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Bangladeshi News Media Navigate Dangerous Environment

International media freedom groups call Bangladesh one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist, because of the number of threats and attacks on the media. At the same time, however, the country enjoys a vibrant free media, and reporters say there are shades of gray in the relationship between journalists and the people they report on.

The journalist advocacy group, Reporters Without Borders, or RSF, says that four journalists were murdered in Bangladesh in 2004, and 10 were arrested. That makes it one of the world's most dangerous countries to be a journalist.

RSF's Vincent Brossel says there is no shortage of people willing to threaten journalists.

"Correspondents of national dailies in the provinces, or including in Dhaka, are receiving threats from political militants, from mafia-bosses, from extremist religious people," he said. "It's now it's the truth and reality for the journalists in Bangladesh."

Bangladesh has dozens of newspapers, about 10 of which are considered mainstream, an independent radio station, plus three independent television broadcasters. The number of news media outlets mushroomed in 1990, with the country's democratic reform movement brought about the repeal of a law that allowed government control over the media.

Since then, many Dhaka newspaper editors say, Bangladesh has enjoyed a vibrant and free media. They often dismiss the threats as simply part of the country's rough and tumble political culture.

Bangladesh was founded in 1971. Much of its politics have revolved around a power struggle between two parties - the Bangladesh National Party and the Awami League, both of which have had a turn at the head of government.

RSF says politicians from both sides accuse the media of trying to destabilize the country through their reporting. Over the past few years, the government has been particularly critical of both domestic and foreign reporting about signs of Islamic extremists operating in the country.

"It's very ironic. You find that whenever you find that these politicians are in the opposition, they advise us to become more bold, courageous and very free," said Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury, head of the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists. "But whenever they go to power, they advise us to restrain ourselves to become objective…. You can call it sweet and sour relations between the politicians, the rulers and the journalist community."

In the newsroom of The Daily Amardesh, editor Amanullah Kabir is among those who say he does not feel threatened as a journalist. But he acknowledges the situation is different for reporters based outside of the capital, where lawlessness is an issue and journalists are poorly paid, meaning they must find other ways to earn money.

"They're involved in business, sometimes they're involved in politics, they're involved in different tricks," he said. "But that the same time, they're doing journalism, working for newspapers. So there are so many local factors, or personal factors, [which] are mostly responsible for the harassment, or for the risk - mostly."

Mr. Kabir estimates that only two or three of the reporters killed in Bangladesh's history were murdered because of their journalism alone.

Reporters Without Borders disagrees. RSF acknowledges that some journalists also have business interests or may even accept bribes from political figures in exchange for writing favorable reports - thus compromising their independence. But the group says there is no direct correlation between media corruption and those journalists who have been killed.

Two other international media advocacy groups, the International Federation of Journalists and the Committee to Protect Journalists, share RSF's concerns about violence against the media. The CPJ says nine journalists were threatened last month by Islamic extremists for reporting about their activities.

That can be risky in a country that until recently denied that any Islamic militants were operating within its borders.

In 2002, two foreign journalists working for a British television network and their local interpreter were arrested and detained for five days, accused of "anti-state activities" by the government, which said they were reporting on Islamic extremists. When they were released, their film was not returned to them. But in August, more than 200 bombs were detonated across Bangladesh within hours of each other - an attack that many saw as a warning by extremists to the government about their capabilities.

The Bangladeshi government has since cracked down on extremist groups. Still, Mr. Brossel from RSF says it is unfortunate that it took that attack for the government to see what the media had been saying.

"What was very sad also, many officials from the current government have been trying to limit the reports about the increasing phenomenon of the religious extremist groups," added Mr. Brossel. "And unfortunately when bombings have been starting, we just saw that the press was right, the government was wrong…. The press said that three, four years ago and nobody cares about it."

Journalists in Bangladesh, however, shrug off many of the problems and threats they encounter. It is all part of the political and business structure of the country. They say they will continue to get the news out, and share opinions, regardless of who criticizes them, or the risk of death.