Bangladeshi editor who faced 83 lawsuits says press freedom under threat

Mahfuz Anam, editor of the Daily Star of Bangladesh, walks from a court in Rangpur after securing bail in March last year over a defamation case filed by pro-government activists.

Powered by article titled “Bangladeshi editor who faced 83 lawsuits says press freedom under threat” was written by Michael Safi South Asia correspondent, for on Thursday 18th May 2017 07.12 UTC

Mahfuz Anam still laughs at the size of the damages claims he was landed with last year.

“It amounted to about US $8bn [£6.2bn],” the editor of Bangladesh’s Daily Star newspaper said. “I’m in the realm of Bill Gates.”

In a two-week flurry in February 2016, Anam was served with about 67 criminal defamation cases and 16 sedition charges.

Most were lodged by members of the Awami League, Bangladesh’s ruling party. “It was farcical,” he said from his office in Dhaka.

“Its purpose was to intimidate me and my institution. The message was: if we can do that to the Daily Star and its editor, we can do it to anybody.”

Avoiding jail became a logistical challenge. The cases had been lodged in far-flung districts across Bangladesh deliberately, Anam said.

As a result, he spent weeks traversing the country making bail applications, some scheduled for the same time in multiple districts at once. “It was legal harassment,” he said.

The Bangladesh high court criticised the charges and stayed them in April last year. Those suing Anam have yet to respond to the court’s decision and the cases are sitting in limbo.

Anam still eyes the charges warily. “A stay means they are frozen in time,” he said.

“If the government felt I was exercising too much press freedom, they could revive the cases … or they could institute new ones. It all depends on how I behave.”

The spree of killings of writers and LGBT activists in Bangladesh in the past four years has drawn international scrutiny.

But editors, journalists and bloggers in the south Asian country say they have plenty of other worries – not just the threat of machete attacks from Muslim extremists.

The Bangladesh government is increasingly charging and jailing writers using vague new laws against “prejudicing the image” of the state, threatening national security, and “hurting religious belief”, according to a report this month from Amnesty International.

“Between the violence of armed groups and state repression, secular voices in Bangladesh are being consistently silenced,” said Olof Blomqvist, the Bangladesh researcher for the London-based human rights group.

Prothom Alo, another national newspaper, has faced more than 100 criminal cases against its staff since 2013, nearly half of them still awaiting resolution in Bangladesh’s overburdened legal system, according to the report.

Along with the Daily Star, Prothom Alo is also being starved of advertising revenue.

In mid-2015, Bangladesh military intelligence reportedly took exception to the newspaper’s coverage of militants in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

At least one major corporation has admitted it and several others were called by the military and ordered to cease advertising in both outlets, which share an owner.

The informal ban remains in place, according to Amnesty, and has cost the newspapers at least 25% of their advertising revenue.

Section 57 of Bangladesh’s digital communications act is singled out by media workers as particularly harmful.

Amended in 2013 to allow police to arrest people without a warrant, the section punishes any media perceived to have deliberately attacked religion or undermined the state.

According to Odhikar, a Dhaka-based human rights organisation, at least 82 people have been arrested under the law between January 2014 and December last year.

Among them is AKM Wahiduzzaman, an environmental researcher and blogger who has been critical of the government’s human rights record.

He told the Guardian he was briefly held in jail on remand in 2013 after being accused of making derogatory comments about Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the prime minister, on his Facebook page.

“People like us who write on blogs and social media are always under threat,” he said.

“Those who write against the government are threatened under Section 57 and get arrested, detained and tortured by police.

“And those who write against religion are threatened by fanatic followers of those religions,” he said.

Afsan Chowdhury, a veteran journalist and researcher, said: “In terms of media freedom, Bangladesh is going through a very major transition.”

He said that throughout the country’s brief history (it established independence from Pakistan in 1971), media had traditionally been aligned with one of the two political parties who had alternately controlled the government.

“The shift is online and citizen journalism,” Chowdhury said. “The amount of freedom working media people have now is actually greater than ever, and that’s terrifying for the ruling class, including the media owners.”

He said events in Bangladesh mirrored those in Turkey or India, where the governments were increasingly appealing to lower-middle class voters along religious and nationalist lines.
In the editor’s office at the Daily Star, Anam admitted the 83 lawsuits he faced last year had made him more careful about what he published.

Asked what concerned him more, religious vigilantes or repressive laws, his answer was clear.

“The religious extremists are passing phenomena,” he said. “If the government and media work together, we can resist these people.

“But when a government takes a position of being intolerant of free expression, the risk is to the structure, the institutions of the state.”

Additional reporting by Mushfique Wadud in Dhaka © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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