The killing of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family on August 15, 1975 might be the most gruesome political bloodshed in the country’s history, but the following day’s editions of the national dailies did not have any reflection of that whatsoever.
In fact, not just the following day, but for many years to come, publishing reports on the murders was nothing but a taboo for the newspapers. It was not until 20 years later that the brutal murders started getting wide media coverage in the mainstream newspapers.
The killing was the end result of a conspiracy hatched by some army officers and politicians, including senior Awami League leader Khandker Mushtaque Ahmed, who became the country’s president after the murders.
There were only four national newspapers in operation when the father of the nation and his family were killed.
They dailies were: state-owned Dainik Bangla and the Bangladesh Times; and privately owned and later nationalised Ittefaq and the Bangladesh Observer. Out of these four, only Ittefaq exists today – the other three have all been closed over the last three decades.
When analysed, the lead stories of all those four newspapers on their August 16, 1975 editions give the idea that it was just another murder from the streets. The lead stories were all about Khandker Mushtaque becoming the new president and the brutal murders were mentioned negligibly.
Decades after the killing, the country’s apex court in a landmark judgment declared Khandker Mushtaque and his successors Justice Abu Sadaat Mohammad Sayem and Maj Gen Ziaur Rahman’s power takeover and military rule illegal.
Shortly before dawn on this day 39 years ago, the attack on Bangabandhu's residence at Road number 32 in Dhanmondi left 11 people – Bangabandhu, his wife, two daughters-in-law, three sons including 10-year-old Russell, a brother and three others – dead. Two of Bangabandhu's daughters – Sheikh Hasina, now the country's prime minister and Sheikh Rehana – survived the bloodshed as they were abroad.
State-owned Bangla daily Dainik Bangla’s 8-column banner headline on August 16 read: “Khandker Mushtauqe New President.” The shoulder read: “Sheikh Mujib killed: martial law and emergency rule enforced: armed forces pledge allegiance.”
The Bangladesh Times – the other state-owned English newspaper at the time – had an identical headline: “Mushtaque Assumes Presidency.” The shoulder read: “Martial Law proclaimed in the country: Mujib killed.”
Both Dainik Bangla and the Bangladesh Times carried virtually unchanged a news report released by the state-owned news agency Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS). Understandably, their first two paragraphs were also similar.
Bangladesh Times’s first paragraph was like this: “The Armed Forces of Bangladesh took over power in the ‘greater national interest’ under the leadership of the President
Khondker Mushtaque Ahmed, toppling the former president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman early on Friday morning, reports BSS.”
The second paragraph reads: “The former President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was killed at his residence during the takeover, it was announced.”
Apart from that single-line mention, neither of the reports published by the two dailies on their front pages had anything more on the murders.
Anyone reading the stories could have got the idea that only Bangabandhu and nobody else were killed on that night.
Some government officials including Col Jamil Uddin Ahmed, who sacrificed his life trying to save Bangabandhu, and some civilians were also killed by the army personnel; but nothing was reported on them and no related photograph was printed.
The Bangladesh Observer published the same BSS report with a banner headline: “Mushtaque becomes President.” The shoulder read: “Armed Forces take over: Martial Law proclaimed: Curfew imposed” and the standfirst in block letters read: “Mujib Killed: Situation remains calm.”
Ittefaq however was a little different – not because it published a different story but because it treated the story a little differently from the others.
Instead of putting it up as the lead, the story was given six columns on the right of the front page, a place generally allotted for the second lead story of the day.
The headline reads: “Armed forces take over state power under the leadership of Khandker Mushtaque.” The shoulder however was different from the others; it read: “Eliminating corruption nepotism: Declaration of the aim to establish justice and values.”
Although the credit line said it was one of the newspaper’s own report, the first two paragraphs were identical with the first two paragraphs of the BSS report that the other three dailies had carried.
There was no mention of Bangabandhu’s killing either in the headline or in the shoulder. In the body of the report, there was only one line that said: “Former president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was killed at his residence during the takeover;” and that was it.
Ittefaq, then the highest circulated daily, has historically been very close to the Awami League and Bangabandhu and played a crucial role during the 1971 Liberation War.
On August 16, 1975, Ittefaq actually gave the lead treatment to its editorial which was titled “Historic New Journey.” That treatment was highly unusual.
The Bangladesh Times also published similar pieces as top items under the main 8-column banner headline. This newspaper, instead of calling it editorial, gave it the title: “Our Comment: On the threshold of a new Era.”
Dainik Bangla published an editorial in the lower fold of the front page with the title: “A historic step.” Bangladesh Observer also prominently published an editorial item on the front page with the title: “Historical necessity.”
Golam Sarwar, now the editor of leading Bangla daily Samakal and then the executive editor of Ittefaq’s sister concern Purbani, told the Dhaka Tribune: “There was total censorship at that time... The military junta that took over after the killing of Bangabandhu, imposed the censorship.”
He narrated: “The entire nation was stunned... Everything was in total control of Dalim and his associates.”
Lt Col Shariful Haque Dalim took over the Dhaka radio station on that day and made an announcement about the bloody changeover and the establishment of their supremacy.
“So, everyone was scared,” Sarwar said.
“At that time, the authorities [of the newspapers] did not have the strength to defy the military junta. As a result, their journalists could not show the courage either,” the veteran journalist said.
“The situation at that time was not conducive [for a journalist] to do anything against the attitude that the owners of the newspapers possessed,” Sarwar explained the predicament.
Bangabandhu’s killing remained untold for long because the 1975 newspapers and the state-owned Bangladesh Television and Bangladesh Betar (radio) – then the only two broadcasters – were under full control of the illegal martial law rule of Mushtaque, Sayem and Ziaur Rahman.
After the killing of Bangabandhu, subsequent rulers wanted to wipe out the news and evidence of their killing mission. The Supreme Court in its judgment in the Bangabandhu murder case said: “A murderer is always a murderer and a terrorist is always a terrorist and is enemy to mankind and humanity and an offender in the eyes of the law. To protect and shelter such killers is a great crime, a great sin and sin spares none.”
The apex court of the country strongly criticised the moves made by subsequent governments after the assassination of Bangabandhu for barring the trial of the heinous crime and instead rewarding the killers with top government posts.
Mushtaque, Sayem and Zia governments, by promulgating the illegal “indemnity ordinance,” barred the trial of Bangabandhu killers which kept his family from getting justice for decades.
The four newspapers then were publishing speeches of Mushtaque and also of Zia, who was appointed army chief nine days after Bangabandhu’s murder, and the activities of the martial law rulers.
On August 17, 1975, Dainik Bangla carried a tiny BSS report which was literally of one paragraph in length – it was on the burial of Bangabandhu.
The 37-word report read: “Former president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s body was taken to his village at Tungipara in Faridpur on Saturday by air and buried in his family graveyard with full respect.”
But decades later, when the tragic story of the killing and burial of Bangabandhu started surfacing in the newspapers, it became clear that the army personnel hurriedly buried the body of the founding father of the country with a level of respect that was everything but “full.”
After the killing, the newspapers turned into complete mouthpieces of the killers and the usurpers, who grabbed state power.
Senior journalist Toab Khan, who was press secretary to Bangabandhu until the bloodbath, is now an advisory editor of daily Janakantha. He said: “The newspapers then had to publish contents as per dictation and contents provided by the then illegal government.”
So, there was no scope for the newspapers to report on their own about Bangabandhu’s killing. Even when Gen Ziaur Rahman took over in late 1975, newspapers could not publish report on the issue.
Another veteran journalist Reazuddin Ahmed, now editor of The News Today, was a special correspondent at the Bangladesh Observer when Bangbandhu was killed. He said they could not cover Bangbandhu’s killing as “there was total restriction” on the newspapers.
After the bloodbath, Taheruddin Thakur, state minister for information in Mushtaque’s cabinet, used to brief journalists every afternoon at Bangabhaban, the official residence and office of the president.
“That briefing was our source of news... The situation at that time was completely against the freedom of press. In fact, the restriction imposed on press from the day Baksal was formed on June 16, 1975 [by the Bangabandhu government]... The Mushtaque government only reinforced those restrictions and imposed martial law... So, it was not possible to cover the killing of Sheikh Mujib on our own as journalists.”
After the formation of the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (Baksal), the Bangbandhu government allowed only four newspapers and shut down the rest. Dainik Bangla and the Bangladesh Times were already state-owned and the Baksal government nationalised Ittefaq and the Bangladesh Observer.
War crimes trial campaigner and writer Shahriar Kabir was the assistant editor of the then state-owned weekly Bichitra, a sister concern of Dainik Bangla.
He said: “We tried to assign reporter to cover the killing of Bangabandhu but we were not allowed to do so by the military authority.”