The British Broadcasting Corporation, UK-based media giant popularly known as BBC, on Thursday said the world should be worried by the “concerted attacks” on one of the leading newspaper editors in South Asia, Mahfuz Anam of Bangladesh’s Daily Star.
As much as 72 cases-either sedition or defamation suites were filed against The Daily Star editor across the country in the past 10 days for publishing ‘confusing’ and ‘defamatory’ reports in his daily on Awami League president Sheikh Hasina during the military-backed caretaker tenure.
In an article appeared on BBC’s online version, its South Asian correspondent Justin Rowlatt argued to say that the “attack on Mahfuz Anam” is part of “an attempt to crush independent media” in Bangladesh.
The article also called on the UK government to challenge Bangladesh so that it delivers on its commitment to protect human rights.
“It can seem a bit self-righteous when journalists write about the importance of freedom of the press, a bit like a chef celebrating the virtues of a fancy meal or a hairdresser extolling the importance of a new haircut,” Justin Rowlatt began the article.
He went on saying, “But the public’s right to know what is really going on in their country really is the cornerstone of a free society. Without free access to information, backed up by journalists who are willing to dig down and get to the truth, all the other liberties celebrated in democracies are endangered. That’s why the world should be worried by the concerted attacks on one of the leading newspaper editors in South Asia, Mahfuz Anam of Bangladesh’s Daily Star.”
Calling The Daily Star a kind of Bangladeshi New York Times, the BBC South Asia correspondent said, “It was launched as Bangladesh returned to parliamentary democracy a quarter of a century ago, and has always had a reputation for journalistic integrity and liberal and progressive views – a kind of Bangladeshi New York Times.”
“That’s why,” he added, “it is so shocking that Mr Anam now stands accused of treason, no less.”
Referring to Sajeeb Wazed’s remarks on Mahfuz Anam’s confession, the BBC article read, “The son of prime minister Sheikh Hasina, has described him as ‘completely unethical’ and a liar, and has demanded he be thrown in jail.”
“Mr Wazed is at the head of a queue of dozens of politicians, student agitators and others who have launched criminal defamation charges against the eminent editor.”
“I will go into the details of the allegations against Mr Anam in a moment,” said Rowlatt. “But first it is important that the claims are set in context, because it is hard not to see this as the latest line of attack in a concerted effort to gag one of the last independent media organisations in the country.”
The article also shed light on “how The Daily Star and its sister concern daily Prothom Alo are being barred from getting adverts from country’s leading enterprises.”
In a subheading ‘Incomes hit’, the article read, “The Daily Star and its sister publication Prothom Alo – the most widely read Bengali newspaper in the country – are already the subject of a clandestine attempt to undermine their finances.”
It continued saying, “The BBC understands that since last summer businesses, including some of the largest telecoms and consumer goods companies in Bangladesh, have been ordered to restrict their advertising in the two newspapers by the country’s military intelligence agency.”
Referring to an Al Jazeera report, it said, “The Norwegian company that owns Grameen Phone, Bangladesh’s largest mobile phone operator, has admitted as much to Al Jazeera. Telenor’s head of communications confirmed that, “along with several other large corporations, [it] received an instruction from the authorities to stop advertisements in two leading newspapers in Bangladesh”.”
The article estimated that the Daily Star and Prothom Alo are reckoned to have lost about a third of their income.
“Yet the order has no basis in law, according to the leading commentator on Bangladeshi politics, David Bergman,” read the article.
“It is simply ‘enforced’ through the authority that comes from being the country’s most feared intelligence agency,” Bergman argued while talking the BBC correspondent.
“But its intent is clear: it is about bringing independent media into line and stifling dissent. The message is “cross the line and we’ll take action”, but since no clear line has been drawn it is up to the media to police itself. And it seems to be working.”
In another subheading ‘Intimidation’, the article quoted Bergman to have said, “There is not a single newspaper or TV editor in this country who does not know about the blockade, yet not one of the nearly 30 TV stations, nor one of the countless newspapers has reported about this intimidation of the Daily Star and Prothom Alo.”
As the BBC correspondent spoke to Bangladeshi information minister Hasanul Haq Inu, the minister denied that he knew of any such order.
“If the newspapers or any of the companies involved register an official complaint, he would be happy to investigate, and said that if any illegal restriction is being imposed on businesses in Bangladesh, he will take action,” the information minister told the BBC.
The article further read, “While the restrictions on advertising in the Daily Star are not getting much attention in the Bangladeshi press, the allegations of treason by Mr Anam are getting plenty of publicity. That is because Mr Anam has admitted he has made mistakes.”
Under subheading “’Bad judgement’-but treason?”, the article referred to Mahfuz’s confession in one of his television appearances.
“In a television interview earlier this month, he conceded that reports published in the Daily Star in 2007 alleging corruption by the woman who is now prime minister were based on uncorroborated leaks from the then military government. He said he was wrong to have published them,” read the article.
“It was a big mistake,” Mahfuz was quoted to have said, “It was a bad editorial judgement, I admit it without any doubt.”
“But whether his mistakes constitute treason is another matter entirely,” said the article.
“The prime minister’s son claims that the articles were an attempt by Mr Anam and the Daily Star to “support a military dictatorship in an attempt to remove my mother from politics”.”
The article said, “That is something Mr Anam vigorously denies, with justification.”
According to the article, Sajeeb Wazed pointed to 203 editorials published during the period of military rule demanding that democracy be restored. That amounts to one every three days of the so-called “emergency government”.
“He also points out his newspaper was very critical when Sheikh Hasina was arrested in connection with the corruption charges,” the article said of Sajeeb Wazed.
The article also quoted an excerpt of an editorial appeared the day after Sheikh Hasina was arrested. “‘To us Sheikh Hasina’s arrest is totally misconceived and smacks of arrogant use of power without due process of law,’ his editorial thundered.”
Under subheading Court Decision, the article said, “What is more, none of the allegations against Sheikh Hasina and other party members was ever tested in court because all charges were dropped by executive order when her Awami League assumed power in 2008.”
“By contrast,” the article continued saying, “similar claims of corruption made against the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), were allowed to stand. Many BNP politicians are still technically on bail from the charges.”
Talking to the BBC correspondent the information minster denied there was any campaign against The Daily Star.
“He says the complaints against Mr Anam are being made by individuals and are not being co-ordinated by the government,” read the article.
The information minister told BBC, “A judgement on whether he is guilty will be made by the courts on the basis of the merits of the case.”
“But,” said Rowlatt, “Mr Bergman has no doubt about the real significance of these attacks on Mr Anam.”
Rowlatt said Bergman believes they are “an attempt to crush independent media”.
The BBC correspondent said Bergman is convinced that government loyalists want “to close down, or at least subdue, any influential independent media or dissent that is not within their control”.
Under subheading ‘Legal harassment’, the article said, “That would represent a very sinister power grab in an already fragile democracy like Bangladesh. Since Bangldesh’s media appears too cowed to speak out, it is time the rest of the world does.”
The BBC correspondent also called on the UK government to raise its voice against “legal harassment” in the way the “International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) recently condemned what it calls the “legal harassment” of Mr Anam.”
“Now governments must do the same. And where better to start than the UK government?”
The article concluded with a call to the British High Commissioner to Bangladesh to challenge Bangladesh so that it delivers on its commitment.
“A few weeks ago Alison Blake, the new British High Commissioner to Bangladesh, was celebrating how “as two Commonwealth countries, we share a set of core values, including a commitment to Parliamentary democracy and a tolerant and pluralistic system with a commitment to protect and uphold human rights”. It might be time Ms Blake challenges the Bangladeshi government to deliver on that commitment.” – BBC