Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has called on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to stop hounding Daily Star editor Mahfuz Anam over his admission on February 4, 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.