and the Media in Bangladesh
Intern, Access to Justice Programme, CHRI
a process, not an event”
– Rt. Hon. Don McKinnon, Commonwealth Secretary General
With a long history
of autocracy and military rule, Bangladesh finds itself striving
to portray a positive image to the world as a restored democracy
under the rule of the BNP party, led by Prime Minister Khaleda
Zia. In the midst of international censure over the presence of
terrorism and abuse of human rights within its borders, the Bangladesh
Government is feeling the pressure and is presenting a united
rhetoric of a vibrant democracy that is meeting the challenges
faced by all developing countries.
Indeed, it points
with pride to its successes of progress with some justification:
the growth rate has held at a steady 5% over the last several
years and recently it attracted praise in the 2005 Human Development
Report, showing impressive human development gains. In particular,
for the first time ever, Bangladesh has overtaken its large neighbor,
India, in achieving a lower child mortality rate and is continuing
to reduce this by 5% annually. The report notes that Bangladesh
demonstrates it is possible to sustain strong human development
across a broad front even at relatively modest levels of income
is not all the report has to say about Bangladesh. It also emphasises
that “if Bangladesh is to maintain its impressive progress up
the human development index, political parties need to seek common
ground for effectively addressing issues of human security”.1
One of the main issues of human security is that of journalists
and media persons, who have become a target for systematic abuse
by those who want to silence the voice of independent media.
Several high profile
NGOs have documented the human rights violations faced by the
media over the years since the BNP gained power in 2001. Examples
summarises abuses against media persons as human rights defenders
in its latest report on Bangladesh. These abuses include death
threats, attacks, and the deliberate mutilation of journalists’
hands and fingers so they can no longer hold a pen;
Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX) lists specific examples
of murders, threats, and attacks on journalists;
Without Borders (RSF), in its 2005 annual report, notes that
for the third year running, Bangladesh had the largest number
of journalists physically attacked or threatened with death.
Reinforced by governmental indifference, RSF describes Bangladesh
as “by far the world’s most violent country for journalists”;
coined 2005 the “Year of Repression for Journalists” in Bangladesh
with 164 receiving threats, 133 being physically assaulted,
and 2 being killed as a result of their work as media persons;
Federation of Journalists president Christopher Warren has stated
that, “death threats are becoming a pervasive part of daily
life for journalists in Bangladesh, preventing them from freely
reporting matters in the public interest. The intimidation is
a direct violation of civil rights, which are the basic tools
for a successful democracy”.
In response to
these concerns, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh attempted to
defend the state of affairs by arguing that journalists are damaging
Bangladesh’s image at home and abroad by publishing false information.
Whatever the argument, the abuse being faced by journalists in
Bangladesh is contrary to the explicit protections in the country’s
Constitution. Article 11 of the Constitution establishes a democratic
republic enshrining democracy and upholding fundamental human
rights standards. Article 39 guarantees freedom of thought and
speech, including a direct guarantee of freedom of the press.
These give expression to the international obligations Bangladesh
has agreed to. The prevention of such abuses is therefore not
merely a subject of international concern, but of international
and domestic law. The time is well overdue for the BNP Government
to meet its domestic and international obligations to implement
and actively protect the rights of the domestic media.
The media plays
a vital role in an active democracy. As the “fourth estate”, it
provides a check on the role of government and is a voice of the
people - freedom of expression is the lifeblood of democratic
growth. The current abuse of the media and governmental complicity
in Bangladesh is a block to the path of democracy. For Bangladesh
to progress as a democratic nation, it must recognise this and
restore protection to the media.
Beko Ransome-Kuti, 1940-2006
Beko Ransome-Kuti, who has just died of cancer at the
age of 65, was a pre-eminent human rights activist,
a dauntless foe of Nigerias military dictatorship,
and a key personality in the Commonwealth Human Rights
Initiative (CHRI). All those who knew him regret his
passing, his quiet voice, his utter determination, and
his infectious laugh.
Beko was the third child of
a famous Yoruba family from Abeokuta, western Nigeria. A female
ancestor had been rescued from a slave ship by a British naval
patrol, and trekked back to her homeland. His grandfather
founded some 15 Anglican churches, and translated hymns into
Yoruba. His father, Rev Israel Ransome-Kuti, was a grammar
school head who beat his children to make them good students;
his mother, Funmilayo, was a fire-eating nationalist who was
the first woman to hold a driving licence in subSaharan Africa.
Beko, as he was often known, qualified in medicine at Manchester
University in the 1960s and returned to Nigeria to practise.
His brother Fela, the wild and anti-government pop musician,
had established a lawless republic in a building in Lagos
during the military presidency of General Obasanjo in the
late 70s. His mother was thrown out of a window in a police
raid there, and died for which Beko never forgave
the 80s, with military dictatorships back again, Beko took
up the cause of human rights, helping to found the Committee
for the Defence of Human Rights. The Commonwealth Medical
Association nominated him to join an advisory group for
the new Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, and he attended
its early meetings in London and Delhi in 1989 and 1990.
Also an Amnesty prisoner of conscience, he stayed involved
with CHRI throughout the 90s.
spent much of its time trying to get Beko out of prison
his Lagos house was regularly raided and trashed
by security men but he was out in 1995 and able to
help the CHRIs influential mission which wrote Nigeria:
stolen by generals. Then he was sent to jail in Katsina,
in northern Nigeria, for four years. His food there improved
after a journalist sneaked in with a judge on an inspection,
and exposed prison conditions. His daughter smuggled a transistor
radio to him in a cake.
the end of the dictatorship Beko set up the Centre for Constitutional
Governance in Lagos. But he was a heavy smoker, and his
health had suffered from his treatment.
throughout CHRI, and many Nigerians, will mourn his death.
Associate Fellow and former Head, Commonwealth Policy
Studies Unit, London
Newsletter, Spring 2006
Doube , CHRI;
Layout: Print: Chenthil
Paramasivam , Web Developer:
Acknowledgement: Many thanks to all contributors
Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
by Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, B-117, 1st Floor, Sarvodaya
Enclave, New Delhi - 110017, India
Tel: +91-11-26850523, 26864678; Fax: +91-11-26864688; Email: email@example.com
Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is an independent international
NGO mandated to ensure the practical realisation of human rights
in the Commonwealth.