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Bangladesh: Stop hounding Daily Star editor Mahfuz Anam

28 February 2016

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Reporters Without Borders - 26 February 2016

Prime Minister wages personal war against outspoken newspaper

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to stop hounding Daily Star editor Mahfuz Anam over his admission on 4 February that, like many of the country’s newspapers and TV stations, he published information in 2007 that seemed to implicate Hasina in corruption although it could not be verified independently.

The information was provided to him and to Bangladesh’s other media outlets by the military, who were in power in Bangladesh from 2007 to 2009.

In a 22 February address, Hasina called on Anam to resign, blamed his editorial error for her imprisonment at the time, insinuated that his newspaper had colluded with the military and accused him of trying to sabotage the constitution during the period of military-backed rule.

Taking advantage of the outspoken and critical newspaper’s mistake, Hasina went on to ask the leaders of her party, the Awami League, to unanimously condemn the actions of Anam, currently the target of a campaign of harassment that is without precedent in Bangladesh.

No fewer than 79 legal actions have been filed against Anam in the past three weeks in 53 districts throughout the country. Seventeen accuse him of sedition, which is punishable by three years in prison, and 62 accuse him of defamation, which carries a possible two-year sentence. More than a trillion taka (15 billion euros) in damages are being demanded by the plaintiffs, who do not include Hasina herself.

“This public lynching, orchestrated by a prime minister who claims to respect democracy and media freedom in her country, is completely unacceptable,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.

“The law is being flouted on the pretext of seeking justice in what is just a matter of journalistic ethics. Mahfuz Anam can in no way be accused of sedition because he did not violate the constitution. And he cannot be prosecuted 72 times for the same mistake. It is time the Awami League understood that political opposition is necessary in a democracy and that suppressing critical media is a direct violation of fundamental freedoms and human rights.”

Anam owned up to his error during a political discussion programme on the ATN News TV station on 4 February, acknowledging that he should not have run stories based solely on information provided by the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), which was running the country at the time.

In his articles, Anam conceded that he had not been able to verify the authenticity of the confessions he was reporting. At the time only two publications, the daily New Age and the online newspaper bdnews24, refused to run stories based on the information.

The English-language Daily Star and its sister newspaper Prothom Alo (the leading Bengali-language daily) provide critical coverage of all the various branches of government in Bangladesh.

The country’s biggest companies, including mobile phone operations such Grameenphone, have been forbidden to advertise in either of these two independent newspapers for the past six months.

The ban, issued by the DGFI on 16 August 2015, the day after the Daily Star ran a story about crimes newly committed by the military in the eastern division of Chittagong, has resulted in an approximately 30 percent loss in revenue for the newspapers.

No Bangladeshi media outlets have reported the existence of this illegal and discriminatory order, which is designed to throttle the two newspapers economically.

Bangladesh is ranked 146th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2015 World Press Freedom Index.

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Committee to Protect Journalists

79 cases and counting: Legal challenges pile up for Daily Star editor who admitted error in judgment

by Sumit Galhotra/CPJ Asia Program Senior Research Associate

When Mahfuz Anam, editor of one of Bangladesh’s most respected newspapers, admitted recently to a lapse in editorial judgment several years ago, he could not have predicted the legal backlash that would ensue. Anam’s admission that he published unsubstantiated information accusing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of corruption has led to a barrage of defamation and sedition cases against him, along with an arrest warrant and calls for his paper, The Daily Star, to be shuttered.

The cases filed against Anam this month illustrate the pressures faced by the country’s already squeezed independent media. Lawyers, party members, and political groups in more than 53 districts are among those who have filed sedition and defamation cases against Anam, and a court in Narayanganj issued an arrest warrant, according to news reports. The latest count by The Daily Star today shows the number of cases has climbed to 79 and the total damages being sought for defamation exceeds 1.3 trillion takas or almost USD$17 billion. Sedition can lead to life imprisonment in Bangladesh.

The legal challenges stem from Anam’s admission during a February 3 appearance on a ATN News show that during the military-backed caretaker government of 2007-08, he published information provided by the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence without seeking independent verification. At least 11 reports that painted Hasina, her political opponent Khaleda Zia, and others in an unfavorable light, were published without adequate substantiation, according to reports.

After the response to Anam’s admission on "News Hour Xtra", The Daily Star published an editorial laying out its position. The intelligence agency has not publicly commented.

Anam called his lapse in editorial judgment "a big mistake," reports said, a fact that should draw him credit, not condemnation. In its editorial The Daily Starnoted that several years after the end of the military-backed caretaker government, journalists continue to publish information from authorities without independent verification.

Other outlets reported that many Bangladeshi papers had reported the same information at the time. The editor of the daily, Bhorer Kagoj, Shyamal Dutta, said during a talk show this month his paper also published such reports. He said that at the time, editors felt that they had no choice but to go along with the military, The Associated Press reported.

As Anam is held up as an "enemy of democracy" in some pro-government media, other editors have come to his defense. Dhaka Tribune editor Zafar Sobhan dismissed the reaction to Anam in an editorial, writing: "To suggest that [Anam] did so as part of some agenda to derail democracy and institute non-democratic rule is both utterly unsupported by the facts and does a grave disservice to a man who has devoted his life to the service of this nation and who has a long and proud record of serving the public interest and the cause of democracy."

At a political event on Monday, Prime Minister Hasina called for Anam’s resignation and said editors "will be tried just like we are trying the war criminals." Hasina’s son, Sajeeb Wazed Joy, who serves as an adviser to the government, demanded Anam be tried for treason, according to reports. Several lawmakers echoed the demand on the floor of parliament, where there were calls for the paper to be closed, the Star reported. In a February 18 post on his official Facebook page, Wazed said that the government had not filed a single case against Anam and that the cases were all civil in nature. He said Anam’s actions contributed to Hasina’s imprisonment in 2007-08 and said the cases filed against Anam were not an attack on the media as a whole.

The pressure against Anam and his paper compound to the pressures already squeezing the country’s independent media. As I noted during my visit to Bangladesh last year, since her return to power in 2009, Hasina has virtually neutralized the political opposition and with it many opposition-affiliated media outlets. Journalists at The Daily Star’s sister publication Prothom Alo told me they face legal harassment, with multiple cases filed against them from across the country including for contempt of court and defamation. Many of those cases remain unresolved. In late 2014, a special war crimes court convicted Dhaka-based British journalist David Bergman on charges of contempt after he reported on its work. And Matiur Rahman Chowdhury’s current affairs talk show, "Frontline" which was known for its critical guests, remains off air more than a year after it was suspended for what was described at the time by the channel’s chairman as temporary technical difficulties.

In October last year, Al Jazeera reported that the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence had allegedly told advertisers to stop advertising in The Daily Star and the Bangla-language daily Prothom Alo. As a result, sales of Prothom Alo—which has daily sales of more than 500,000 copies—has lost more than a third of its usual advertising revenue. The Daily Star’s revenue fell about 25 percent as of October 2015, according to Al Jazeera. (The intelligence agency denied the claims.)

If Hasina, whose party controls almost all the seats in parliament, regards herself a democratic leader, she should ensure the press is able to serve as the fourth estate. Anam’s admission should lead to meaningful debate on how to strengthen journalism in Bangladesh, not provoke a swarm of legal challenges and attacks on the independent media.

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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.

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The Daily Star - February 19, 2016

Withdraw all cases
35 noted citizens call for a halt to smear campaign

Staff Correspondent

Thirty-five eminent citizens yesterday condemned the recent barrage of cases against The Daily Star Editor Mahfuz Anam and demanded immediate withdrawal of those.
In a statement, they also called for an end to the smear campaign against Anam.
They said the Star editor should have been commended for a rare display of professional values after he had regretted “publishing without verification a few stories based on information provided by a state intelligence agency during the military-backed caretaker government rule in 2007”.
Instead, he is being harassed, which is sad, unexpected and frustrating, they said, adding that the present scenario would discourage journalists and even others from spontaneously admitting their mistakes in future and would give rise to falsehood in society.
The eminent persons also called for a constructive discussion on what legal and administrative actions should be taken to stop interference of the state intelligence agencies in the functioning of the free media.
"We think the rationale for the news media often publishing unverified confessions apparently given in the custody of intelligence agencies and police should also come under the discussion,” the statement read.

The signatories are: M Hafiz Uddin Khan, Akbar Ali Khan, Barrister Rafique-ul Huq, ATM Shamsul Huda, Hamida Hossain, Prof Syed Anwar Husain, Hossain Zillur Rahman, Shahdeen Malik, Zafrullah Chowdhury, Iftekharuzzaman, Brig Gen (retd) M Shakhawat Hussain, Badiul Alam Majumdar, Barrister Manzoor Hasan, Nur Khan, Sadaf Nur, Prof Firdous Azim, Swapan Adnan, Masud Khan, Syed Abul Maksud, Dr Tofail Ahmed, Syeda Rizwana Hasan, Khushi Kabir, Barrister Sara Hossain, CR Abrar, Shirin Haq, Shahnaz Huda, Ahmed Kamal, Asif Nazrul, Ruby Ghaznavi, Lubna Mariam, Farida Akhter, Maj (retd) Akter Ahmed Bir Pratik, Anusheh Anadil, Naila Zaman Khan, and Zakir Hossain.

They said the defamation cases filed claiming crores of taka in compensation were a glaring example of using the legal and judicial system in narrow, personal interest.
They expressed concern over the “attempt to use the legal and judicial system as a political tool and strategy”.
Such activities against Mahfuz Anam will prompt the international community to critically question the freedom of speech in Bangladesh and will cause irreparable damage to the country’s image, the citizens noted.
The statement was sent by Badiul Alam Majumdar and sent by Shahdeen Malik.

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Dhaka Tribune - 18 Feb 2016

Editors condemn cases against Mahfuz Anam

Tribune Report

The Editors’ Council has condemned the countrywide filing of cases against The Daily Star Editor and also the council’s General Secretary, Mahfuz Anam.
The council hoped that good sense would prevail among all quarters and all cases against the editor of the English daily would be withdrawn.
In a resolution adopted at a meeting of the Editors’ Council yesterday with its President Golam Sarwar in the chair, the council noted with concern that 66 cases including defamation charges involving Tk 82,646.5 crore have been filed at various places of the country against Mahfuz Anam.
The resolution reads: “The meeting feels that such incidents go against freedom of the press. We expect that all cases against Mahfuz Anam will be withdrawn. The Editors’ Council expects that good sense would prevail among all quarters in this regard.”
Among others, Golam Sarwar, president of Editors’ Council and also the editor of daily Samakal; Mahfuz Anam, The Daily Star editor, also the general secretary of the council; Reaz Uddin Ahmed, editor, News Today; Moazzem Hossain, editor, The Financial Express; Matiur Rahman Chowdhury, editor, Manabzamin; M Shamsur Rahman, editor, The Independent; Naim Nizam, editor, Bangladesh Pratidin; Matiur Rahman, editor, Prothom Alo; Nurul Kabir, editor, New Age; Imdadul Haque Milon, editor, Kaler Kantho; Dewan Hanif Mahmud, editor, Banik Barta; A M M Bahauddin, editor, Inquilab; Shyamol Dutta, editor, Bhorer Kagoj; and Zafar Sobhan, editor, Dhaka Tribune were present at the meeting.

[ see also related material:

Bangladesh: Charging Editors Is Dramatic Backslide - Statement by Human Rights Watch