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Lawsuits against editor Mahfuz Anam - Attempt to stifle independent media’ in Bangladesh

19 February 2016

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BBC News

Attempt to crush independent media’ in Bangladesh

Justin Rowlatt South Asia correspondent

18 February 2016

From the section Asia

Image copyright Daily Star

Image caption Mahfuz Anam has been accused of treason

It can seem a bit self-righteous when journalists write about the importance of freedom of the press, a bit like a chef celebrating the virtues of a fancy meal or a hairdresser extolling the importance of a new haircut.

But the public’s right to know what is really going on in their country really is the cornerstone of a free society.

Without free access to information, backed up by journalists who are willing to dig down and get to the truth, all the other liberties celebrated in democracies are endangered.

That’s why the world should be worried by the concerted attacks on one of the leading newspaper editors in South Asia, Mahfuz Anam of Bangladesh’s Daily Star.

The Daily Star is the most popular English-language newspaper in Bangladesh.

It was launched as Bangladesh returned to parliamentary democracy a quarter of a century ago, and has always had a reputation for journalistic integrity and liberal and progressive views - a kind of Bangladeshi New York Times.

That’s why it is so shocking that Mr Anam now stands accused of treason, no less.

Sajeeb Wajed, the son of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has described him as "completely unethical" and a liar, and has demanded he be thrown in jail.

Mr Wajed is at the head of a queue of dozens of politicians, student agitators and others who have launched criminal defamation charges against the eminent editor.

I will go into the details of the allegations against Mr Anam in a moment, but first it is important that the claims are set in context, because it is hard not to see this as the latest line of attack in a concerted effort to gag one of the last independent media organisations in the country.

The Daily Star
Image copyright Getty Images

  • Bangladesh’s leading English-language daily, with an estimated circulation of 45,000
  • Independent and widely read by the elite
  • Owned by industrial and marketing conglomerate Transcom, which also publishes Bengali-language daily Prothom Alo
  • Has been observed to be critical of the Awami League government on various issues including the January 2014 national elections and the new broadcast policy

Source: BBC Monitoring

Bangladesh profile - media

Incomes hit

The Daily Star and its sister publication Prothom Alo - the most widely read Bengali newspaper in the country - are already the subject of a clandestine attempt to undermine their finances.

The BBC understands that since last summer businesses, including some of the largest telecoms and consumer goods companies in Bangladesh, have been ordered to restrict their advertising in the two newspapers by the country’s military intelligence agency.

The Norwegian company that owns Grameen Phone, Bangladesh’s largest mobile phone operator, has admitted as much to Al Jazeera. Telenor’s head of communications confirmed that, "along with several other large corporations, [it] received an instruction from the authorities to stop advertisements in two leading newspapers in Bangladesh".

The Daily Star and Prothom Alo are reckoned to have lost about a third of their income.

Image copyright Daily Star
Image caption Demonstrators in Thakurgaon formed a human chain to protest against the charges brought against Mr Anam

Yet the order has no basis in law, according to the leading commentator on Bangladeshi politics, David Bergman.

"It is simply ’enforced’ through the authority that comes from being the country’s most feared intelligence agency," he argues.

But its intent is clear: it is about bringing independent media into line and stifling dissent.

The message is "cross the line and we’ll take action", but since no clear line has been drawn it is up to the media to police itself.

And it seems to be working.

’Intimidation’

"There is not a single newspaper or TV editor in this country who does not know about the blockade," writes Mr Bergman, "yet not one of the nearly 30 TV stations, nor one of the countless newspapers has reported about this intimidation of the Daily Star and Prothom Alo."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The advertising restrictions have received little coverage in the Bangladeshi press

When I spoke to Bangladeshi information minister Hasanul Haq Inu, he denied that he knew of any such order.

He told me that if the newspapers or any of the companies involved register an official complaint, he would be happy to investigate, and said that if any illegal restriction is being imposed on businesses in Bangladesh, he will take action.

While the restrictions on advertising in the Daily Star are not getting much attention in the Bangladeshi press, the allegations of treason by Mr Anam are getting plenty of publicity.

That is because Mr Anam has admitted he has made mistakes.

’Bad judgement’ - but treason?

In a television interview earlier this month, he conceded that reports published in the Daily Star in 2007 alleging corruption by the woman who is now prime minister were based on uncorroborated leaks from the then military government.

He said he was wrong to have published them.

"It was a big mistake," he said during the interview. "It was a bad editorial judgement, I admit it without any doubt."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Mr Anam has admitted it was a mistake to publish corruption allegations against Sheikh Hasina in 2007

But whether his mistakes constitute treason is another matter entirely.

The prime minister’s son claims that the articles were an attempt by Mr Anam and the Daily Star to "support a military dictatorship in an attempt to remove my mother from politics".

That is something Mr Anam vigorously denies, with justification.

He points to 203 editorials published during the period of military rule demanding that democracy be restored. That amounts to one every three days of the so-called "emergency government".

He also points out his newspaper was very critical when Sheikh Hasina was arrested in connection with the corruption charges.

"To us Sheikh Hasina’s arrest is totally misconceived and smacks of arrogant use of power without due process of law," his editorial thundered, the day after the arrest was made.

Court decision

What is more, none of the allegations against Sheikh Hasina and other party members was ever tested in court because all charges were dropped by executive order when her Awami League assumed power in 2008.

By contrast, similar claims of corruption made against the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), were allowed to stand. Many BNP politicians are still technically on bail from the charges.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Some believe attacks on newspaper editors are ’an attempt to crush independent media’

Mr Haq, the Information Minster, denies there is any campaign against the Daily Star.

He says the complaints against Mr Anam are being made by individuals and are not being co-ordinated by the government. "A judgement on whether he is guilty will be made by the courts on the basis of the merits of the case," he told me.

But Mr Bergman has no doubt about the real significance of these attacks on Mr Anam. He believes they are "an attempt to crush independent media".

He is convinced that government loyalists want "to close down, or at least subdue, any influential independent media or dissent that is not within their control".

’Legal harassment’

That would represent a very sinister power grab in an already fragile democracy like Bangladesh.

Since Bangladesh’s media appears too cowed to speak out, it is time the rest of the world does.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has condemned what it calls the "legal harassment" of Mr Anam. Now governments must do the same.

And where better to start than the UK government?

A few weeks ago Alison Blake, the new British High Commissioner to Bangladesh, was celebrating how "as two Commonwealth countries, we share a set of core values, including a commitment to Parliamentary democracy and a tolerant and pluralistic system with a commitment to protect and uphold human rights".

It might be time Ms Blake challenges the Bangladeshi government to deliver on that commitment.

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PEN AMERICA

Bangladesh: Defamation Charges Against Editor Representative of Broader Attacks on Media

February 18, 2016

A deluge of lawsuits against editor Mahfuz Anam on charges of criminal defamation and sedition is an indication of the worsening state of free expression in Bangladesh, PEN America said in a statement today.

Mahfuz Anam, editor of The Daily Star—the largest circulating daily English-language newspaper in Bangladesh—faces a total of 38 lawsuits, of which 30 are based on defamation charges and eight are based on sedition charges. It appears that the onslaught was in response to a televised admission on February 3, 2016, that he had made a mistake by running stories about corruption based on uncorroborated information provided by the DGFI, the country’s military intelligence agency, between 2007 and 2008. Subsequently, a number of politicians, including current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, were arrested on corruption charges by the then-ruling military-backed caretaker government. Under Bangladeshi law, a charge of criminal defamation carries a prison sentence of up to two years and/or a fine.

“The recent slew of charges leveled against Mahfuz Anam illustrates an escalation of the assault on media freedoms in Bangladesh,” noted Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of free expression program at PEN America. “The government and ruling party should cease using criminal defamation and sedition laws to harass the press, and should remove such restrictive statutes from the penal code. Bangladesh’s democracy will be immeasurably weakened if the media is not able to fulfill its watchdog role and speak truth to power without fear of disproportionate repercussions.”

Criminal defamation and sedition legislation is just one of many ways that the Bangladeshi authorities are stifling media and free expression in the country. The Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Act and contempt of court laws are also used to silence critical voices, including that of British journalist David Bergman, charged with contempt of court in December 2014. Television talk shows have also been subject to censorship because of critical coverage, such as "Frontline" which was hosted by Matiur Rahman Chowdhury. Chowdhury’s outspokenness and critical voice resulted in "Frontline" being pulled off the air indefinitely in February 2015. In November and December 2015, the government shut down Facebook, Twitter, Skype, WhatsApp, and other similar services that are crucial outlets for the sharing of news and information. Physical attacks against and harassment of reporters are on the rise, in addition to the attacks by Islamic extremists against secular bloggers and publishers last year that resulted in the deaths of five individuals in 2015.

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Founded in 1922, PEN American is an association of 4,300 U.S. writers working to breakdown barriers to free expression worldwide. www.PEN.org

CONTACT
Sarah Edkins, Deputy Director for Communications: sedkins at pen.org, +1 646 4830

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Bangladesh Politico - February 17, 2016

The increasing absurdity of the Mahfuz Anam affair

by David Bergman

A thoughtful Bangladeshi friend of mine told me the other day that he was glad what was happening to Mahfuz Anam. I asked him in astonishment, how could he say that. He said: "Politics in Bangladesh has become so absurd, and what is happening to the editor of the Daily Star may actually make people sit up and realise that things have simply gone too far."

Well, I doubt that will happen. But it is certainly the case that what is happening to the Editor of the Daily Star is as an unedifying reflection of how in Bangladesh, the leader, the party and the state has increasingly meshed into one and how (using the courts) the governing party and its supporters can trample on the rights of just about any one in whatever way they wish. As John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton said: ’Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’

Yes, it is simply unbelievable that there are 55 criminal cases lodged against Mahfuz Anam - 12 for sedition (each of which allows for three years imprisonment) and 43 for defamation (each of which allows upto 2 years imprisonment).

I have already written about some aspects of the hypocrisy and absurdity involved in this case, but here are four further points focusing on the legal cases against Anam.

1. Sedition charges: There is simply no way in which any conduct of Mahfuz Anam, even if given the most negative interpretation amounts to the offence of sedition - whether the offence is defined as it set out in the constitution or as it is in the penal code. (To read more about why, see point 12 here)

How is it that none of the 12 magistrates who have accepted a sedition case, have simply not thrown the case out right at the beginning?

2. Multiple cases: How can a person be prosecuted for exactly the same offence in different courts throughout the country. Apart from the 12 magistrates who have accepted a sedition charge against Anam, there are 43 separate magistrates who have accepted a defamation case against him.

It is obviously orchestrated harassment - but it also almost certainly in violation of the Bangladesh constitution: Article 35(2) states that:

No person shall be prosecuted and punished for the same offence more than once.

One would imagine that these magistrates, who are under an obligation to uphold the constitution, would consider the appropriateness of initiating a second, third, forth etc case when he or she is fully aware that a similar case has been filed elsewhere in the country. One would hope that before a court summoned Anam, the magistrate would seek to find out whether the case before him is or is not identical in facts to the other cases filed in other courts which have been highlighted in the media

3. Third party defamation cases: There should be only one person taking a defamation case and one person alone. That person of course is Sheikh Hasina. If she feels that her reputation has been inappropriately traduced due to inaccurate reporting then she should file a defamation case - noone else. There cannot be many other places in the world where a criminal (yes, not civil, but criminal) case of defamation is lodged by a third party claiming that another person’s reputation has been traduced.

4. Compensation: In all of the defamation case, the plaintiffs have sought compensation - a total of 73, 831 crore Taka. This means for those who bemused by the idea of crores - Tk 738,310,000,000 which converts as $9381 million.

But the penal code offence does not provide any opportunity for a person to seek compensation, and the magistrates has no power to deal with such claims.