Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Monday joined her son in calling for trials against the editors of two leading newspapers for publishing unsubstantiated corruption stories against her and other politicians nine years ago.
Delivering a keynote address at a conference in Dhaka, Hasina said Daily Star editor Mahfuz Anam and Prothom Alo editor Matiur Rahman tried to brand her as corrupt by publishing false stories during the rule of a military-backed government in 2007-2008.
“The way the war criminal trials are being held, [the editors] should be tried for destroying constitutionality,” she said, referring to the controversial trials of men accused of committing atrocities during Bangladesh’s 1971 independence war. Four have been put to death so far.
The Daily Star and Prothom Alo are the largest-circulation English and Bengali dailies in Bangladesh, respectively.
The prime minister’s comment came a day after the United States-based Human Rights Watch urged the government to withdraw all criminal charges against the two men. .
Defamation, sedition charges
In early February, Anam told a television talk show that army intelligence officials had prodded the paper to publish articles containing allegations of corruption against top politicians in 2007 and 2008, when a military-installed caretaker government ruled Bangladesh.
A military-backed non-party caretaker government took office on Jan. 11, 2007, amid street fights between Hasina’s Awami League and Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
During that time, the military government arrested and imprisoned both women on charges of corruption. They were released about a year later and competed in December 2008 general elections won by Hasina, who has been in power ever since.
The Daily Star was among many Bangladeshi news outlets that printed lists with names of allegedly corrupt people during that period.
Anam’s unprecedented admission of what he termed “the great mistake in my journalistic career” led to a swift call for his arrest from Hasina’s son and adviser, Sajeeb Wazed Joy, and a flood of legal cases.
As of Sunday, 54 criminal defamation cases and 15 sedition cases had been filed against Anam, and 55 cases had been lodged against Rahman and journalists associated with his paper, for criminal defamation and “hurting religious sentiment,” according to Human Rights Watch.
Hasina said Anam admitted that he used to publish whatever the DGFI (Directorate General of Forces Intelligence) provided for publication.
“His paper’s slogan is journalism without fear; if so, what is called fearless journalism?” she asked. “Is this true that he sold out to the DGFI?”
She asked if Anam and Rahman were involved in executing the so-called “minus two formula” aimed at removing Hasina and Zia from politics.
“I have nothing to say if you sold out,” Hasina said, adding that those who tried to remove her from politics had also snatched away the democratic rights of the people.
Condemnation from rights watchdog
On Sunday, Human Rights Watch condemned the government action against the two editors.
“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 Human Rights Watch.
“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.”
Adams said defamation should not be treated as a crime.
“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,” he said.
Fire attempt at Ekushey Book Fair
Also on Monday, police reported a suspected arson attempt at the Ekushey Book Fair in Dhaka.
Security is tight at the annual, month-long event where Bangladeshi-American blogger Avijit Roy was hacked to death by suspected Islamists one year ago, apparently for his secular writings.
“According to the CCTV footage, we have seen that two people including one bearded man were trying to set the heaps of papers on fire behind stall number 478,” Abu Bakr Siddique, the officer-in-charge of Shahbagh police station, told BenarNews.
The incident occurred after 6 p.m. and no suspects were in custody as of 9:15 p.m., Siddique reported.
“They fled as people around us smelled petrol,” witness Salim Ahmed told BenarNews.
Last week, police shuttered a stall at the book fair and arrested three people in connection with a book called “Islam Debate” that was allegedly harming Muslim sentiment.