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Top Bangladesh editor faces criminal lawsuits

February 15, 2016

One of Bangladesh’s top newspaper editors faces a spate of defamation suits from government supporters after he admitted that 2007 reports alleging corruption by the woman who is now prime minister were based on uncorroborated leaks.

Daily Star editor Mahfuz Anam admitted this month the stories, published in 2007, had been based on leaks from the military-backed caretaker government that ruled Bangladesh until Sheikh Hasina took office in 2009. He said he had been wrong to publish them.

The admission sparked an outcry from government supporters. Hasina’s son called for Anam to be tried for treason over the reports, which were also carried by other newspapers in Bangladesh.

On Monday the Star said Anam was facing a series of apparently politically motivated lawsuits from pro-government groups for defamation, a criminal offence that in Bangladesh carries a penalty of up to two years in jail.

He has been ordered to appear before courts in the northern city of Rangpur and the northeastern city of Sylhet next month.

“At least 23 defamation cases were lodged against him,” senior Daily Star journalist Reaz Ahmad told AFP of the lawsuits, which accuse the influential editor of defaming Hasina and her Awami League party.

Ahmad said the complainants “felt aggrieved that their leader’s image was tarnished by the reports, which were based on information supplied by the then-government’s Joint Task Force Interrogation Cell”.

The cell was set up by the caretaker government that ruled Bangladesh for two years after a military takeover in 2007, which led to the arrest of Hasina and her main political rival Khaleda Zia, now leader of the opposition, on corruption charges.

Neither was convicted of any crime and both denied corruption.

A government prosecutor has also sought permission from a Dhaka court to file a sedition case against Anam, a court official said.

Criminal defamation cases are rarely brought before the courts in Bangladesh, and legal experts said the cases were likely aimed at intimidating the 65-year-old editor.

“In our experience, these cases are usually filed with the objective of harassing and intimidating the opponent,” Tanim Hussain Shawon told AFP.

Fears over freedom of speech have been mounting in Bangladesh, which has seen a spate of killings of secular bloggers and publishers.

David Bergman, a British journalist who has reported extensively on Bangladesh, said the lawsuits were “an attempt to crush independent media”.

On his blog, bangladeshpolitico.blogspot.nl, Bergman accused Awami League loyalists of trying “to close down, or at least subdue, any influential independent media or dissent that is not within their control”.

In 2014 Bergman was found guilty of contempt of court for questioning the official death toll of three million in the 1971 independence war.

Most independent estimates put the actual toll at hundreds of thousands.

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Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.