For Manik Chandra Saha, work always came first. It's not as though he never spent any time with his family, but there were few things that got the veteran journalist more excited than the possibility of a scoop. Unfortunately, that pursuit paved the way for his death.
In the winter of 2004, Manik, a Khulna correspondent for the Daily New Age and a contributor to the BBC Bengali Service, was supposed to take his daughter Natasha back to India. Her winter vacation had ended and classes were due to start at the end of January. He was scheduled to leave on January 13.
However, Manik decided to postpone his trip in order to attend a conference organised by the Khulna Metropolitan Awami League.
“After covering the programme, dada [Manik] and Balu bhai [Humayun Kabir Balu, another veteran journalist of that region] went to Khulna Press Club. We heard that a man had come to meet dada and they talked for a while, in one of the rooms of the second floor of the club,” recalls Pradip Saha, Manik Saha's younger brother.
“Later, at around 1.15 pm, dada started for home on a rickshaw. The rickshaw had barely moved 50 gauges, before some people came and threw a bomb at his head, and fled the scene. Dada died on the spot,” says Pradip.“No one was able to identify the miscreants or the person dada had met at the Press Club.”
According to Pradip, even after all these years, Manik's wife hasn't been able to completely recover from the shock of her husband's death. “Even, when the Prime Minister awarded dada with the Ekushey Padak in 2009, she and her daughter didn't go to receive the award,” he says.
Pradip reckons that Manik's reportage against the ruling party leaders back then was what led to his death.
After Manik's death, the police filed two cases—a murder case and a case under the Explosives Acts 1886 and prepared a charge sheet within three months. Pradip, however, argues that the charge sheet didn't include the names of the criminals who had played "the behind-the-scene roles.”
The court ordered a new investigation and a new charge sheet three months after his death, but nothing significant came out from this further exploration. 13 years after the murder, in 2016, nine people were sentenced to life imprisonment. The court also acquitted all the accused in the Explosives Act, due to lack of sufficient evidence. Manik's family firmly believes that the real culprits of the murder escaped.
The failure in holding perpetrators—often with political connections—accountable is the precise reason Bangladesh ranks 10th in the Global Impunity Index 2017 published by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent, nonprofit organisation that promotes press freedom. The Impunity Index, published each year to mark the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists on November 2, identifies countries with five or more unsolved murder cases of journalists.
According to the CPJ, amongst 21 journalists killed between 1992 – 2018, 15 were murdered with impunity.
Take the case of Humayun Kabir Balu, the editor of daily Janmabhumi and a friend of Manik. He was extremely vocal in demanding justice for Manik Saha. He even led a meeting with other renowned journalists of the Khulna Press Club, regarding the flawed charge sheet of Saha's murder. Three days after the news of the meeting was published, he too was killed in a bomb attack.
According to Asif Kabir, Balu's elder son, all the accused were set free in his father's case due to lack of evidence. “However, the judge gave some observations; the main point he made was that the charge sheet was very weak as there was a serious absence of necessary witnesses and proof,” Asif tells Star Weekend.
The above-mentioned cases may have taken place a long time ago, but researchers believe that little has changed in the recent past. According to another study conducted by Article 19, entitled, “Bangladesh: Ending impunity and protecting journalists from attacks”, attacks on journalists and communicators are increasing compared to previous years.
From 2013 to 2017, a total of 20 journalists and communicators were brutally killed, states the study, citing lengthy investigations as a major reason for the culture of impunity enjoyed by perpetrators. It also highlighted adjournments during investigations as a key cause of unnecessary delays—in most cases, the Investigative Officers (IO) aren't required to provide a reason (which is mandatory in the eyes of the law) for seeking an adjournment.
The trial of the highly-discussed Sagar-Runi case is a case in point. While the murder took place in 2012, the trial is yet to begin as law enforcers, mainly the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), have extended the time for submitting the progress report of the investigation a whopping 57 times.
When asked about updates on the case, Rab's legal and media wing director, Mufti Mahmud Khan informs Star Weekend that the investigation is ongoing and the IO has been giving periodic updates and progress about the case to the court.
Similarly, the trial for the killing of Samakal's journalist Abdul Hakim Shimul, who was killed in 2017, is yet to begin. For the murder, the police pressed charges against Shahzadpur's municipality mayor Halimul Haque Miru and 37 others in the last year. Shimul was allegedly shot by the mayor in broad daylight in 2017, while he was trying to take photos of illegal weapons used by the mayor and his men, duringa clash between two groups of AL.
While the above seems like an open and shut case, Shimul's family is extremely worried about getting justice. “Shimul lost his parents when he was young and was raised by his grandmother. The day his grandmother came to know of his death, she suffered a stroke and passed away. This is a double murder and I want justice, no matter how powerful they are,” says Nurunnahar, Shimul's wife.
Bimol Kundu, the president of Shahzadpur Press Club, explains just how difficult the situation is.
“The criminals are very powerful, and they are trying to influence the judicial process. For example, this January, the case has been moved to Sirajganj judge court from Shahzadpur. Now, the judge court is trying to make a charge, but on every date, the accused are giving excuses to further prolong the timeline,” he says.
“In addition, the Deputy Commissioner of Sirajgonj has labeled this as a 'sensational case,' and issued a letter to the home ministry to transfer the case to the speedy tribunal this February. But, the ministry has not approved it yet for unknown reasons. Our write-ups, human chains, processions—nothing could change that,” rants a frustrated Kundu.
Similarly, the case of Mashiur Rahman Utsho, a crime reporter of the Daily Juger Alo of Rangpur, who was allegedly killed by drug dealers in his area three years ago, is also in a tussle. While the police did prepare a charge sheet for the case a month ago, Utsho's mother claims that she was never once consulted.
Losing Utsho, the only earning person, the family has become financially insolvent, as nobody is here to extend a helping hand. Utsho's office gives only Tk 1,500 every month to bear the medicine expenses of his father.
“The investigation officer has been changed thrice, and thus it is taking time to start the trial,” says Sweety, Utsho's elder sister, who has been taking care of her old parents. According to Article 19, when an IO is engaged in several cases at a time or several IO's are appointed in one case, it becomes hard to find a concrete result for an individual case.
Faruq Faisal, South Asia Regional Director of Article 19, sheds light on why there are unexpected delays in the judicial process of the journalists' murder cases. “In Bangladesh, there's always a hidden agenda behind the killings of journalists, where politics is involved. So, the adherents of a ruling party enjoy political impunity. In fact, law enforcers and in some cases, the judiciary, becomes influenced for which the trials are delayed. In addition to that, in our country, the journalists are also politically divided, which doesn't fall under the ethics of journalism. In fact, journalists supporting the ruling party even try to protect the murderers. And when there is change in power, the situation is reversed,” states Faisal.
There's also widespread impunity for violence against journalists. On August 5, at least 12 journalists were injured by unknown helmet-wearing miscreants in the capital's Science Laboratory area, where students were protesting for safe roads. Amongst them, a photographer of the Associate Press, A M Ahad, was seriously injured with broken bones, requiring several stitches. The journalists' associations provided a 72-hour ultimatum demanding justice; to no one's surprise, nothing happened in the end.
Manjurul Ahsan Bulbul, president of Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ) believes, that a serious culture of impunity exists in Bangladesh in terms of killing and violence against journalists. “I won't blame any specific department for it, but I feel like there is an overall negligence while dealing with justice for journalists,” he says.
“For example, when a journalist is killed, the state has a responsibility; the home ministry has the most important role to play, which they usually don't. The government even lacks complete data on how many journalists have been killed, how many journalists have been assaulted so far or how many cases have been filed. The law enforcers don't come forward earnestly, the law department of the state doesn't emphasise it. When a state wants to provide freedom for the press, it should create a fearless environment for them,” comments Bulbul.
On this International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, it is imperative that the state owns up and takes tangible steps towards ensuring safety for journalists on the job and effectively end the culture of impunity. But until then, it will business as usual for those who always want to silence the press and the dream of a free press will remain just that- a dream.