Withdraw cases against 2 editors
Human Rights Watch yesterday called for the withdrawal of all criminal charges brought against the editors of The Daily Star and Prothom Alo.
“Bangladesh should repeal its criminal defamation and sedition laws, which violate international standards,” the New York-based international rights body said in a statement.
As many as 75 cases, 17 of which are pleas to bring sedition charges, have been filed against The Daily Star Editor and Publisher Mahfuz Anam since February 9, days after he made an introspective comment about a lapse in his editorial judgment in publishing without verification a few reports based on information given by the Task Force Interrogation (TFI) cell during the military-backed caretaker government rule in 2007.
On February 16, a Narayanganj court issued a warrant for Anam's arrest in a case filed by a private lawyer but revised the order a day later to issue a summons.
In recent years, Bangla daily Prothom Alo, its Editor Matiur Rahman and some journalists of the daily saw 55 cases filed against them on charges of criminal defamation and “hurting religious sentiment”, HRW said.
The charges against Matiur Rahman stem from a series of articles the paper ran on alleged irregularities in the purchase of power tillers by a local government office and a cartoon published in the paper's political satire section, it added.
“Criminal charges against editors of the leading newspapers in Bangladesh are a clear attempt to intimidate all media in the country,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW.
“A government controlling almost all seats in parliament and all national executive authority has to be particularly protective of a free press -- or risk turning Bangladesh into an authoritarian state.”
The cases are part of a larger, organised assault on independent media in Bangladesh, HRW said.
“Bangladeshi authorities have closed critical media houses, jailed editors, tried bloggers, and charged journalists with contempt of court for reporting unfavorably on government actions. The editor of Amar Desh newspaper, Mahmudur Rahman, has been jailed without trial since 2013 on charges of sedition and unlawful publication of intercepted conversations,” reads the statement.
“Both The Daily Star and Prothom Alo have faced government retaliation for their reporting. Media personnel have alleged to Human Rights Watch that this includes a ban on advertising by large private companies in the two papers. Several corporate sources speaking anonymously stated that they had received these instructions in an article published by Al Jazeera in October 2015,” it adds.
“Defamation should not be treated as a crime,” Adams said. “If a newspaper intentionally publishes false information that harms an individual's reputation, then a civil defamation case is the proper remedy, so long as a fair and impartial trial can be assured. But Bangladesh should not be in the business of jailing journalists for what they write.”
HRW called for repeal of the sedition law, which it described as overly broad and vague.
“Bangladesh's sedition and criminal defamation laws are contrary to the country's international human rights obligations. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Bangladesh ratified in 2000, prohibits restrictions on freedom of expression on national security grounds unless they are provided by law, strictly construed, and necessary and proportionate to address a legitimate threat.
“Such laws cannot put the right itself in jeopardy. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which interprets the ICCPR, has said that state parties should move toward abolishing criminal defamation and that no one should ever risk imprisonment for defamation.”
Activists and human rights defenders have faced charges, arrest, and intimidation. Bloggers who have expressed atheist sentiments have been killed, yet others have faced charges of insulting religious feelings.
“These criminal charges are clearly a form of retribution against political enemies of the government.
“And while it is going after journalists, the government has taken no action to hold members of DGFI accountable for the extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and torture that took place during the caretaker period,” Adams said.
In 2007, The Daily Star ran 11 reports based on information given by the TFI cell, without being able to verify those independently. Of those reports, seven were on alleged corruption of Khaleda Zia, her two sons and other BNP leaders, three on alleged graft of Hasina and one on the then chief conservator of forests, Osman Gani.
Presently, the cases being filed against Mahfuz Anam allege that the reports published by this newspaper led to the arrest of AL chief Sheikh Hasina, thus defaming her.