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Bangladesh Journalists Denied Press Freedoms That We Take for Granted

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Not so long ago I found myself on a cold rainy night ringing on the intercom at the 20-foot high security gate at the front of Mi6 in central London, dressed head-to- toe in PVC. My comedy partner in crime, Heydon Prowse, started to climb over the front gates of the building after asking through the intercom if he could perhaps trouble them for a tiny-weenie bit of a waterboarding? "Why just the Muslims," he cried out, "why not me?"

When you are asking police officers whether they are "part of the hired entertainment", and watching a crowd of people dressed as gimps singing "we want torture, let us in," it's easy to forget that just under the comedy of the situation lies a very serious fact. The British intelligence services had been complicit in the practice of extraordinary rendition and we intended to highlight it.

In the first series of our BBC3 show, The Revolution Will Be Televised, we targeted government, the banks and corporations who needed a metaphorical slap in the face. Our attacks, although good-humoured, were designed with the specific intention of highlighting injustice.

During this process I began to realise that I am extremely lucky. A point that may have been missed whilst confronting George Osborne with a GCSE maths textbook, or when placing a 'kick me' sticker on Ed Miliband's back, is that we were, within reason, free to do so. We undertook our satirical tomfoolery knowing that we could walk away with, at worst, no more than a slap on the wrist.

Ongoing events in Russia, where two members of the punk girl band Pussy Riot are still behind bars, are well documented in the UK, but recent events in Bangladesh provide an even starker contrast to our own experience and receive far too little press attention in Britain.

For Bangladeshi journalists, reporting the truth has resulted in arrest, severe beatings and even death. The past year has witnessed a systematic attack on press freedom by the current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League government.

In the past year, there have been over 100 documented attacks on journalists in Bangladesh. In the majority of these cases, it has been a criticism or exposure of the ruling Awami League party that has drawn the fire of the government. In one startling case, Awami League members ordered nineteen journalists to leave the city or they would be 'chopped to pieces and buried.'

Recent cases are too numerous to mention here, but they include a machete attack in a newsroom, the public beating of three photojournalists after covering a student demonstration and the assault of three journalists by police because they had accused inspectors of abusing a 15-year-old girl. Privately owned television stations were even temporarily shut down to prevent them from covering a major rally of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

The International Federation of Journalists has reported that there is a continuous threat and harassment against the press in Bangladesh. The World Development Indicators between 1992 and 2011 ranked Bangladesh as 11th in the Impunity Index Rating with regard to unsolved murders of journalists. 75% of journalists who have been killed so far in Bangladesh were targeted for reporting corruption, political scandals, and violations of human rights.

All of this is made even more deplorable by the reaction of the British government. Sheikh Hasina was given the red carpet treatment during the London Olympics. The prime minister, foreign secretary and leader of the opposition lined up to greet her with not a murmur of criticism. And while her henchmen did her dirty work back at home, she gave a speech at Number 10. This tacit approval of a regime that is brutalising journalists leaves me utterly repulsed.

As Bangladesh's largest financial backers - Britain contributes £250 million of aid each year - our government must use this leverage to demand a stop to this flagrant repression. Ministers at the Department of International Development and the Foreign Office must publicly challenge Sheikh Hasina to conform to basic standards of press freedom. Closed-door meetings or seeking 'assurances' is not enough when the beatings, disappearances and arrests show no sign of abating.

Where should the UK government start? Perhaps with an insistence that the case of Ilyas Ali is thoroughly investigated. A secretary in the opposition Bangladesh National Party, he disappeared along with his driver. Witnesses stated that the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) a government police force, who Hasina once described herself as a "death squad", took him from his car. Or they can demand the release of Mutafizur Rahman Sumon, who was reportedly beaten after heading a campaign against impunity for attacks on the media. He remains behind bars.

And in perhaps the most high-profile case, they should call for the release of Mir Quasem Ali, the head of the Diganta Media Corporation, which reaches millions of Bangladeshi through its TV and newspaper arms. Ali remains in prison after criticising the government-influenced War Crimes Tribunal. It is hard to believe that there are even some who call for Hasina to be put forward for the Nobel Peace Prize.

With elections next year, Bangladesh is entering an unsettling period in its short history, as it drifts towards becoming a one-party state. If an opposition remains, which I remain hopeful it will, Bangladeshis must be given a fair and balanced view on the political choice that awaits them. While our politicians remain shamefully silent, we must defend those who are brave enough to speak out in Bangladesh. And whilst I go round taking the piss out of the not-so-great and the not-so-good in the coming months, I shall be thinking more than once how lucky I am to be able to do so.