Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based global rights body, has said Bangladeshi authorities should immediately withdraw all criminal charges filed against the editors of The Daily Star and Prothom Alo, the country’s leading newspapers.“Bangladesh should repeal its criminal defamation and sedition laws, which violate international standards,” said a statement posted on the rights groups’ website on Saturday.
As of the time of writing, the editor of the English-language Daily Star, Mahfuz Anam, faced a total of 54 criminal defamation cases and 15 sedition cases, largely for publishing corruption allegations from ‘military’ sources several years ago, the statement reads.
“Criminal charges against editors of the leading newspapers in Bangladesh are a clear attempt to intimidate all media in the country,” said Brad Adams, HRW Asia director.
“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,” he added.
The cases are part of a larger, ‘organised assault on independent media in Bangladesh’ over several years, said the statement.
It added Bangladeshi authorities have closed critical media houses, jailed editors, tried bloggers, and charged journalists with contempt of court for reporting unfavorably on government actions. The editor of Amar Desh newspaper, Mahmudur Rahman, has been jailed without trial since 2013 on charges of sedition and unlawful publication of intercepted conversations, the HRW said.
It said Bangladesh’s sedition and criminal defamation laws are contrary to the country’s international human rights obligations. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Bangladesh ratified in 2000, prohibits restrictions on freedom of expression on national security grounds unless they are provided by law, strictly construed, and necessary and proportionate to address a legitimate threat. Such laws cannot put the right itself in jeopardy, the statement added.
“These criminal charges are clearly a form of retribution against political enemies of the government,” said Adams. “And while it is going after journalists, the government has taken no action to hold members of DGFI accountable for the extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and torture that took place during the caretaker period.”