary judicial authority which for precisely that reason, they are committed to using sparingly and leniently. They are insistent though, that media commentary that undermines faith in a process that the people regard as a vital part of coming to terms with their history, cannot go uncensored or unremarked.

Amar Desh faces continuing persecution
One newspaper that faces constant threats and legal harassment is Amar Desh, which was in 2009, bought over by technocrat Mahmudur Rahman and transformed into a platform for critical reporting and analysis of the current government’s actions. Mahmudur Rahman who worked as advisor on energy policy and chair of an investment promotion body under the BNP government voted into office in 2001, denies any political motive in buying up the newspaper. Amar Desh, he says, was in financially straitened circumstances in 2009 and staff were anxiously looking for an infusion of investor funds that could keep the newspaper afloat. Mahmudur Rahman at that point liquidated his holdings in a ceramics business and put some part of the money into the revival of Amar Desh.

In December 2009, Amar Desh carried a story, credited to special correspondent, M. Abdullah, about a transaction with a U.S. oil company, concluded on the specific recommendation of a top policy adviser to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed. Abdullah was attacked within days of this report appearing in the vicinity of his office in the Kawran Bazar area of Dhaka. The windshields of his car were smashed by the attackers. The journalist only managed to escape serious physical injury by sprinting the short distance to the safety of his office. A few days later, the first of many defamation cases was filed against Amar Desh, naming its editor and publisher as principal respondents. Mahmudur Rahman secured anticipatory bail protecting himself from arrest in theses cases, but on 11 February 2010, he was attacked in Dhaka. Though not injured, the car in which he was travelling was badly damaged.

Mahmudur Rahman’s application for a change of ownership filed with the consent of the former owner of Amar Desh in March 2010, was rejected on the grounds that the numerous criminal cases he faced made him ineligible for ownership stakes in any form of new media. In June 2010, the government of Bangladesh cancelled the “declaration”, or the registration under local law of Amar Desh, on grounds that it was in breach of law in having no authorised or identifiable publisher. The order closing down the newspaper followed the formal receipt of this recommendation from the Special Branch of the local police establishment.

Mahmudur Rahman managed to fight off the closure order, securing a stay from the High Court division of the Bangladesh Supreme Court. Domestic law also empowers the Bangladesh Press Council (BPC) to intervene and restore the registration of newspapers when there is valid ground to suspect malafide in any termination of the permission to publish. In June 2010, Mahmudur Rahman was arrested on the basis of a complaint reportedly extracted from the earlier publisher of Amar Desh, which alleged that the story published on the energy deal with a U.S. oil company, was without basis or foundation. His arrest was effected at the Kawran Bazar office of Amar Desh by squads of uniformed and heavily armed police, at just the time that the day’s edition was being put to press. Kawran Bazar being a node of the media industry in Dhaka, a number of news crews quickly assembled at the Amar Desh office, transmitting the spectacle in real time to numerous viewers. Condemnations from the media community followed instantly.

The police station that Mahmudur Rahman was taken to, became the venue of a spontaneous political protest by the BNP and other elements of the political opposition. Mahmudur Rahman was held in custody as multiple cases were registered against him. Though eligible under most charges he faced, he failed to secure bail. In August 2010, he was handed a conviction by the Supreme Court , along with reporter Walullah Noman and the publisher of Amar Desh, on charges of contempt. The contempt petition was moved by two members of the bar after Amar Desh carried a story on April 21 suggesting that the Supreme Court bench was predisposed towards making decisions favourable to the incumbent government.

Waliullah Noman was given a month in prison and a fine of Bangladesh Taka (BDT) 10,000 (USD 150 at then prevalent exchange rates), and Mahmudur Rahman, six months in prison and a fine of BDT 100,000. Publisher Hashmat Ali was fined BDT 10,000. Two other staff members of Amar Desh were discharged after they tendered full and unconditional apologies.

This was reportedly the first conviction for contempt handed down by the country’s highest court. The verdict, delivered by the full bench of the Supreme Court’s Appellate Division, left no options for appeal. Journalists’ organisations and press freedom bodies in Bangladesh were divided in their response to the issue, since Mahmudur Rahman had been associated with the party then in opposition and was seen by many to be pursuing oppositional politics through newly acquired media interests.

The editorial response though sceptical, tended to be cautious and respectful of the judicial verdict. Daily Star commented that the contempt convictions did nothing to enhance the “dignity of the judiciary”. Referring to the institution-building process underway since the return to civilian elected government less than two years before, the editorial observed: “What we need now is a wise leadership of the supreme judiciary towards strengthening all institutions that bring more freedom to individuals and accountability of all institutions, including the judiciary.”

Irene Khan, well-known Bangladeshi commentator and former head of human rights watchdog Amnesty International, commented that “the law should provide a clear definition of contempt and procedural safeguards in keeping with modern best practice”. But the responsibility did not lie with the judiciary alone, she argued: “The symbiotic relationship between the media and the judiciary places an obligation on the media to acknowledge that along with its freedom comes responsibility - the responsibility of fair reporting.”

Mahmudur Rahman and Oliullah Noman served their full sentences and in the case of the former, an additional month for refusing to pay the stipulated fine. Since his release in March 2011, Rahman has had to respond to multiple cases of defamation brought against him, mostly by leaders and activists of the AL. On 27 March 2012 the Dhaka Metroptan Magistrate framed charges against him and five others, including Oliullah Noman, in the defamation case brought by the Bangladesh Telecom Regulatory Commission (BTRC) for a story alleging that Indian nationals were being appointed to key positions in the body.

Mahmudur Rahman today, by his own estimation, faces no fewer than fifty-three cases, and several of these involve charges by AL members over articles published in Amar Desh, one of which said that several war criminals were sheltering within the ruling party. Aside from the BTRC defamation case, charges have also been framed in a case of rioting and obstruction of the police, arising from the demonstration conducted by opposition political parties outside the police station where he was taken after his June 2010 arrest. Mahmudur Rahman is currently required to appear in courtrooms roughly three times every week in response to various summons.

The official story on Amar Desh has convinced very few in Bangladesh. Yet several journalists’ groups have refrained from getting involved in his cause because of a persistent belief that it is less about professional matters and more politics by other means.

Channels blocked
Amar Desh’s travails reflect the rising degree of rancour in political exchanges as elections near. One among many flashpoints in recent months, was the political rally by the national opposition in Dhaka on 12 March 2012, when three television channels were blocked for viewers in the city for the duration of a speech by BNP leader, Khaleda Zia. The three channels  — Ekushey Television, BanglaVision and Islamic TV  — were inaccessible for viewers between 3 pm that day, approximately an hour before the opposition leader began her address, until 6:30 pm, after she concluded. Staff at the affected TV channels revealed that the Cable Operators’ Association of Bangladesh (COAB) had been asked by the government to suspend transmission of the three channels for this length of time. There were also reports that emerged then, that BTRC, which grants licences for use of the broadcast spectrum, may have directly intervened with certain channels to dissuade them from covering the opposition rally live.

Following this, notice was issued to Ekushey TV by the National Board of Revenue for failure to submit tax returns for three years. The channel claimed that it was yet to complete a financial audit for the years in question since it was preparing for an initial public offering (IPO) of shares. The alibi may not have been very strong, but the event fed into the story of deep partisan divisions and a vindictive attitude by those in authority towards media outlets that do not offer unconditional support to the AL.

BTRC has twice in the recent past, stopped TV channels on grounds that they did not have prior clearance to utilise the broadcast spectrum. In September 2007, with Bangladesh under a military-backed caretaker government after the AL and BNP failed to agree on a civilian administration that would oversee general elections, CSB Television was taken off the air by order of the BTRC. This followed a caution issued by the regulatory body two weeks before, warning the channel not to broadcast any “provocative” news items, talk shows or documentaries.

In November 2009, under the current regime, the BTRC withdrew its allocation of broadcast spectrum space to Jamuna TV on the grounds that it had illegally begun operations even before gaining formal permission. After a seven-month long legal battle, the decision was upheld by the High Court Division of the Supreme Court and Jamuna TV advised to apply afresh for an allocation of broadcast spectrum space.

Late in April 2010, the private TV broadcaster, Channel One, was ordered closed by the Bangladesh Telecom Regulatory Commission (BTRC) on the grounds that it had handed over imported equipment to another user without proper authorisation. The government denied any partisan motive behind the decision, but it did not pass comment that the channel was owned by a former member of parliament said to be close to the BNP leadership. Rumours afloat at the time were that pressure had been exerted to transfer the channel’s ownership to near relatives of the Awami League leadership.

Heightening confrontation
In February 2012, a coup attempt by Islamist elements within the army was seemingly discovered and thwarted. Around then, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajid raised the temperature in her war of words with the opposition. Press freedom as an issue was debunked. As the Prime Minister then said, the media was guilty of “exaggeration”. Under the freedom her regime had granted, the press was “writing at its will, no matter what is right and what is wrong”. This was a freedom that it did not enjoy when parties in opposition at the time were in authority. As she said it then, the press used to receive “invisible advice” from certain quarters all through the BNP’s tenure in office that began in 2001. Not one of the cases of the sixteen journalists killed during that time had been properly investigated, she said.

The ruling party followed with a mass rally on 7 March 2012, clearly to pre-empt the opposition show of strength of 13 March. Disruptions caused to civic life in the city featured widely in media reporting of the 7 March rally. When the government took recourse to extraordinary measures to ensure that the opposition rally of 13 March was deprived of mass participation and denied due media coverage, editorial commentary tended to be extremely critical. The Daily Star, which by no means is adversely disposed towards the government, commented editorially: “The tragedy for the AL is that in attempting to suppress the opposition it has suppressed the citizens. Ordinary people were subjected to indescribable sufferings just to prevent the BNP from holding its rally. ....  We also condemn the fact that the mass media, especially the electronic media, were prevented from fully carrying out their professional duties during yesterday's opposition programme. Several TV stations were barred from airing uninterrupted live coverage of the rally. A few channels that were covering stories of public sufferings during the course of the day were visited by intelligence people and told to tone down their coverage. In other cases the cable operators were partially prevailed upon to take some channels off the air during the peak hours of the opposition's rally. Such blatant interference in the media's function amounts to suppression of the freedom of the media and public's inalienable right to know”.

Soon afterwards, it was reported that nineteen journalists in the south-western district of Pirojpur had presented themselves to the district police station on March 14, demanding protection from threats issued by the district branch of the ruling party at a public rally the previous day. The journalists were reportedly threatened with violence following their publication in local newspapers of critical reports about two members of the elected district council. The reports, which alleged that two local politicians had been involved in corruption and nepotism, were subsequently republished by daily newspapers and news channels based in Dhaka. Members of the ruling party were then reported to have told the journalists that if they continued publishing critical reports about the two elected members of the district council, they would be forced to leave town or “chopped into pieces and buried”.

There has been a considerable decline in tolerance levels for free media commentary since the early days of the Sheikh Hasina regime. To recall, within a year of Sheikh Hasina taking office in her latest tenure as Prime Minister, the Bangladesh cabinet formally approved an amendment to the criminal procedure code, which granted immunity against arrest to editors, publishers, journalists and writers in defamation cases. A provision of the Special Powers Act 1974 that allowed government to shut down newspapers at will was also repealed in the first year of the new government’s tenure.

The Bangladesh Press Council (BPC), which was set up in 1974 and went into a period of oblivion before being revived in 1993, has powers of censure and admonishment. It can also act in defence of media rights by intervening when there is ground to suspect malafide cancellations of media registrations. Over the years, the council has evolved a point of view which holds that journalism is a profession that requires licensing. The model the BPC had in mind is analogous to the certification of legal or medical practitioners by empowered professional councils in Bangladesh, as also various other countries.

The idea of licensed journalists, while seemingly rather outlandish, does have some traction in the Bangladesh media community. More than anything else, this is an indication of how deeply the imperative of a professional code of ethics is felt among the country’s journalists. The applicable code promulgated by the BPC, includes a declaration in its preamble that the “war of liberation, its spirit and ideals must be sustained and upheld, and anything repugnant relative to the war of liberation and its spirit and ideals must not be printed, published or disseminated in any manner by the press”.

Quite clearly, this diktat of what is acceptable or not in media practice imposes too stringent a norm, prone to arbitrary interpretation and abuse. As a plural society, despite its relatively high degree of linguistic uniformity, Bangladesh is home to a variety of ideas and opinions about the war of liberation that brought the nation into being in 1971. By seeking to bring homogeneity to this multiplicity of views, the media code proposed by the BPC was seen to make little contribution to media ethics or freedom.

The BPC has had its moral victories in recent times. Early in 2011, it issued severely critical decisions about two Bangla newspapers Kaler Kantho and Bangladesh Pratidin that had carried reports indicating that Matiur Rahman, editor of the country’s largest circulated newspaper Prothom Alo, was among other things, in a grenade attack on an AL political rally in 2004. Both the newspapers under scrutiny belong to the Basundhara business group, which has extensive interests in real estate and other sectors.

The polemic against Matiur Rahman, a fighter in the country’s war of liberation and a recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay award in journalism, was later taken up by the Daily Sun, another newspaper from the Basundhara group. In July 2011, the veteran journalist Abed Khan resigned as editor of Kaler Kantho, heeding the BPC’s strictures and placing on record his repeated efforts to correct the aberrant reports on Matiur Rahman, which nonetheless were featured under pressure from his newspaper’s proprietors.

Khairuzzaman Kamal of the Bangladesh Manobadhikar Songbadik Forum (BMSF, or the Bangladesh Human Rights Reporters’ Forum) and other senior journalists have in recent times been actively campaigning to raise public awareness about the growing corporate control of the media. The integration of the media into a wider web of business relations, these activists argue, would seriously undermine its independence. The Transcom Group, which controls Prothom Alo and Daily Star, the country’s largest dailies in Bangla and English, has interests in processed foods and beverages, and electronics and electrical equipment among numerous others. The Basundhara group is involved in cement, real estate and steel. The Destiny group which runs Boisakhi TV channel, built its fortune on multi-level marketing and today faces serious criminal charges over financial wrongdoing. The Jamuna Group, which publishes the Bangla daily Jugantor, has at various times in its existence, had interests in textiles, real estate, chemicals and numerous other sectors. And the ATN group which launched Bangladesh’s first satellite TV channel has also ventured into textiles, among numerous other sectors.

“A handful of powerful business groups have been taking control of the expanding media market”, says the BMSF: “Corporate groups are demanding relaxation of rules on media ownership and spending vast sums on political donations which are designed to influence policy decisions”.

Competition between business groups is known to fuel a degree of political partisanship, which in turn feeds into the media world, undermining journalistic values of distance and dispassion

A seeming political vendetta
On 31 July 2011, Mohammad Ekramul Haq, editor of the Sheersha News web portal and the associated weekly newspaper Sheersha Kagoj was arrested at his home in a neighbourhood of Dhaka on charges of extortion. He was led away blindfolded and his family dealt with roughly by the police making the arrest. Charges were made against him of sending two reporters to the office of a local businessman a week before, to threaten him with negative news stories on the Sheersha News website, if a sum of BDT two million was not handed over

These charges were challenged by other journalists, including staff at Sheersha News, who claimed that the businessman who made the complaint against Haq before a local magistrate did not have his offices in the premises named in the complaint. Initially remanded for two days on orders of the Dhaka city magistrate, Haq’s remand was extended by another two days on August 3, after fresh charges of extortion were laid against him by the leader of an association of Bangladesh government employees. He was finally granted bail after three months in detention. In granting bail on 25 October 2011, the Bangladesh High Court observed that the principal complainant in the case of extortion, a fruit trader from the capital Dhaka, had furnished an identity and address which proved false. Shockingly, Haq was rearrested at the gates of a Dhaka prison on 1 November, at the moment of his release on bail. A fresh case of extortion was filed on the basis of a complaint from an official of the income tax department in Dhaka.

The government of Bangladesh meanwhile, challenged the High Court bench order granting bail before the Supreme Court, which heard the matter on 2 November 2011, and declined to stay it. Meanwhile, a Dhaka trial court on 9 November ordered his continuing detention in the new cases that had been filed. Five days later, the High Court issued an injunction against implicating him in any further cases and ordered an end to the harassment. Yet it was only on 25 November 2011 that Haq was released from prison.

The course of the cases brought against Haq, the hearings and the final outcome of the bail process lent credence to initial suspicions that the multiple charges brought against him were part of a political vendetta. Observers within Bangladesh suggested that his arrest may have been retribution for news reports carried on his website and newspaper regarding allegations of corruption in public works projects in Dhaka.

Haq himself is baffled by the number of complainants who came up to file cases against him, none of which he has ever had the slightest dealing with. He is aware that personnel from the Directorate of Field Intelligence, an army unit, were involved in his interrogation while in custody. Circumstantial evidence he suggests, points towards the involvement of the head of this unit, a serving army officer of the Major-General rank in his detention, interrogation and torture.

Independent human rights organisations believe that Haq has been victim of serious injustice. They have joined the campaign for his release but believes that they need a greater degree of transparency from the victimised journalist if they are to deepen their commitment to his cause. There is a belief among some human rights defenders, that Haq may have had some dealings with Field Intelligence operatives in earlier years and that the vendetta against him may have been occasioned by a change of personnel within the unit or by a agreement gone sour. Without further information, their involvement in his cause, they say, would  be difficult.

Defamation charges continue to be a weapon that political figures deploy against the media. On 13 September 2011, the Dhaka Metroptan Magistrate issued a summons to three journalists from the Bangla language daily Jugantor, after defamation charges were laid against them by Shahjahan Khan, a minister in the Bangladesh government. Charges were brought against editor Salma Islam, executive editor Saiful Alam and reporter Jashim Chowdhury following the publication of two reports which questioned the high expenses incurred in foreign travel by the minister and his political associates.

A court in Jhenaidah district in the west of the country on 31 January 2012 convicted a local student, son of a political leader of the Jamaat e-Islami party, for publishing “objectionable and misleading information” on the social networking site Facebook. The individual concerned had been assaulted by loyalists of the AL after he reportedly wrote what were deemed derogatory words about Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on his Facebook page. In declining the plea for leniency as he ordered the student jailed, the magistrate said that there was sufficient documentary evidence available to warrant a summary conclusion of guilt.

Traumatic twin murder
One of the most traumatic events of recent times was the twin murder of a journalist couple, Sagar Sarowar and Meherun Runi, in their home in Dhaka on 11 February 2012. Sarowar was a news editor for private television channel Maasranga, and his wife Runi was a senior reporter with another private television channel, ATN Bangla. Their bodies, both bearing deep stab wounds, were discovered on the morning of 12 February by a five-year old son.

As the official investigation failed to make much headway, Bangladesh’s journalists observed a one-hour work stoppage on 27 February. The demands for a thorough investigation and the swift arrest of those responsible, were made by a broad coalition of media organisations. Failing to get much of a response, the journalists unions began a relay hunger-strike on March 2.

Dhaka city police for their part, indicated they had a fair idea of the motive behind the crime, but could not reveal any details because that, ostensibly, would impede the investigation. A city court meanwhile, issued an order restraining “speculative media commentary” on the matter. This was read by many as an effort to restrain legitimate investigative journalism. At the time that this report is sent to press, there has been no progress in the investigations, at least as far as the public are aware.

On 20 May 2012, Mahfuzur Rahman, chairman of the ATN Bangla group mentioned at a formal gathering in London, that he had evidence about the double murder which indicated that it had nothing to do with journalism. Bangladesh’s journalist unions have since demanded that he either make the evidence public or withdraw the statement. As the stalemate persisted, the journalists organisations announced plans early in September to launch demonstrations outside the ATN Bangla office demanding police interrogation of Mahfuzur Rahman. An effort by Mahfuzur Rahman to secure a judicial injunction was not entertained and the demonstration went ahead. At the time of writing, the police are yet to reveal how far the investigations have proceeded, despite a public assurance by a senior government official that important information would be made public by 10 October.

The struggle for wages and working conditions
Despite their other differences, Bangladesh’s main journalists’ unions forged a common platform, the Sangbadik Shramik Karmachari Oikya Parishad (SSKOP, or United Committee of Working Journalists and Newspaper Employees) and organised early in March 2012 to demand the formal notification of a new wage fixation body. This followed the failure of Bangladesh’s Ministry for Information to formally constitute the eighth wage board for the newspaper industry through gazette by the end of February, despite an assurance from Information Minister Abul Kalam Azad at a meeting with the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ) on 22 January.

Within days of Bangladesh’s journalists resolving on pressing their demand for a new wage deal, the Newspaper Owners’ Association of Bangladesh (NOAB) mobilised in opposition. "Forming a new wage board three and a half years after the seventh wage board award will put the newspaper industry into a big crisis," NOAB said in a statement issued on 19 March.  The SSKOP responded within a day with the suggestion that the newspaper owners, rather than resist the formation of a body mandated by law, should adopt a strategy of cooperation in a spirit of transparency and openness.

Seven wage boards have been formed so far under a law adopted by Bangladesh’s parliament in 1974. The newspaper industry has resisted each of these and only complied with the statutory wage awards decreed after losing legal battles that have gone upto the country’s highest courts. The record of compliance remains patchy and uneven, with several of the new media outlets that began operations in recent boom years choosing to ignore the imperative of decent wages. The Eighth Wage Board was announced by the Government of Bangladesh after representations from the country’s journalists about increasing costs of living and growing job insecurity. A chair was nominated for the board and the various stakeholders from among news industry employees, including both sides of the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ) have named their representatives for the board. Yet the formal notification was delayed since news industry owners continue to resist.

It was only in June 2012 that the full Wage Board was constituted, headed by Kazi Ebadul Haq Chaudhary, a former judge of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court and a former Chair of the BPC.

Ethical standards
Questions of media ethics and best practices continue to feature in the public debate. Illustratively, in a statement before parliament in October 2010, the Minister for Information said that he was engaged in talks with leaders of journalists’ organisations towards evolving an appropriate professional code of conduct. This followed a searing, two-hour long attack on the media on the floor of parliament by ruling party members. According to media observers, the immediate provocation for the parliamentarians’ ire were two reports published in Prothom Alo, a prominent Bangla-language newspapers on inadmissible perks that they had claimed, including in terms of duty exemptions for imported cars and overseas travel allowances. The editor of the newspaper, Matiur Rahman, was mentioned by name and members called for legal action against him.

Among the measures proposed by Bangladesh’s Information Minister then was a stipulation that anybody appointed to the editor’s position in a media outlet would need to have a minimum number (typically, around fifteen) years of experience in journalism. Needless to say, the media community has pushed back strongly against this effort to fetter its functioning while affirming their commitment to a voluntary code of self-regulation.

Reflecting the spirit of confrontation between government and media, private television channels were directed by an official notification issued in September 2010 to carry at least two news bulletins from the state-owned broadcaster every day. Again the private channels pushed back strongly, arguing that the two proposed time-slots of 2 pm and 8 pm, were valuable in terms of harvesting advertisement revenue and could not be wasted in broadcasting the drab news content of the state-owned television. In their official response, ministers and government officials have indicated that they are inclined to adopt a course of friendly persuasion and consultation to ensure compliance both with the directive on news broadcasts and a code of ethics.

Targeted and random attacks
Journalists continue facing attacks from official quarters and other actors. These are on occasion motivated by specific issues connected to the professional conduct of the individuals concerned, though often these are opportunistic or random attacks on individuals who happen to be at the venue of some fracas performing their jobs.

Beginning in October 2007, Jahangir Alam Akash, a young journalist working in the northern Rajshahi district of Bangladesh, was picked up by the Rapid Action Battalion, an anti-terrorist squad, after he had published a number of reports on suspected extra-judicial killings. The charge against him was extortion. He was held in detention for several months and every effort to secure bail or discharge was thwarted by the device of filing more cases. He was finally set free after six months in detention and many months later, went into exile.

In October 2009, F.M. Masum, a staff reporter of the English-language New Age, was taken into custody by RAB personnel. Masum was assaulted on the doorstep of his home, ostensibly because he had delayed opening the door. Masum identified himself as a journalist, but was bound by his hands and feet, taken to the local RAB centre and severely tortured. Though it may be the case that Masum was picked up as a part of a wide dragnet that the RAB had spread in an effort ostensibly to track down a drug dealer, his troubles became more acute when his identity as a reporter with a critical newspaper was established. Masum’s was a rare case when official agencies released the detained person and subsequently admitted to their error. But there has been no action against the people responsible for his torture.

Other cases of journalists being assaulted while covering public events involving some degree of disorder are common. A recent instance was the police assault on a number of journalists on September 26, when they were at the venue of a demonstration by a youth organisation. The unions then responded with a sense of unity, compelling prompt action by the government. The head of the police station was suspended, as were eight of his subordinates.

Community radio on the rise
The growth of community radio broadcasting in Bangladesh could possibly hold the key to a more participatory and democratic media culture in the country. Several civil society organisations, had for long been campaigning for a liberalised policy environment for establishing community radio stations in Bangladesh. Among the last key decisions of the caretaker government that administered the country during the period of national “emergency” was a community radio policy that was relatively free of restrictions, and applications for broadcasting licences were invited in 2008.

Following the processing of a number of applications, a preliminary list of 116 was selected. After another long process of vetting, the Ministry of Information accorded primary approval to 12 entities for installing and operating community radio stations in April 2010. Another two licences were granted in a second round of approval a few weeks later. An evaluation of these initial licensees remains to be done. Questions of viability and utility to the community that is the putative beneficiary of each of these stations, need to be addressed.

Initiators of community radio face enormous challenges. They were given a very tight one-year deadline to commence broadcasting against the very tight one-year deadline, but frequency allocations and equipment purchase orders were only approved after a lapse of several months. Bangladesh has stepped way ahead of all other South Asian countries, except Nepal in the manner in which it has liberalised community radio broadcasting. There remain glitches in converting the promise of the policy to reality, but it is undoubtedly the next frontier of media development and growth in the country.

Right to information
A right to information (RTI) law was introduced as an ordinance issued by the “emergency” regime in 2008. It was subsequently drafted as a formal act and passed by Bangladesh’s parliament early in 2009. By global standards, the act is considered rather modest in terms of the entitlements it confers on citizens. The constitution of the bodies that will oversee the exercise of the right and ensure that it is honoured, has also on occasion been a contentious process. As with any legislative initiative measure that seeks to introduce radical measures of accountability, the RTI process has a long way to travel in Bangladesh. Various civil society actors have been getting involved in the process of raising public awareness of the law. And media practitioners expect that they will also be part of that process of positive change.

This situation report was prepared by the IFJ as part of its continuing engagement with partners in Bangladesh. An IFJ representative travelled to Bangladesh in May 2012 to consult with media professionals in the capital city of Dhaka towards preparing this report. The role of Khairuzzaman Kamal of the Bangladesh Manobadhikar Songbadik Forum (BMSF) and senior journalist Saleem Samad in facilitating this visit is gratefully acknowledged. In addition, the IFJ would like to place on record its gratitude to the following persons for sharing insights and information:

·         Abdul Jaleel Bhuiyan, Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists
·         Abdus Shahid, Dhaka Union of Journalists
·         Adilur Rahman Khan, Odhikar
·         Ata-ur Rahman, Bangladesh Journalists’ Rights Forum
·         Azizur Rahim ‘Peu’, Senior Photojournalist
·         David Bergman, New Age
·         Ekramul Haq Chaudhaury, Sheersha News
·         Haroon Habeeb, Senior Journalist
·         Iqbal Sobhan Chaudhary, Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists
·         Mahmudur Rahman, Acting Editor, Amar Desh
·         Mainul Islam Khan, Bangladesh Centre for Development, Journalism and Communication
·         Mohammad Nur Khan Liton, Ain o Salish Kendra
·         Monjurul Ehsan Bulbul, Boisakhi TV
·         Naimul Islam Khan, Editor, Amader Samay
·         Nasiruddin Elan, Odhikar
·         Nurul Kabir, Editor, New Age
·         Oliullah Noman, Correspondent, Amar Desh
·         P.K. Das, Justice (retired) Supreme Court of Bangladesh and Chairman, Bangladesh Press Council.
·         Rahnuma Ahmed, Columnist, New Age
·         Rubul Amin Ghazi, Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists
·         Shahidul Alam, Pathsala and Drik Academy
·         Shamsul Hoque Tuku, Minister of State for Home Affairs