English PEN joins our colleagues at PEN International and PEN Bangladesh in expressing concern at reports that The Daily Star editor Mahfuz Anam is currently facing some 38 lawsuits on charges of criminal defamation and sedition.
According to news reports, a total of 30 defamation cases and eight sedition charges have been filed against The Daily Star editor Mahfuz Anam. Reports indicate that the barrage of lawsuits filed across the country since 14 February 2016 come in response to Anam’s 3 February admission on a TV chat show that he had made a mistake by running corruption stories between 2007 and 2008, based on uncorroborated information provided by the country’s military intelligence agency, the DGFI. Petitioners are reported to argue that the articles paved the way for the incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s arrest in July 2007. Under the Bangladeshi legal system, an offence of criminal defamation is punishable by up to two years in prison and/or a fine.
Salil Tripathi, Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International, said:
The arrest warrant against Mahfuz Anam is a grossly disproportionate action against an editor of enormous integrity. Anam has a long record of respecting the rule of law and impartial journalism in difficult circumstances. For some time now the press in Bangladesh has been under siege and the actions of government officials and politicians associated with the ruling party reveal a concerted attack on independent media. By all means those defamed should have the right to seek redress through civil action, however defamation should never be criminalised and the state must ensure that Anam’s rights are protected.
PEN holds that criminal defamation laws are pernicious and widely used by those in positions of power to silence critics. Such laws – and the disproportionate penalties that they introduce – have a chilling effect on writers and journalists who uncover corruption, malfeasance and abuse of power and who are conscious of the possibility of serving lengthy prison sentences and being left with a criminal record. The result is the stifling of reporting and public debate and difficulty in holding power to account. PEN calls on the Bangladeshi authorities to repeal its criminal defamation legislation. We are also campaigning for an end criminal defamation in the Europe.
On 24 February, English PEN is hosting a discussion in London, ‘Words cannot be killed: freedom of expression in Bangladesh‘. The event marks a year since the death of secular blogger Avijit Roy. We will be joined by former prisoner of conscience and journalist Tasneem Khalil and Ahsan Akbar, director of Dhaka Literary Festival, to discuss the state of freedom of expression in Bangladesh with BBC broadcaster Razia Iqbal.