Saleem Samad is an award-winning investigative reporter and recognised as an Ashoka Fellow (USA) for agenda setting journalism in 1991 and a recipient of the Hellman-Hammett Award recipient (2005). He is a correspondent for Paris-based international rights organisation Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and a pro-bono contributor to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). In this interview, Saleem Samad discusses the plight of dissident and non-dissident journalists with reference to the recently ratified Digital Security Act, the global phenomenon of fake news, the abuse of female news reporters and the conditions of prisons in Bangladesh.
Interview by Syeda Begum. Syeda Begum is a third-year undergraduate student studying International Relations at Queen Mary University, London. This interview was conducted as part of her dissertation research: How does Bangladesh use precarization as a method of governance against dissident journalists? This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Syeda Begum: Hi Saleem, how are you?
Saleem Samad: I’m fine, thank you.
Syeda Begum: Thank you so much for speaking to me today. As you know, the aim of my research is to find out how Bangladesh makes dissident journalists precarious as a form of governance. So, just to get started, why did you decide to become a journalist?
Saleem Samad: Well, that’s a long story. But what I can tell you is that I wanted to be heard. I wanted to speak out and I wanted people to listen to me. Unfortunately, I was kicked out by my father because I was very outspoken. So, I had to leave that house and stay independently. That was 47 years ago, just a couple of months before the war started in 1971. I was not arguing, but some thoughts need to be heard. People must debate with me. People must listen to me, and after exploring and talking to different people, I decided to be a reporter instead of in a newsroom.
Syeda Begum: So, what do you make of the media freedom in Bangladesh?
Saleem Samad: First of all, it is very difficult because you have to understand, we have a ‘sub-continental issue’. The sub-continental issue means we are not different from the people in India or people in Pakistan. We have the same culture, the same mind-set, the thought-process is almost the same. I mean whether you talk about religion, politics or the state, nation, anything. Obviously, press freedom cannot function when the people do not practice democracy at their home.
My father is the boss of the house. My mother has no say, neither my sister nor my brother. So, the same person is a politician, a bureaucrat, a military officer, he’s everywhere. So, that’s the biggest problem, democracy has not been practiced at our home. We do not, we cannot speak out, and nobody listens to me. And obviously in that scenario, when you talk about press freedom, the journalists believe that ‘whatever I saw, whatever I heard, I want to publish’. That is where is the conflict.
Syeda Begum: Can you give me some examples of the challenges that people such as yourself face when you’re trying to speak out about your views?
Saleem Samad: Since the so-called democratic government has taken power–and if you look into all the incidents of press freedom violation, attacks on the press, and the murder of the journalists to silence their voice – it is all because of the intolerance of politicians. Not only the politician, but also the underworld dons who have connections with the state, connections with the politicians, who really want the people to shut up. So, this is one of the major challenges. So, when you are harassed, intimidated, there’s nowhere you can go. There’s nowhere for you to even take shelter. There’s nowhere you can express your grievances.
And if I talk about justice, since Bangladesh’s 1991, the number of journalists who have been killed, not a single murder has received any justice. The family has not received any justice for the death of their family member who was incidentally a journalist. Even if you’re badly injured, like Probir Sikdar who was attacked during Sheikh Hasina’s regime in ‘96 to 2001. We believed that he would have got justice when Khaleda Zia came to power in 2001. That case never crossed the door of the court, even during Khaleda Zia’s regime, despite all the efforts by his lawyers and by international media rights groups like CPJ and RSF. Even the investigation report, submitted by the police was incomplete, and the prime suspect was never mentioned. So, when there is an issue of journalists who don’t get justice, or do not know where to go, you can only expect there is a vacuum of press freedom in Bangladesh.
Syeda Begum: So, in cases where the victims don’t get proper justice, what are the consequences?
Saleem Samad: Nothing happens. If that case is still in the court, every few months, they have to appear in the court, because the police has already filed a charge sheet. So, either they have to say that ‘I don’t agree with the charge sheet and with the investigation report,’ or you challenge the report in the Court. So, they’re literally shuttling between their office, the workplace, and the court every few months.
Syeda Begum: And are they able to resume their previous activities, for the reasons why they were charged?
Saleem Samad: Mostly. Most of them are still in the profession. Some of them have gone into exile. The rest of the journalists who are victims, victims meaning badly injured, hospitalised and had to go abroad for medical attention, have returned back to their profession. Some of them are now well-placed in mainstream media, some of them are still struggling. The majority of them who were working in a small town or small cities, they all have migrated to Dhaka, the capital, where they feel much safer. They don’t want to go to their small towns, like they don’t want to go to Khulna, they don’t want to go to Barisal, they don’t want to go to Jessore. I mean these are the many, many cities that they don’t want to go because it is dangerous for them because they know who the victims are, who the masterminds of the attacks are.
Syeda Begum: How have the lives of dissident journalists been affected by the recently ratified Digital Security Act, and even previously with the Information, Communication, and Technology Act?
Saleem Samad: Well, when you say dissident, what I understand is dissidents are mostly bloggers or micro-bloggers or Facebook users. It is very difficult to find a journalist who is a dissident. There are hundreds of bloggers and micro-bloggers as well as Facebook users who are dissidents, literally dissidents. Either they are very critical of the religion, religious practices, they’re very critical of the Islamist party, or they’re very critical of the regime. But the dissidents are much more vulnerable because they’ll never be able to go to the police for protection or to file a case that ‘I’ve been issued a death threat’. So that’s one of the biggest difficulties. Once they go to the police, they will be arrested on the issue of blasphemy. But that’s a common issue, whether you write against or criticise religion or raise an issue of the Islamist party, it doesn’t matter, you’ll be accused for blasphemy. So obviously, these dissidents are afraid, and many of the dissidents have left the country. The majority of them have changed address, they have even changed their names in their blogs, or on Facebook, or Twitter, so that they are not being hounded or hunted by both the Islamists or the security agencies.
Earlier, there was no law to accuse somebody for blasphemy. But the Digital Security Act and you mentioned the ICT Act, in both Acts, there is a clause that you can accuse for blasphemy. If I may tell you a few things, the impact that has occurred since the ICT Act has been implemented and especially the Digital Security Act, there’s a massive visible self-censorship in the mainstream media whether it’s television or the print newspapers because of the threat of the Digital Security Act.
Syeda Begum: This threat that the Digital Security Act poses, to what extent does it reach beyond suppressing human rights? Does it do more than attack human rights?
Saleem Samad: Of course. I mean, take the case of Shahidul Alam, incidentally he’s my school friend and a very interesting example. The Digital Security Act will definitely give full power to the police. The police can right now when I am talking to you, if they overhear what I am talking to you, they think that I am a threat to the state or whatever I am saying is very critical of the government, they can barge into my house without any warrant and they can arrest me, they can confiscate all my materials like my wi-fi, my laptop, even my phone, and whatever I have, anything to do with digital communication. The law is definitely a strict violation of the constitution of Bangladesh because it doesn’t allow me to appear in the court to seek a bail petition. I have to be in prison like Shahidul Alam until the case is heard by the Cyber Security Court.
Syeda Begum: On the 3rd of October, the Prime Minister said that journalists who do not publish false news don’t need to worry about the Digital Security Act. How can we understand this view towards fake news and its association with journalists?
Saleem Samad: Well, she often uses the words “independent journalism”. Independent journalists don’t exist anywhere in the world. You cannot be independent. You have to be something. If you are voting for somebody, then you are not an independent journalist. It is very difficult to practice independent journalism. She also often uses the words “responsible journalism”. Is there something called “responsible journalism”? I’m not a salesperson. I’m not giving an after-sale service, taking responsibility of whatever has been sold. If I’m selling my news through a newspaper, of course the editor takes responsibility of whatever has been published. But if you talk about responsible journalism, this means you have to be pro-government. That’s the word that my Prime Minister loves to hear and talk about, and if you do not practice responsible journalism, you are off-board.
The Prime Minister doesn’t like two major newspapers, one is The Daily Star, edited by Mahfuz Anam and one is Prothom Alo, edited by Matiur Rahman. She often places volumes of conspiratorial accusations against the newspapers and the editors. The two newspapers are not invited to any official function whether it’s Parliament, or the Prime Minister’s press conference, even a Head of State. If the British Prime Minister comes to Bangladesh, The Daily Star and Prothom Alo will never get an accreditation pass to cover the visit. So, if this is practiced by a Head of State against newspapers, what message is given to the rest of the newspapers and the rest of the electronic media?
Syeda Begum: Do you think this strategy being used by the Prime Minister is working?
Saleem Samad: Yes. She is very smart. I mean, I can vouch for her. She is one of the smartest political leaders to emerge during Bangladesh’s political dynasty. After Mujib, yes, she is one of the smartest. There is a pro-government association who are supported, literally cajoled by and even funded by the state. Pro-government means pro Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. So, there’s no leader or not even a small-time member of the press committee who is from the opposition or from any other independent newspaper. So, she has a huge number of stakeholders in the media who are pro-government. All of the elections of the Press Club, the Dhaka Union of Journalists, the Dhaka Reporters Unity, the state security intelligence directly works every day for a month to ensure that the pro-government, pro-Hasina journalists are being elected to the committee. This is an open secret.
Syeda Begum: So, on the one hand Sheikh Hasina’s strategy is successful and on the other hand, many dissidents are continuing to write and speak out. How does that pan out?
Saleem Samad: Well, first of all, there is no opposition newspaper. There are newspapers which are published, like the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s newspaper, the Islamists have a newspaper, Jamaat-e-Islami also have a newspaper. But they just have to publish news on the front page and back page, whatever the government wishes. The government doesn’t tell them “do this and do that”, so they just copy. Copy means publish the stories from the national news agency, so they are not playing with the current in the river. That’s one reason you will never hear of journalists who are arrested or harassed in the pro-government newspaper. As I mentioned earlier, they heavily practice self-censorship, so they’re not harassed, they’re not intimidated, and they’re not been targeted by an agency, so long as they’re loyal and don’t try to tell nonsense stories.
Syeda Begum: So, given that they practice self-censorship quite heavily, how does press freedom then function?
Saleem Samad: So, first of all, the government is very intolerant, and with the third term in power, the Prime Minister will be more authoritarian. She wants to have more relations with China. She has a very good relationship with India, with Russia, with United States, and European Union, Britain and Japan. And you’ll often find she’s visiting these countries and their Heads of State are coming to Bangladesh. The point is she has excellent relationships with the external powers if you talk about Japan, China, Russia, United States, Britain and European Union. Who else does she needs to fear? The journalists? Does she give a damn? She knows that it’s very easy to punish them under the Digital Security Act.
Let me tell you one very interesting thing about Bangladesh after 1991, after the military regime had expired and the democratic government came to power. All the laws which were a bottleneck for the freedom of the press, all the black laws and all the draconian laws had been scrapped. So apparently, there is no law to punish a journalist, even if the journalist writes fake news. So, the Digital Security Act is the only weapon for the Bangladesh government to harass and intimidate a journalist.
Syeda Begum: You mentioned that the Prime Minister is friends with these external powers. How have you found the response of the international community to the Digital Security Act?
Saleem Samad: Well, frankly speaking, none of the international community or the international organisations have given any scope or any concession regarding the Digital Security Act. None. Possibly a few countries are silent because they’re not bothered, because they also want a Digital Security Act. But if you’re talking about the European Union, Britain, the US, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, RSF, the Committee to Protect Journalists, you name any international organisation, they have vehemently protested the implementation of this law.
Syeda Begum: So, given the high level of backlash from the community and even within Bangladesh, is it then self-defeating because the Prime Minister is inadvertently encouraging people to now speak out?
Saleem Samad: Let me give you another interesting episode which happened when the draft of the Digital Security Act moved in the Parliament. For the first time, the editors, the reporters, the journalists, you just name it, even the photographers, the press photographers, they all literally came to the street and protested against the Digital Security Act. But the government did not budge, did not give a single concession. Why? Again, going back to the point that the Union is pro-government, the Press Club is pro-government, the Dhaka Reporters Unity is pro-government, the Press Photographer’s Association is pro-government. So, the government isn’t bothered. They don’t threaten us, ‘Ay, why are you in the street protesting?’. But they do not care because the government knows that the professional, media bodies are listening to the government. In fact, all the professional media bodies like the Union, the Press Club, all of them have gone with flower bouquets to congratulate the Prime Minister for winning the third time.
Syeda Begum: How have the lives of female journalists or female dissidents been affected by this form of governance from Bangladesh?
Saleem Samad: Female journalists are not targeted by the government. They’re targeted by the Islamist party. They often speak very loudly that the female reporter should not come out of the newspaper office, because they are not very familiar with who’s a television reporter and who’s a newspaper reporter. But the females are threatened that they should either resign, or the newspaper or television should have them work in-house.
Obviously, when a female reporter is alone, she’s very afraid. I mean, you can see, you can read her face, that she’s very afraid if she’s alone somewhere. Like say covering a journalist strike and the shutdown of transport, you’ll not find a female reporter at the intersection alone. Many female reporters were attacked by Islamists. Obviously, there is a fear of the bearded guy with a turban but, if you’re talking about a female journalist, there is no incident in the last ten years of a female journalist arrested or harassed by these draconian laws.
Syeda Begum: You mentioned there’s a fear of attack. Is this attack verbal? Physical?
Saleem Samad: Physical. Many of the female journalists were attacked by the Islamists openly, in the street. They’re chased and they’re beaten. Nadia Sharmeen, who is now with the Ekattor Television was not only assaulted. The entire route she was escaping by, the mullahs chased her and were shouting “Please catch her. She is an infidel”.
Like Nadia Sharmeen, there were five female reporters who were on the street and were attacked. And since then, female reporters ensure that other reporters are also there. Usually, that’s one of the reasons you’ll find them mostly in press conferences or covering a major event. But it’s very difficult for them to cover independently, alone. It is very risky. All the female journalists in Bangladesh regularly face verbal abuse.
Syeda Begum: What is provoking the verbal abuse? Is it just her profession?
Saleem Samad: Yes, only because of the profession. And obviously, a woman reporter is not covered, meaning not the Islamic way of covering because they have to rush and run. So, they cannot wear a saree or even a salwar kameez and obviously the orna, the scarf is mostly hanged or looped around her neck, so obviously, she’s not well covered. That is why most people shout at them, “Hey, you’re a Muslim, and you are not covered” – and of course, I am trying to translate only the good words that they use. They even use the word “prostitute”, you just name a word.
But you’ll not find this in front of a Press Club because the Press Club is the only place in Dhaka where most of the demonstrators are women protesting in front of the Press Club. So, they would not dare to shout at the journalists.
Syeda Begum: What effect does this have? Does it stop them from doing their job, or are they able to continue?
Saleem Samad: Some of them have quit, and went to different professions like gender, communication, media communication or jobs in other big companies or corporations. The first opposition comes from the family. They don’t get vast support from their family. The first thing they say, “Pull out”, “Get out of this job”, “Stay indoors”, “Be a regular housewife”. Even in the workplace, I mean commonly, the male colleagues will use filthy language, like “Oh, you’re looking beautiful today”, “I like your lipstick”, “I like your this, I like your that”. What is the meaning of this? This is workplace sexual harassment.
Yes, there is empowerment. Yes, the women in the villages, they count their money. They know how to do their savings, and yes, now they know they have to send all their children to school. The village scenario has dramatically changed. But again, women, even in the rural areas, they always are together. Once they are singled out, they’re alone, they’re verbally abused. So, this scenario is also in the capital Dhaka.
Syeda Begum: So, we’ve talked a lot about the threats, facing both male and female dissident and non-dissident journalists. Are these threats of violence and abuse targeted solely at the individual?
Saleem Samad: Mostly individual, the overwhelming numbers are individuals. Mostly all of these attacks, intimidation, or harassment is based on the person, the reporter who’s writing a story. Once its published or online, that person is singular. And if you look into the Digital Security Act, the number of journalists who were arrested or accused, you’ll mostly find the particular reporter has been named in the FIR police report. The editor who is in charge of the story has not been mentioned.
Syeda Begum: As the name of the journalist is revealed, are the family or friends of that person threatened as well, or do they have any reason to be scared?
Saleem Samad: Yes, they are. The families are intimidated. For example, first of all, they raid their home. If they don’t find the journalist at home, they literally confine the family in their house for hours. So, this is intimidation and harassment because the police have been given all authority – not the court, no third person, no third organisation or any agencies who are supposed to take a harassed journalist.
Syeda Begum: And in these cases, where the family are intimidated, who can they go to for protection?
Saleem Samad: Of course, they try to find connections like political leaders or the journalists’ leaders and obviously they cannot help, “Oh no, this is a police case, you are going to go to the Court”. Most of the cases don’t get bail. 99% journalists don’t get bail on the first hearing. They can only get bail from the Higher Court.
Syeda Begum: And during that time, they’re held in remand in prison?
Saleem Samad: Yes, they are in prison, and of course they are tortured. Physically tortured. Once the Court has granted, say, two days or 5 days remand, they try to get him to confess to a story, fairy tales that the police have drafted, or whoever is behind that case has drafted, and now you have to sign this document. So, sometimes they have to, some of them are so innocent, they, that they, they say, “Okay, if I sign, would I be released?” “Oh yes, you’ll be released early morning tomorrow”. So, they sign and once you sign, they present it in the court that this reporter has confessed that he has done wrong.
Syeda Begum: What are the sorts of circumstances in jail for dissidents and prisoners?
Saleem Samad: I was in prison in 2002 to 2003. I was working for Channel 4, and I was arrested for working for Channel 4 along with two other journalists. So, I know of the prison conditions, and I believe nothing has changed. There’s no reform. I mean, if you use the word reform, this reform word has not touched neither the legal system nor the judiciary, or the prison. It’s sort of like what would happen say maybe three centuries ago, putting them in dungeons where they don’t get enough food, they don’t get enough water to shower, and they don’t have enough toilets to do their other activities since morning. They scream at the victim and say, “You shit in your pant,” or “You pee in your pant”.
I was literally continuously tortured for three and half days to sign two documents. I refused. I said “You can kill me, you can break all my bones, but I don’t want to sign. I’m not going to sign”. Because by signing, they’ll arrest a few more. So, we have a small network which talks about the human rights of journalists. What we do is we get volunteers to go and hang around the police station for hours or a whole night. Otherwise they will be physically tortured.
Syeda Begum: Do you face any threats whilst you’re there?
Saleem Samad: No, because we’re also talking to the volunteers, and they start calling up other, even mid-level leaders from the Union to come. So, it gives another pressure on the police officers. Of course, the police officers behave well because they see the President, the very senior leaders from the Press Club, the senior leaders from the Union, and other senior reporters.
Syeda Begum: If you are a blogger, who might not have ties to journalists such as yourself or mid-level Union leaders, what is your fate going to be?
Saleem Samad: Bloggers, I’m very sad to describe their issue. Number one, they do not have a network. So, obviously nobody comes to the police station. And if other bloggers or online activists go to the police station, the police officers shout at them that “You’re also an atheist. So, you’ve come to help your atheist? Ay, arrest them.” Obviously, those online activists and the bloggers quietly move away from the police station and just because they’re not in any mainstream network like the journalists’ union.
Syeda Begum: Would they be subjected to torture?
Saleem Samad: Yes, in all cases. The worst victims, if you broadly talk about whoever is practicing freedom of thought or freedom of expression, the worst victims are the bloggers and the online activists, because there’s nobody to protect them and they don’t have any networks. The one thing is good that the bloggers’ stories are appearing prominently in all the mainstream newspapers as well as television. That is one sort of protection, in that at least his name has appeared, his picture appeared, and he’s appearing in the court.
But as I mentioned earlier, many bloggers changed their address, changed their phone number, they changed their name. Some bloggers even posted that “I have understood that criticising religion is very bad. I don’t want to go to hell. So, I apologise for all the articles I have posted on the blog”. Often, they put their apology note on their blog, and they shut it down.
Syeda Begum: In 2015-2016, Bangladesh became particularly known for obviously the brutal murders of so many bloggers. Why was it that the murders were able to be done so openly in broad daylight?
Saleem Samad: Some of the people who were arrested volunteered to kill. It was not something like giving a responsibility, so the Islamists ask, “Who’s going to kill this apostate” or “Who’s going to kill this atheist” or “Who’s going to kill this infidel?” So, some volunteers don’t care because they know if they kill, they will go to heaven and have seventy hoors (women of Paradise), so they come openly and hack people. But in any case, I’m going to heaven. I don’t have to kill any apostate to go to heaven.
Syeda Begum: Of course. Well, that wraps up all of my questions. Thank you so much for speaking to me. It was very informative and a really interesting discussion. Your insights were really illuminating in relation to the lives of journalists and the current situation of press freedom in Bangladesh.
Saleem Samad: Thank you and you’re welcome. I deeply appreciate the thematic issue you have selected for your research and the brilliant research you are doing.