Newspaper article International New York Times

Bangladesh Editor Faces 79 Legal Cases ; as Dhaka Stifles Dissent, an Unusual Confession Makes Journalist a Target

Newspaper article International New York Times

Bangladesh Editor Faces 79 Legal Cases ; as Dhaka Stifles Dissent, an Unusual Confession Makes Journalist a Target

Article excerpt

After admitting it was wrong to have years ago published allegations against the prime minister, Mahfuz Anam could get 175 years in prison.

The math alone is a bewildering exercise for Mahfuz Anam, the editor of Bangladesh's most popular English-language newspaper. Since February, the number of legal claims against him has climbed to 79 cases: 62 over defamation and 17 over sedition.

If convicted in all of the cases, Mr. Anam faces a prison sentence of up to 175 years. In the meantime, he is obliged to crisscross the country to appear at hearings in 50 of the country's 64 judicial districts, and is petitioning the country's high court to consolidate them. In some instances, he said in a recent interview, "I might have to physically appear in more than one place on the same day."

Officials say the government is not behind the barrage of litigation, though many of the cases were filed by activists with the ruling Awami League, and at least one by an assistant public prosecutor. They were filed after Mr. Anam made an unusual public confession, expressing regret over articles that his newspaper, The Daily Star, published years ago on uncorroborated allegations of corruption against the current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina.

Ms. Hasina's control over Bangladesh's political system has tightened since 2014, when the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party boycotted parliamentary elections and the Awami League swept the polls, virtually unopposed. That election pushed the Nationalist Party and its leaders to the margins of public life, where they have remained, despite a protest campaign that resulted in more than 100 deaths last year.

With political opposition dwindling, it has become increasingly risky to publish material critical of the government. Twenty-five defamation cases are underway against Matiur Rahman, the editor of Prothom Alo, The Daily Star's sister paper and the country's second most popular Bengali-language newspaper.

Asif Nazrul, a law professor at the University of Dhaka, said the legal cases would further weaken Bangladesh's civil society. "These cases are a strong signal to not just Mahfuz Anam but to all media that if you go beyond the limits that have been set, then you too can be prosecuted for sedition," he said.

Pressure on the two newspapers began to build last fall. After Prothom Alo and The Daily Star published a report in August on the killing of five men by army troops in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a former conflict area where the military has a large presence, a series of major private advertisers abruptly withdrew from the two newspapers, and advertising revenues for both publications dropped steeply.

One executive said the advertisers had come under pressure from the government. Tor Odland, a vice president with the Norwegian company Telenor Group, said in a statement at the time that the Bangladesh telecommunications company Grameenphone, which is part of Telenor, "has, along with several other large corporations, received an instruction from the authorities to stop advertisements in two leading newspapers in Bangladesh. …

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