By Seema Guha
Sedition charges are the flavour of the month. In India, a 'strong’ government with a solid majority has charged young Kanhaiya Kumar of threatening the country’s security by joining hands with the likes of Hafiz Saeed, on the basis of a fake Twitter handle, and has slapped sedition charges against him.
Neighbouring Bangladesh, has gone one step further. It has 15 sedition charges against Mahfuz Anam, the much respected editor of the country’s most popular English newspaper, The Daily Star.
Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League is all powerful, the friendly opposition is made up of parties who agreed to take part in the national elections, boycotted by the Bangladesh National Party.
Absolute power has made the Awami League vengeful. The cases against Anam are for pieces published in his paper eight years ago in 2007-2008, at a time when a caretaker government made up of technocrats was ruling the country.
India and Bangladesh are using this colonial era law against their own citizens. Britain itself abolished this law in 1990, as a relic of a past era, which has no place in this day and age. The punishment for sedition in Bangladesh is death while two years rigorous imprisonment is the sentence for criminal defamation.
Ironically Mahfuz Anam brought this on himself by remarks made on a television chat show (where else?) on 3 February, about an error of judgement in the past. Commenting on certain reports published in his newspaper, about cases of corruption against Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, fed by government sources, he admitted that this was an error of editorial judgment, because the newspaper could not verify the facts independently.
Show of Loyalty to Sheikh Hasina
This honest introspection, which should have been ignored, got out of hand when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s son, Sajeeb Ahmed Wazed, put out these remarks on his Facebook page and said that Anam should be tried for treason. That opened the floodgates for Awami supporters to prove their loyalty to the PM. The defamation cases filed against the editor are from all parts of the country. If nothing else, Anam will spend the next few years running from one court to the other. They could continue for years.
It is a fact that Mahfuz Anam supported the caretaker government, backed by the army in 2007-2008. Fed up of the corruption and constant squabbling by the two begums - Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party – there was a move to make the two ladies quit politics. So, cases were filed against the leaders of both the national parties. The army was attempting to promote Mohammed Yunus of the Grameen Bank,, the Nobel Peace Prize winner of 2006, as the next prime minister and build a squeaky clean new party around him.The idea was to stop the squabbling between the BNP and the AL, that had polarized the country and almost led to a standstill in the government.
The Bangladesh army is no stranger to coups, and the initial move in 2007 was to take power. There would have been a military coup, but for the pressure from the UN and the international community. The UN warned that Bangladesh would not be allowed to send its forces for peace keeping missions. After much deliberation, the army decided against a coup. Instead, it put in place a number of technocrats to be the face of the caretaker government, while wielding actual power from behind the scenes. Meanwhile the idea was to give Bangladesh a brand new political party, and make both the Awami League and BNP irrelevant politically.
So during the caretaker rule in 2007-2008, the attempt was to tarnish the reputation of both Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda. Stalwarts of the Awami League and the BNP were asked to desert the Begums.
Loyalists, however, stood firm. The press was used by the military backed regime to plant stories against the two ladies. Sheikh Hasina was accused of graft and the newspapers were given details of the charges against her. The Daily Star, like many other newspapers of the time did publish the stories. But unlike other editors, Mahfuz Anam admitted to an error of editorial judgement to print stories that were not independently verified.
The witch-hunt against Anam has been criticized by journalists, academics, writers and the BNP. The opposition believes that the Sheikh Hasina government is stifling all legitimate criticism. "This is a foolish decision. Though I was opposed to Mahfuz Anam for his support of the military and its program of minus two, I am aghast at the way the government is going after him.Surely the man does not deserve this for honestly admitting his past mistake. I salute his courage,’’ said Dr Shantanu Majumder, Associate professor in Dhaka University, He is however hopeful that this madness would blow-over in time.