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Volume 13 Number 1
New Delhi, Spring 2006

Human Rights and the Media in Bangladesh

Tharron McIvor
Intern, Access to Justice Programme, CHRI

Democracy is 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 growth.

However, this 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 include:

  • Amnesty International 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;
  • International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX) lists specific examples of murders, threats, and attacks on journalists;
  • Reporters 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”;
  • MediaWatch 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;
  • International 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.

Dr Beko Ransome-Kuti, 1940-2006

Dr 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 Nigeria’s 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.

Dr 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 Obasanjo.

In 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.

CHRI 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 CHRI’s 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.

After 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.

Many throughout CHRI, and many Nigerians, will mourn his death.

- Richard Bourne
Associate Fellow and former Head, Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit, London

CHRI Newsletter, Spring 2006

Editors: Mary Rendell & Clare Doube , CHRI;
Print: Chenthil Paramasivam ,
Web Developer: Swayam Mohanty, CHRI.
Acknowledgement: Many thanks to all contributors

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The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is an independent international NGO mandated to ensure the practical realisation of human rights in the Commonwealth.