Sunday, March 13, 2016

Shubhajit Roy - 18 sedition cases slapped on Bangladeshi editor

The echoes of JNU’s sedition row are resonating 1,400 km east of Delhi where a similar charge is being used by Dhaka’s ruling party and its leaders to harass one of its most respected editors and a 1971 war veteran who heads the largest English daily in Bangladesh.

Mahfuz Anam, editor of  The Daily Star, has been visiting lower courts across Bangladesh since last week for hearings related to 79 cases filed against him last month by supporters of Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League — 18 are related to sedition and the rest to defamation. Speaking to The Sunday Express over telephone from Dhaka, Anam was careful in his comments on the cases he faced, saying the matter was “sub-judice”.

Asked about the JNU row and the situation in his country, he said, “The sedition charge should not be used at all against students and civil society in a democratic society. This is part of growing intolerance in South Asia. It is dangerous and sad to me. Appreciation seems to be going down on the role of dissent and critical voice in a democratic space… the contestation of ideas is the soul of democracy. That is being curbed through jingoism, ultra-nationalism or even, religious extremism,” he said.

It was close to midnight on February 3, when Anam — appearing in a talk show on the eve of The Daily Star’s 25th anniversary celebrations — referred to a lapse in his editorial judgment nine years ago. He admitted that publishing some reports in 2007 accusing Sheikh Hasina, then an Opposition leader, of corruption were a case of “bad editorial judgement”. Later, Sheikh Hasina was arrested and imprisoned for 11 months.

Anam’s paper was one of the many publications in Bangladesh that published reports based on confessional statements extracted by the country’s military intelligence agency, the Directorate General of Field Intelligence. Some TV channels even showed recordings of those confessions.  But within 24 hours of Anam’s remarks, Sheikh Hasina’s son Sajeeb Wajed Joy — who lives in the US and is an advisor to the Bangladesh government — took to Facebook to call for Anam’s arrest and trial for treason.

Over the 48 hours that followed, Awami League leaders across Bangladesh filed cases of defamation and sedition against Anam. For the last 10 days, the 66-year-old has been travelling to distant towns in Bangladesh to appear before the courts and obtain bail. On Tuesday, Anam appeared before a court in Magura, 176 kms from Dhaka, in south-western Bangladesh. This was his third court appearance.

Some political observers in Bangladesh, speaking on condition of anonymity since the matter was “sub-judice”, said the petitions against Anam do not fulfill two key conditions of the law. Defamation can only be filed by the person who has been defamed. In all these cases, Sheikh Hasina has not filed a single petition. Besides, a rejoinder must first be sent to the paper… a defamation case can be filed only if that is not published,” said an observer.

“Also, the charge of “sedition” or allegations of treason can only be invoked by those in the government at that time. But Sheikh Hasina was not in power in 2007, when the stories were published. She was the Awami League chief,” the observer said.

Anam’s remarks on the show also triggered a number of conspiracy theories — about his role in sending Sheikh Hasina to prison, invoking the infamous “minus-two formula” (a conspiracy theory in Bangladesh political circles that involved elimination of Hasina and her main opponent Khaleda Zia), his ambition of launching a political party with Nobel laureate Mohammad Yunus, his aim of grabbing political power, etc.

A source close to Anam denied all the charges. But a few weeks ago, Sheikh Hasina accused The Daily Star and the group’s Bangla daily, Prothom Alo, of writing against her for the last 20 years. She also questioned Anam’s integrity. “It does not make sense,” said sources associated with the newspaper. “The Daily Star has been supporting the major achievements and positions of the Hasina government. The paper is one of the strongest voices of secularism in Bangladesh, which is the USP of the Sheikh Hasina government. It supported the war crimes trial started by the government. It supported the government’s strong stand against religious extremism. And it has also supported Dhaka’s plans for regional connectivity, including its relations with India,” they said.

Those watching the developments in Bangladesh have privately expressed concern on the situation. “The country has become a one-party state. There is no Opposition worth its name. The main Opposition party, the Jatiyo Party led by former President’s wife Raushan Ershad, has three ministers in the Bangladesh Cabinet. The situation is bizarre,” said a diplomat. 

In such a situation, an independent newspaper can be the only source of “counter-narrative”, said sources associated with the newspaper. “The Daily Star has been at the receiving end of the Sheikh Hasina government. Reporters from the paper were not allowed to cover the PM’s events for the last few years, and, in recent months, even Prothom Alo’s reporters were denied access. Top advertisers, including telecom companies and multi-national companies, were asked by the ruling establishment to not advertise in the paper. This has led to about 30 per cent reduction of revenues from advertising,” said the sources.

While the editor’s council in Bangladesh has issued a statement of support, many say that it could have been “more strong and should be followed up”. For now, Anam believes that The Daily Star will be able to remain committed to the fundamentals of journalism. “That is the goal,” he said.

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