Last week, an assistant public prosecutor filed a case in a Dhaka magistrate court accusing Mahfuz Anam, the editor of Bangladesh’s most widely read English language paper, of committing the offence of sedition. Around the same time, in different parts of the country, activists of the ruling party, the Awami League, filed six separate criminal cases, accusing the editor of criminal defamation.
These cases were filed just days after stinging attacks from two close relatives of the country’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Sajeeb Wazed, the prime minister’s son as well as her advisor, said in a Facebook post that “I want Mahfuz Anam behind bars and on trial for treason”. And Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh, the prime minister’s nephew, demanded in Parliament that The Daily Star newspaper “be shut immediately”, and that steps be taken to prevent its editor from doing “journalism any more”.
The trigger for this turn of events were comments The Daily Star editor made on a TV chat show concerning the editorial position of the paper following the army’s two-year takeover of power in January 2007, which resulted in the arrests of top politicians and businessmen on corruption allegations.
During the TV programme, a journalist claimed that certain Daily Star news articles on alleged corruption committed by the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had “prepared” the ground for her arrest in July 2007.
Anam responded by saying that this kind of complaint should be made “against the entire media” as nearly every other newspaper at the time “had published the same news”. He then went on to admit that he had made a “big mistake” in publishing news provided by the country’s military intelligence agency DGFI that was “unsubstantiated”, and which he had not been able to prove “independently”.
The prime minister’s son interpreted this comment to mean that Anam had “admitted” to publishing “false corruptions stories” against his mother “to defame her” and that he had done this “in support of a military dictatorship in an attempt to remove” her from politics. Sajeeb added in his Facebook post that “his false stories led to my mother’s arrest and spending 11 months in jail”. The vitriolic speeches in Parliament and the defamation and sedition cases swiftly followed.
Leaving aside the sound and fury, the only thing that was new in Anam’s comments was his apology – and his naming of DGFI as the source of the reports. Anyone who read the articles written by The Daily Star at the time would have realised then that the reports were solely based on claims made by anonymous law enforcement officers and that there was no attempt by the paper to claim that it had sought to substantiate the allegations.
And whilst it was clearly wrong of The Daily Star to have published these stories, there has been no criticism of the other papers that published similar news of alleged corruption based on similar DGFI information. It is only Mahfuz Anam that seems to concern them.
Moreover, the same critics are not concerned about the many newspapers which continue today to publish unsubstantiated information provided to them by the police and other law enforcement agencies – presumably because the current targets of the unsubstantiated information are activists and politicians opposing the Awami League.
In fact, the vicious rhetoric and the criminal cases have nothing to do with media ethics or principle. Quite the opposite, they are part of a concerted campaign to intimidate and perhaps close down The Daily Star, and its sister publication, Prothom Alo, the largest-selling Bengali language paper in Bangladesh.
This campaign has been going on for some time. Sajeed Wajed’s Facebook post last week was the third time in the last 20 months that he had strongly attacked one of the two papers.
In May 2014, Prothom Alo had published an article syndicated by India’s Indo-Asian News Service, which referred to the country’s 1971 independence war as the “Indo-Pakistan war”. In a post, Wajed claimed that as a result, the Bengali language newspaper had “insulted the memories of 3 million martyrs who were brutally murdered during the war. I consider this a heinous offence and those responsible must be sacked immediately”. The prime minister’s advisor went on to say that the paper does “not even believe in Bangladesh. Let us boycott Prothom Alo and send them a message. We will oppose anyone who does not support Bangladesh”.
In March 2015, during a period of violent confrontation between the government and the opposition, Wajed attacked The Daily Star, which had published a picture of a wall poster from the banned Islamic organisation Hizb-ut Tahrir under the heading “Fanatics raise their ugly heads again”.
Wajed wrote that the printing of the photograph was “yet another conspiracy by our so called ‘civil society’ to grab power”. Accusing the newspaper of supporting the opposition parties in the on-going conflict, he added that the paper wants “the violence to continue and indeed want to help the BNP-Jamaat kill more people. They want to blame our Awami League Government no matter what … This is treason. They should all be arrested and tried”.
It was five months later that a far more serious step was taken against The Daily Star and Prothom Alo, when DGFI – the same agency which is accused of passing inaccurate information to the media in 2007 – began to press major advertisers to stop advertising in the two newspapers.
Media under threat
On August 16, 2015, The Daily Star and Prothom Alo both published stories about five men who were killed by the army in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. On the same day, army officials contacted the papers and criticised them for failing to clearly refer to the men as terrorists. They also reprimanded the papers for describing the men as “indigenous”. The government now insists that tribal populations living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts should be called “ethnic minorities”.
That evening the country’s biggest advertisers – which included all five of the main mobile phone operators as well consumer product manufacturers like Unilever – reportedly received calls from DGFI officials ordering them not to advertise in either Prothom Alo or The Daily Star.
The companies complied and, as a result, both papers started losing on a daily basis as much as a third of their income. Although this embargo has now continued for five months, and is widely known in the Bangladesh media, not a single major newspaper or TV station has reported on it.
It is in this context that the current campaign against The Daily Star editor should be seen. Although it is impossible to see how the offence of sedition could apply here to Mahfuz Anam, the government’s influence over the lower courts can ensure that he will remain harassed and busy in the courts for a long time to come. This, along with the financial pressure on The Daily Star, will take its toll.
In its six years in office, the government has already closed down two television stations and one newspaper, all seen as close to the opposition. Of course, attempts by Bangladesh governments to control the media is nothing new – when the Bangladesh Nationalist Party was last in power between 2001-’07, one TV station considered biased to the Awami League was closed down.
However, the current situation is more serious. It comes at a time when the country’s main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, is barely functioning since dozens of its leaders and thousands of its activists have been arrested, and charged (or soon to be charged) with criminal cases over their alleged involvement in political violence.
Without a political opposition, much depends on the ability of the media to hold to account the current government. But if The Daily Star and Prothom Alo are weakened, and with so much of the remaining Bangladesh media partisan towards the government, there will not be much of an independent press left in the country to do that job.