Arresting the Messenger

A storm was created when Time magazine published an article recently portraying Bangladesh as the new haven for religious extremists and terrorists. This report had a major impact on the region plagued for long by international terrorism. It also gained world attention, as international terrorism has become a global issue, especially after the September 11 attacks forced the US to launch a war on terrorism.

This report was not easy to dismiss, though Bangladesh tried its best to do so. A similar article had been published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, but Bangladesh had shrugged off the allegations. However, this time, the allegations were far more serious. It linked Bangladesh with the al-Qaeda of bin-Laden, usually held responsible for the September 11 attacks, and reported that a group of al-Qaeda fighters, including its deputy Ayman Al Zawahiri, were in Bangladesh.

These reports surprised many as Bangladesh enjoyed the reputation of being a moderate and liberal Islamic country. But many changes have taken place in the country’s politics and culture after the October 2001 elections, with the resurgence of religious extremism and terrorism in the country. After the elections, unprecedented violence was unleashed against the religious minorities. Islamic fundamentalists launched a systematic campaign to free Bangladesh of minorities by scaring and driving them away. This violence was well documented and reported in the local and international media.

The media played a crucial role in exposing this violence against the minorities. First, a prominent Bangladeshi journalist and writer Shahriar Kabir came to Kolkata to report on the plight of the minority Hindus, who had fled persecution in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh police confiscated his videotapes, films and camera when he landed at the Dhaka international airport after the visit. Since then there have been regular attacks on secular and progressive intellectuals including journalists. The effort of fundamentalist forces like Jamaat-e-Islami, Harkat-ul-Jehad-ul-Islami and Islamic Chattra Shibir has been to silence their voices.

In Bangladesh, law and order has deteriorated to such an extent that its donors have asked it to improve the situation if the country wanted to get aid. A beleaguered Khalida Zia asked the security forces and police to launch a joint drive against criminals and terrorists on 17 October 2002. But this drive has achieved little and many allege that it has turned into a political vendetta. Meanwhile, the government has armed itself with four draconian laws restricting personal freedom and right to property. Several minority community leaders perceive these laws as being directed against them since they are viewed as supporters of the opposition Awami League party.

Naturally, this offensive by militant Islamic fundamentalists has earned Bangladesh a bad press, which the ruling rightist coalition of Khalida Zia seems determined to suppress. Reports linking Bangladesh with the ISI and al-Qaeda have further unnerved the government, which is sharing power with the fundamentalists, who have two ministers in the coalition government.

Having failed to curb the activities of the Islamists and terrorists, the government has commenced a crackdown on the media in a bid to salvage the image of the country. The Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) of Bangladesh has launched a campaign against the journalists with this aim. The arrests of two European journalists – British national Zaiba Naz Malik, and Italian-born Leopondo Bruno Sorentino – have occurred in this series; they have been charged with sedition and denied access to legal counsel. The DGFI has also arrested several local journalists, including Saleem Samad, who worked as their guide. He is the local representative of an international press watchdog Reporters Sans Frontiers. They have also arrested Pricila Raj, an NGO activist, who worked as interpreter for the European journalists. She was tortured to sign a confessional statement, and offered temptations to name several opposition leaders, which she refused. Besides, several others have been arrested and detained on mere suspicion, including Sumi Khan, another women journalist and the Chittagong representative of Shaptahik 2000, a vernacular weekly published from Dhaka.

A wrong headed approach has been adopted by Bangladesh to save its reputation. Instead of cracking down on the activities of religious fanatics and terrorists, it has decided to victimize journalists by charging them with sedition. This unwarranted restriction on the freedom of the press has made many people wonder what Bangladesh has to hide. If Bangladesh is serious about safeguarding its national interest and reputation as a moderate, progressive Islamic nation, it has to act against the extremists and fundamentalists. Only that will retrieve its reputation as a tolerant and liberal nation.