Im­prov­ing the Record

Southasia - - COMMENT -

Awar­rant of ar­rest was re­cently is­sued by a court against Mah­fuz Anam, the owner-pub­lisher of the Daily Star, a pres­ti­gious English news­pa­per in Bangladesh. The war­rant was is­sued af­ter sev­eral cases of defama­tion and sedi­tion were reg­is­tered against Anam for pub­lish­ing, nearly a decade ago, some re­ports al­leg­ing cor­rup­tion by Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina Wa­jid, the prime min­is­ter of Bangladesh. The premier’s son even wanted a case of trea­son lodged against Mah­fuz Anam. The Law Min­is­ter of the coun­try, Anisul Haq, in­sisted at the same time that what was be­ing de­scribed as a ‘war­rant‘ of ar­rest was ac­tu­ally a ’sum­mons’ though the fact is that the Edi­tors’ Coun­cil in Bangladesh and var­i­ous jour­nal­ists’ or­gan­i­sa­tion have con­demned even the is­suance of the sum­mons. In fact, Gho­lam Sar­war, chief of the Edi­tors’ Coun­cil, had termed it as “in­ap­pro­pri­ate” since many news­pa­pers, and not just Mah­fuz Anam’s Daily Star, had car­ried the leaked sto­ries, based on in­for­ma­tion given by the care­taker mil­i­tary govern­ment in 2007-08. It has also been pointed out by Moza­m­mel Khan, con­vener of the Cana­dian Com­mit­tee for Hu­man Rights in Bangladesh, that Anam had ad­mit­ted in a TV dis­cus­sion that the pub­li­ca­tion of the leaked re­ports was the “big­gest mis­take” he had made in his pro­fes­sional ca­reer. Per­son­ally know­ing Mah­fuz Anam as a very soft-spo­ken and hon­est per­son, one can well un­der­stand that he could never have sup­pressed his inherent truth­ful­ness.

In Moza­m­mel Khan’s view, the Bangladesh govern­ment should have rested its case when the al­le­ga­tions were not proved and Anam had ac­knowl­edged his mis­take by say­ing that he pub­lished them with­out an in­de­pen­dent ver­i­fi­ca­tion of the facts. It seems, though that prime min­is­ter Hasina Wa­jid will not stop and will con­tinue to hound Mah­fuz Anam all the same. It is ob­vi­ous that the cli­mate for free ex­pres­sion in Bangladesh is at its low­est ebb. There is a rise in religious fun­da­men­tal­ism in the coun­try, fanned by in­tol­er­ance and vi­o­lence by ex­trem­ists. It has also been ob­served that ten­sions be­tween sec­u­lar and religious forces have in­creased and dis­sent­ing voices are be­ing muf­fled. There is rea­son to be­lieve that many per­pe­tra­tors of such vi­o­lence roam scot-free and not much has been done to ap­pre­hend them. The void be­tween political play­ers such as the Awami League, the Bangladesh Na­tion­al­ist Party and the Ja­maat-e-Is­lami is also widen­ing. While there have been ex­e­cu­tions of Is­lamic lead­ers in re­cent months, now th­ese groups are call­ing for the ex­e­cu­tion of the so-called ‘athe­ist bloggers’ and for­mu­la­tion of anti-blas­phemy laws.

It is clear that Bangladesh was headed in an au­thor­i­tar­ian di­rec­tion in 2015. The coun­try was de­void of an ef­fec­tive par­lia­men­tary op­po­si­tion af­ter the Bangladesh Na­tion­al­ist Party (BNP) boy­cotted na­tional elec­tions in 2014. In 2015, the BNP took to the streets while the govern­ment of Sheikh Hasina cracked down on free ex­pres­sion and civil so­ci­ety. The Hu­man Right Watch (HRW) has said in its World Re­port of 2016 that free­dom of ex­pres­sion came un­der se­vere at­tack in Bangladesh in 2015. The HRW Re­port said that while ex­trem­ist groups tar­geted sec­u­lar bloggers and for­eign aid work­ers, the govern­ment cracked down on me­dia and civil so­ci­ety ac­tivists, launch­ing con­tempt of court pro­ceed­ings and pros­e­cut­ing them un­der vague laws. The HRW has also pointed to the fact that sev­eral peo­ple were killed or in­jured dur­ing vi­o­lence that erupted when the Bangladeshi op­po­si­tion block­aded trans­port routes. It has pointed out that the govern­ment, led by Prime Min­is­ter Sheikh Hasina, has be­come in­creas­ingly au­thor­i­tar­ian, with se­cu­rity forces ar­rest­ing key op­po­si­tion lead­ers, of­ten on trumped up charges and the state au­thor­i­ties re­fus­ing to pros­e­cute se­cu­rity forces for se­ri­ous vi­o­la­tions, in­clud­ing tor­ture, killings and en­forced dis­ap­pear­ances. Re­porters With­out Bor­ders (RSF) has now called on Prime Min­is­ter Sheikh Hasina to stop ha­rass­ing Mah­fuz Anam. It may be re­called that Hasina had re­cently called on Anam to re­sign, blam­ing his edi­to­rial er­ror for her im­pris­on­ment many years ago. The al­le­ga­tion seems to insin­u­ate that the Daily Star had col­luded with the mil­i­tary. Hasina has also asked the lead­ers of the Awami League to unan­i­mously con­demn Anam’s ac­tions. Out of a to­tal of 180 coun­tries on the Re­porters With­out Bor­ders World Press Free­dom In­dex, Bangladesh was rated 146th in 2015. Per­haps it is time for the coun­try to im­prove its rat­ings. One im­por­tant way in which it could do this is to stop hound­ing jour­nal­ists such as Mah­fuz Anam.

Syed Jawaid Iqbal

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