December 25, 2018 / 1:40 PM / in 22 days

Masked youths attack Bangladeshi journalists covering election campaign

DHAKA (Reuters) - Around two dozen masked youths attacked a group of Bangladeshi reporters with hockey sticks and batons, injuring about 10 of them, when they were resting at a hotel after covering an election rally, the journalists said on Tuesday.

Posters and a replica of a boat, the voting symbol of Bangladesh Awami League, are seen as people walk on a street in Dhaka, Bangladesh, December 25, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

The incident, which occurred late on Monday in the town of Nawabgonj about 40 km (25 miles) from the capital Dhaka, is the latest in a series of violent attacks that have marred campaigning for a national election on Dec. 30.

The youths, whose identity remains unclear, also smashed hotel windows and vandalized more than a dozen vehicles belonging to media outlets or privately owned, the journalists said.

“Some of us had to take shelter inside the toilet out of fear,” Abdullah Tuhin, a journalist with a local TV channel, told Reuters. “The attackers threatened our colleagues and asked us to leave the place immediately or face serious consequences.”

Dhaka Reporters Unity, a union body, said many of its members had been “seriously injured” in the assault. Reuters could not immediately confirm the nature of the injuries.

Dhaka district’s top police official, Shah Mizan, said a police team sent to the hotel after the incident had not been able to immediately determine who the attackers were. No arrests have so far been made in the case.

Opposition parties have complained of violent attacks against their workers by ruling party activists and the arrests of candidates on what they say are trumped-up charges during the election campaign.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League, which is seeking a third straight term in power, has denied accusations of trying to intimidate opposition candidates and journalists.

One opposition lawmaker, Salma Islam, whose husband owns a leading newspaper and a TV channel, said she would file a police complaint soon over the hotel attack.

“It’s unfortunate and unwanted. They also tore off my banners. We will lodge a written complaint,” said Islam, who is contesting the election as an independent after quitting her Jatiya Party, which is part of the ruling coalition.

While Hasina’s administration has won plaudits globally for welcoming hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in neighboring Myanmar, critics accuse her of cracking down on free speech and adopting an increasingly authoritarian style.

In interviews Reuters conducted with 32 local journalists and editors in recent weeks, the vast majority said a recent strengthening of defamation laws had spread a climate of fear in Bangladesh’s media.

The government denies freedom of speech is under attack in the country of 165 million people.

Reporting By Serajul Quadir; Writing by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Gareth Jones

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