Improving the Record
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