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Bangladesh: journalists under attack

War crimes tribunal coverage has led to increased intimidation of foreign and local journalists alike.

Bangladesh journalists attack 2012 03 01Enlarge
Bangladeshi journalists demonstrate in Dhaka in 2004. (Farjana K. Godhuly/AFP/Getty Images)

DHAKA, Bangladesh — Megh called his grandmother in the early hours of Feb. 11 to describe an unexpected scene of carnage in his home. The 5-year-old had found both his parents murdered in the next room.

Megh’s parents — Sagar Sarowar and Meherun Runi — were established journalists working for prominent news organizations in the Bangladesh's capital city. Runi had been stabbed five times; her husband fared worse, suffering 28 knife wounds. According to most reports, the only item missing from their apartment was a laptop.

The deaths of Sagar and Runi reflect the increasingly difficult circumstances in which Bangladesh’s local reporters operate: last year one had a bomb thrown into his home.

But in recent weeks, as the foreign correspondent community has been shaken by the deaths of Marie Colvin and others in Syria, Dhaka has seen its foreign media representatives — not just local reporters, who have suffered a climate of initimidation for decades — besieged like never before.

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As a long-awaited war crimes tribunal kicks into gear, eight opposition leaders face the possibility of death by hanging for collaborating with the Pakistan army during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971.

Covering this trial has led to expat journalists and foreign media outlets being subjected to the intimidation that had previously been reserved for local muckrakers.

High-profile foreign journalists beseiged

On Feb. 12, the country’s media, stunned by Sagar and Runi’s murders, reacted in unified anger on behalf of their slain colleagues and demanded the killers be brought to justice immediately.

Six days later they came together again, but this time it was to attack a colleague. French journalist Nicolas Haque and his broadcaster, Al Jazeera English, had invited an unprecedented assault with the interview of Ghulam Azam's son.

Azam, who was recently arrested, is a defendant in the war crimes tribunal and the leader Jamaat-e-Islami, a political party accused of supporting Islamist terrorism.

Haque's report was condemned for asserting that the potential hanging of eight opposition leaders could cause political instability. Following the airing of the story, articles lambasting Haque and Al Jazeera popped up on the front page of roughly half of Bangladesh’s newspapers.

Al Jazeera has since been evicted from their office space, and Haque says he has noticed people shadowing him while he was out on shoots. The channel has pulled the report from its website.

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“The context of the Al Jazeera attacks was significant,” said David Bergman, a British citizen writing for a Bangladeshi daily. “That is, an intelligence agency contacting a lot of media and telling them that the Al Jazeera reporter was in effect a person bribed by the Jamaat doing Jamaat's lobbying deeds.”

Around the same time Bergman, who has lived in Bangladesh for seven years, was facing charges of his own — for being in contempt of court for an article he wrote on the war crimes trial.

Bergman was taken to court for expressing the view that some people feared the tribunal was not following due process.

“The court suggested [Bergman] be cautious while writing and publishing articles on the proceedings of the tribunal,” Priyo News wrote of the Feb. 19 verdict that found his piece to be contemptuous.

The national parliament has since passed a resolution seeking new legislation allowing action to be taken against "those obstructing the war crimes trial," which could potentially censure unfavorable commentary.

US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake, visiting Dhaka in mid-February, raised concerns about press freedom to Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Dipu Moni.

The events recall the Bangladeshi government’s campaign last year to oust Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus from his position as chairman of microcredit pioneer Grameen Bank. The move was heavily criticized by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and resulted in a freeze in diplomatic relations that has only recently thawed.

Obscuring the crimes of a bloody past

Most of those standing trial in Bangladesh belong to the party accused of supporting Islamist terrorism, Jamaat-e-Islami. They are charged with committing atrocities including mass rape and genocidal targeting of Hindus during the 1971 war, after which Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan.

The war was brief but brutal. Estimates of the number of Bangladeshis killed in a nine-month period by the