Attack on Daily Star Editor is Latest Awami League Attempt to Restrict Criticism

The attacks on members of Bangladesh’s civil society illustrate how the authorities are seeking to avenge perceived “past misdeeds,” and take any action required to remove or weaken alternative power bases in the country.

Dhaka: In 2010, a year after the Awami League came to power, Muhammed Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, was in the government’s sights.

Subjected to false corruption allegations, Yunus was forced out of the bank by the government.

Now six years later, Mahfuz Anam, the editor of the country’s largest selling English language paper, The Daily Star, and a key member of Bangladesh’s civil society is the government’s new target, whom the powers-that-be want to force out of his job.

Government activists have filed 17 cases of sedition and 62 cases of defamation against Anam in 53 separate districts around the country. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, her son, advisor and the presumptive heir of the party, Sajeeb Wazed, and many members of parliament are pressing Anam to resign.

The country’s independent media is now at risk.

Between Yunus’ ouster and the attack on Anam – a period almost spanning the Awami League’s seven years in power – there have of course been many other less illustrious people subjected to far worse violations in Bangladesh.

Enforced disappearancesextra judicial killings, and unlawful detentions have been widespread in recent years, as the government has embarked on a (successful) policy of destroying the country’s main opposition parties. Bangladesh is now suffering from a “large number of chronic and serious human rights violations which fly under the radar on the global scene,” according to the Human Rights Watch.

Nonetheless, the government’s attacks on two key members of the country’s civil society remain significant as they illustrate how even beyond the political party environment, Bangladeshi authorities are seeking to avenge perceived “past misdeeds,” and take any action required to remove or weaken alternative power bases in the country.

The ousting of Mohammed Yunus

In December 2010, an article on local news website bdnews24 claimed Yunus had “siphoned off aid money.” Although there was no substance to the allegation, it did not stop Hasina from labeling the Nobel Peace Prize winner a “blood sucker,” or  Wazed alleging that Yunus had committed “fraud,” “theft,” “tax evasion” and “embezzlement”.

By Muhammad Yunus, (Tanveer Islam, personal). Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Muhammad Yunus was subjected to attack by the Awami League government in 2010. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A vicious media campaign ensued, with members of parliament arguing that Yunus was corrupt. He was soon removed as head of Grameen Bank because of his age – a process supported by the courts. Various criminal cases were filed against him, including for defamation (in having claimed that politicians “were out to make money”), for producing sub-standard yoghurt (involving a joint venture with a French food company), for tax evasion and for inflating the prices of mobile phones (in relation to Grameen Phone). The government also changed the law to take control of the bank.

Analysts at the time pointed to a combination of three factors to explain why Yunus had been targeted. First, that Hasina was angry that she had not received the Nobel Peace Prize for her role in the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord in 1997. Straightforward pique.

Secondly, she sought revenge for Yunus’s criticisms against politicians made soon after the army took power in 2007 and his intention at that time to start a political party. Finally, Hasina saw Yunus a possible political threat whom she wished to neutralise.

Mahfuz Anam’s turn

The targeting of Anam started on one of Bangladesh television’s talk shows, a few days before The Daily Star celebrated its 25th anniversary. A bdnews24 reporter questioned Anam on the position taken by the paper in 2007 when the army came to power for a two-year period, and when many top politicians and businessmen were arrested on corruption allegations. The reporter claimed that certain articles published in The Daily Star on alleged corruption committed by Hasina had “prepared” the ground for her arrest in July 2007.

Anam replied that such criticism should be “against the entire media” as most newspapers had “published the same news”. Crucially, he then went onto admit that it had been a “big mistake” for The Daily Star to publish “unsubstantiated” news provided by the country’s military intelligence agency, the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI).

Bdnews24 published an article titled, ‘Daily Star editor Mahfuz Anam admits to publishing DGFI fed baseless stories’.

Soon after, Wazed wrote on his Facebook page that Anam had “admitted” to publishing “false corruptions stories” against his mother “to defame her” and that he had done this “in support of a military dictatorship in an attempt to remove” her from politics, calling for Anam to be tried for treason.

Sajeeb Wazed, the prime minister's son, Credit: Facebook

Sajeeb Wazed, the prime minister’s son, has called for Mahfuz Anam to be tried for treason. Credit: Facebook

Then came demands in parliament from Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh, the prime minister’s nephew, that the newspaper “be shut immediately,” and Anam not be allowed to work in journalism any more. The rhetoric of other Awami League members of parliament’s was equally vicious.

Hasina then made a speech in which she  sought Anam’s resignation, claiming that the stories he had written were “fraudulent and untrue and aimed at destroying the country”.

Awami League activists across the country soon began to file sedition and defamation cases.

A threat to independent media

Although the criticism against Anam is couched in terms of journalistic ethics, the campaign against him has little to do with that.

Certainly, it was a serious lapse for The Daily Star to not corroborate information provided by the intelligence agencies – but this was a failure committed by many (though not all) newspapers at the time. Moreover, pro-government media outlets continue to publish stories fed to them by the highly politicised law enforcement agencies, with no restrictions or complaints.

What then could explain the attack on Anam? Perhaps Hasina and others could be getting their own back on Anam who had supported Yunus’s initial efforts at starting a new political party soon after the army came to power in 2007. Anam is also perceived by pro-Awami Leaguers as having supported the army’s attempts to ‘cleanse’ the two main political parties of its leaders, which included Hasina.

However, it is the government’s attempt to control the country’s independent media that is the real driving force behind this harassment.

The Daily Star is the country’s leading English language paper, and is the sister paper to Prothom Alo, the leading Bengali newspaper. Although both papers support many of the main themes of the current government, particularly those on the key questions involving the 1971 war, their reportage and editorial stance have often been highly critical of the government on governance issues. In the context of a mostly pro-government media, both papers are a significant thorn in the side of the Awami League.

Significantly, during the highly controversial uncontested elections in January 2014, Anam had taken a strong (and bold) position arguing that the elections should not take place without the participation of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Whilst Hasina took no notice of such advice, there were doubts of the Awami League retaining its hold on power. Yet it did, and has since been able subsequently to consolidate its position. However had it not done so, Anam would certainly have been one of those held responsible – and he is now being punished for the position he took then.

This is not the first time that the government has taken action against The Daily Star. In August 2015, the country’s military intelligence agency DGFI ordered the country’s main advertisers to not provide any advertising to the The Daily Star and Prothom Alo, cutting their income by a third.

The government has already closed down two pro-opposition TV stations and one newspaper, and is now keen to defang The Daily Star and Prothom Alo, to intimidate them so they no longer take a critical stand on sensitive issues.

It is likely that the government is looking at the 2019 elections and attempting to restrict the two papers from giving it anywhere near as hard a time as they did in 2014.

In the meantime, Anam finds himself having to travel around the country from one court to another, seeking bail, and waiting to see whether the government gives the go ahead to the 17 sedition cases filed against him.

David Bergman is a writer based in Bangladesh.  He also runs the Bangladesh Politico and Bangladesh War Crimes blogs. Follow him on @davidbangladesh