Concern over lawsuits against Bangladesh editor

 INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION OF JOURNALISTS, on Mr Anam (above)
INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION OF JOURNALISTS, on Mr Anam (above)

International journalists' group says sedition and defamation cases politically motivated

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and veteran editors in Bangladesh have expressed concern over the unusually large number of legal cases filed by government supporters across the country against a top newspaper editor.

Supporters and members of the ruling Awami League have filed 15 sedition and 48 defamation cases against Mr Mahfuz Anam in the last two weeks, according to The Daily Star, the leading English daily that he heads. The sedition cases need government approval, which has yet to be given.

Mr Anam had admitted on a local news channel on Feb 3 that stories published by the paper in 2007 alleging graft by current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina were based on information from the military- backed caretaker government, which was in power until 2008.

Ms Hasina and her political rival Begum Khaleda Zia were arrested for graft at the time but the charges were never proven.

Mr Anam apologised for the editorial decision to carry the reports without independent verification but he came under heavy criticism from the ruling party.

'LEGAL HARASSMENT'

The IFJ is seriously concerned by the legal harassment of Mahfuz Anam as a result of reporting in the public interest at a time of political crisis. The high number of cases and the filing of these across the country indicate an aggressive politically-motivated effort to harass a senior editor and a key newspaper...

'' INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION OF JOURNALISTS, on Mr Anam

In a Facebook post on Feb 5, Ms Hasina's son Sajeeb Wazed said the editor should be put "behind bars and on trial for treason". Some ruling party MPs demanded in Parliament that the newspaper be shut down.

"The IFJ is seriously concerned by the legal harassment of Mahfuz Anam as result of reporting in the public interest at a time of political crisis.

"The high number of cases and the filing of these across the country indicate an aggressive politically-motivated effort to harass a senior editor and a key newspaper in the Bangladesh," said the body.

Mr Anam also received support and praise from leading journalists.

"Mr Anam, through his confession, has upheld the spirit of real journalism," said Mr Monjurul Ahsan Bulbul, senior vice-president of the National Press Club in Bangladesh. "Our political leadership should be more patient and not overreact."

One of the courts had mistakenly issued an arrest warrant for a defamation case - which is no longer allowed under the law - but yesterday converted it to a summons.

  • Tough times

  • Fears over freedom of speech have been mounting in Bangladesh. Last year, four bloggers and a publisher were killed in attacks claimed by militant group Al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent.

    AVIJIT ROY, 42

    The Bangladeshi-born US citizen was a vocal critic of Islamist extremism. He sought to promote secular views, science and social issues in his blog, books and articles. He was hacked to death by two men in February last year while on a visit to Dhaka.

    WASHIQUR RAHMAN BABU, 27

    The atheist blogger was hacked to death by three men in Dhaka in March last year.

    ANANTA BIJOY DAS, 33

    The science magazine editor wrote a number of blogs that criticised some aspects of Islam and also of Hinduism. He was killed by a group wielding machetes last May as he headed to work in Sylhet, northern Bangladesh.

    NILOY CHAKRABARTI, 40

    The blogger, who used the pen name Niloy Neel, was killed by men who entered his apartment in Dhaka last August. The men, who were posing as potential tenants, assaulted him with cleavers. He wrote against religious extremism and spoke up for women's rights.

    FAISAL AREFIN DIPAN, 43

    His publishing house had published a book by slain blogger Avijit Roy. He was hacked to death by a group of men while he was in his office in Dhaka last October.

    AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

Veteran editor Abed Khan told The Daily Star that issuing such an arrest warrant was "unacceptable".

Defamation cases carry a two-year jail term while sedition is punishable by death.

Political analyst Shantanu Majumder from Dhaka University said Awami League supporters were trying to score brownie points with their leadership.

"The PM's son started it with a Facebook post and the Awami League's rank and file started thinking, 'Let's catch the attention of the PM and her son'," he said.

Mr Anam told The Straits Times he was "flabbergasted" by the flurry of legal cases.

"In journalistic retrospection I made a comment about something that happened nine years ago. Then it was taken up politically," he said.

"I'm going to the courts on March 1 (for the first case)... and basically take the legal course. Let's see how it all ends."

The Daily Star is a member of The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 newspapers in Asia.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 18, 2016, with the headline 'Concern over lawsuits against Bangladesh editor'. Print Edition | Subscribe