The witch-hunt against Bangladesh editor is stranger than fiction: The Daily Star

People holding the banner of Sangbadpatra Pathok Forum in Thakurgaon to protest the filing of cases against editor Mahfuz Anam, on Feb 16, 2016.
People holding the banner of Sangbadpatra Pathok Forum in Thakurgaon to protest the filing of cases against editor Mahfuz Anam, on Feb 16, 2016. PHOTO: THE DAILY STAR/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK

By Taj Hashmi

The Daily Star/Asia News Network

Ever since this ridiculous debate cropped up - soon after The Daily Star editor Mahfuz Anam's TV interview with Munni Saha on Feb 3 - on The Daily Star's and its editor's so-called "seditious" role during the military-led caretaker government of 2007 to 2008, I thought it would end in a day or two; and it would be just an insignificant episode, yet another meaningless trivia for Bangladeshis at home and abroad.

But I was simply wide off the mark! As of Thursday (Feb 18), 55 Bangladeshis have filed lawsuits against Mahfuz Anam - 17 in one day - 12 of them for "sedition" and 43 for "defamation".

"Sedition" is one of the most favourite expressions British and Pakistani colonial rulers frequently used against freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh, Surjya Sen, Maulana Bhashani and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to undermine their struggle for freedom as terrorism or anarchy.

Unfortunately, "sedition" is gaining currency again, being used against bold and brave people. I'm not sure if mentioning another newspaper editor - who is said to have committed a "seditious act" against the country in the recent past - amounts to committing another act of "sedition" in present Bangladesh!

Defamation is damaging the good reputation of someone; sedition is a conduct or speech to incite people to rebel against the authority of a state or regime.

I'm sure redefining these expressions in Bangladesh today is more difficult than proving the existence of ghosts and flying saucers.

Instead of redefining defamation and sedition, we may ask whoever decides the fate of the "enemies of Bangladesh" as to what's actually going on in the country.

Now, do the allegations against Mahfuz Anam for his alleged defamatory and seditious acts against the nation hold any water? I'm afraid there are too many holes in the container to hold any fluid.

It's unbelievable but true, what triggered the vicious attacks on Mahfuz Anam was his honesty, integrity and moral courage to admit he was sorry for publishing the DGFI documents that falsely incriminated Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in corruption.

He candidly admitted he had no ways of verifying the veracity of the allegations, and he was sorry for publishing it. He also told his interviewer it was his biggest mistake in his entire career as a journalist.

The DGFI Document that The Daily Star published during the military-backed caretaker government of 2007-2008 never triggered any question until the said TV interview.

Nobody, not even the erstwhile Awami League Government of Sheikh Hasina (2008-2013) and her present government (in power since January 2014) ever raised any question about Mahfuz Anam publishing the said DGFI documents, let alone charge him for "defamation" and "sedition".

Surprisingly, some Awami League leaders and pro-Awami League journalists and intellectuals, all of a sudden, started a vitriolic campaign against him for his alleged defamatory and seditious activities soon after his Feb 3 TV interview.

Some of them have asked the government to arrest him first, and then try for "sedition".

The very weird logic, "arrest-first-and-then-try" tells us all about the not-so-hidden agenda of some over-enthusiastic political activists of the ruling party.

One analyst believes the whole brouhaha does nothing but reflect the "madness" of some ruling party "sycophants".

He has asked the Prime Minister's immediate intervention to stop this nuisance. Let's hope the Prime Minister intervenes, the "sycophants" yield to the pressure from above, and the "madness" dissipates!

In spite of this, no sooner had top Awami League leaders demanded Mahfuz Anam's arrest and trial, than scores of local party leaders and activists (or "sycophants") started filing lawsuits against the editor for defamation and sedition.

What's ominous here are a) the deafening silence of the government; and b) local courts ordering the police to seek permission from the government and run inquiry into the allegations.

One is not sure if Mahfuz Anam - like what happened to at least to one editor in the past - will be moving like a shuttle cock from one corner of Bangladesh to another to get anticipatory bail from local courts!

It's weird! Not only is "only one editor" at the receiving end of the ire, fire, and intimidation of the establishment for publishing the said DGFI document (which every other paper did except the New Age), but also the top brasses in the DGFI, responsible for producing the incriminating document against Ms Hasina, have remained beyond any criticism, lawsuits or harassment for committing crimes against individuals and the state of Bangladesh!

On the contrary, after becoming the Prime Minister for the second time in December 2008, Ms Hasina rewarded army generals who had persecuted, arrested and humiliated her and her close associates from 2007 to 2008.

She retained the general who staged the coup of Jan 11, 2007 as the Army Chief; and rewarded General Masududdin Chowdhury - a close associate of the coup maker - with the cushy ambassadorial job in Australia. It's noteworthy!

Soon after the coup Awami League leaders publicly stated that the military-backed regime was a by-product of their agitation against the previous government; and that if elected to power, they would put a stamp of legitimacy to every action taken by the Fakhruddin-Moeenuddin regime.

So sad! Bangladeshis have been playing peek-a-boo with democracy and civil/military dictatorship, and I'm not sure how long will they be playing this toddlers' game!

I believe decades of civil/military dictatorship, unaccountable bad governance have sapped people's consciousness, agility and will to fight for their rights, which their immediate past generations demonstrated during the 24 years of Pakistani rule.

Democratically elected leaders' penchant for absolute power has further demoralised and depoliticised most people.

Demonising bold and brave critics of dictatorship and "authoritarian democracy" is an old trick honed by Third World autocrats.

"The Mahfuz Anam Drama" is an archaic and sickening game of intimidation, harassment and tyranny in the name of democracy, growth and development.

What Mahfuz Anam is facing today, and the whole world is witnessing in utter disgust and surprise, is a well-orchestrated but badly rehearsed drama with a shoddy plot, bad direction, and amateurish acting of the players. The play is going to flop anyway, never ever to hit the box office.

Nevertheless, Mahfuz Anam, the main character of the play, might emerge as another Hamlet to right the wrong, merely by telling the truth, and by not showing any signs of vacillation and vulnerability.

One friend in social media has aptly assessed the situation as "jhi ke mere bou ke shekhano (sexist as it is) syndrome to its absurd limits".

The first line in Sahir Ludhianwi's famous poem on tyranny says all about its ineffectiveness: "Zulm phir zulm hai, Barhta hai to mit jaataa hai" (Tyranny is after all tyranny, when it goes up, it ends).

And the plot of "The Mahfuz Anam Drama" reflects its authors' cynicism, insecurity, and vindictive mindset.

Last but not least, those who want to destroy Mahfuz Anam at the end of the play have guns too inaccurate even in point-blank range.

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The writer teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University. He is the author of several books, including Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.