By Tahmima Anam
March 3, 2016
Mahfuz Anam, centre, editor of Bangladesh’s most widely circulated English newspaper, The Daily Star, leaving court on Tuesday. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
I scrolled through a series of videos and images. The first one was titled “Confession,” and featured a newspaper editor being harangued by a talk-show host. Further down, I saw a photograph of a crowd burning an effigy of this man. There was another, a Photoshopped image of the man with devil’s horns affixed to his head. Then there were the news stories, the tally of lawsuits against him rising to 30, 40, 70 cases. Finally, there was a statement from the prime minister of Bangladesh: The editor should resign and face trial.
The editor is my father, Mahfuz Anam, and the newspaper is The Daily Star, the English-language paper he co-founded 25 years ago.
My father used to joke that one of his ambitions was to open an ice-cream parlour. Instead, at the age of 41, he left a career at the United Nations to start a newspaper.
I was 15, and we were living in Thailand at the time. Soon, we had packed up our lives and returned to our hometown, Dhaka. The newspaper was born in January 1991, just as the eight-year military dictatorship of President H. M. Ershad ended. With the onset of democracy, my father was able to return to Bangladesh and fulfill his duty to the country that he, as a freedom fighter, helped liberate 20 years before.
Within months of taking on the editorship of the paper, my father criticized the first democratically elected government for its failure to reach out to the opposition and create a bipartisan consensus. He then lambasted the opposition for boycotting Parliament and for resorting to general strikes as a means of protest. In a deeply divided political climate, he set the tone for independent journalism, meting out criticism for both parties if they failed to serve the greater good.
The Daily Star became the biggest circulation English-language daily newspaper in the country, with a sister publication in Bangla called Prothom Alo. Together, they are a major force in the independent print media and attest to the relative freedom enjoyed by the press in Bangladesh since the end of the dictatorship, something to be proud of in a region where journalists are regularly imprisoned and disappeared.
Yet my father has not been immune from the heavy hand of the state. He has faced pressure from the government, the intelligence services, the army, the police — all the institutions from which he has demanded transparency.
At no point was this greater than in 2007, when an army-backed caretaker government held power for two years in the run-up to national elections. During this period, the intelligence services supplied stories to the press in the form of transcripts, audiotapes and videos in which people confessed to having bribed government officials, including the Awami League leader and current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina. These reports couldn’t be independently verified, but The Daily Star, along with other media outlets, ran the stories anyway.
In July 2007, Ms. Hasina was arrested on charges of corruption. She was detained in the grounds of the Parliament for 11 months.
Once the military rule ended, the witnesses who had accused Ms. Hasina recanted, claiming their stories were extracted under duress; these retractions were reported in The Daily Star. Even so, over time, my father came to regret his judgment in deciding to run the original story without corroboration; on Feb. 3, on the occasion of The Daily Star’s 25th anniversary, he went on a late-night talk show and said as much.
The following morning, the airwaves were awash with his “confession.” The son of Prime Minister Hasina, Sajeeb Wazed, called for my father’s arrest on charges of treason, alleging that he was the cause of Ms. Hasina’s incarceration. Since then, scores of lawsuits charging my father with criminal defamation and sedition have been lodged in courts all over Bangladesh.
This is only the latest chapter in the state’s targeting of The Daily Star and Prothom Alo. In March 2015, The Daily Star published a photograph of a recruitment poster produced by the banned Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir with the caption “terrorism rears its ugly head”; Ms. Hasina told Parliament that the paper had “helped the radical cause” by printing the photograph and the state would “move against” those who had published it. In August, a sudden drop in advertising from the telecoms sector was widely believed to have been ordered by state intelligence.
And now this. Doubtless, the publication of unverifiable reports based on “confessions” made by people in custody — though a common media practice in Bangladesh — should be questioned, and this could be an excellent opportunity to revise journalistic practice. Instead, the state is exploiting the chance to double down on its suppression of free speech.
When something like this happens to someone you love, it is difficult not to focus on his immediate safety. Yet the harassment of my father is not about the government’s ire against one man, but about the stifling of the independent media in Bangladesh and the general narrowing of critical space.
Ms. Hasina herself has now gone on the record that she, too, believes the rumour that my father was behind her arrest. Rather than investigating the intelligence task force, which coerced the confessions, or the judicial process that led to the case against Ms. Hasina, or the officials involved in her arrest, the government has brought down the full force of the state on a newspaper.
My father sent a text message to me in London the other day. “I’m being sued for 17 billion dollars,” he wrote. “This is more than the total budget of the country at independence.” I hear the smile behind the words. I also feel the sadness behind the smile.
I wonder if this is how he felt in 1958, when his father was arrested by the Pakistani military dictatorship for being a Bengali nationalist. My grandfather spent four years in jail, released only when his health had deteriorated so badly that the authorities were afraid he’d die in custody.
A year ago, the blogger and free speech activist Avijit Roy was murdered as he was leaving the Ekushey book fair. Then, we feared the violent extremists who were murdering our writers on the streets. Now, it is the state itself that is brutally suppressing political dissent. Caught between a paranoid government and the threats of violent fringe groups, the free media is the victim.
Guiltily, I dream of that ice-cream shop, its sweet blandness, and that other life we might have had. Of course, it was never going to be. Dissent is in the blood, and now the story must be seen through.
I fear the worst for my father. However things are resolved for him personally, his beloved country will emerge the poorer for his ordeal.
Tahmima Anam, a writer and anthropologist, is the author of the novel “A Golden Age” and a contributing opinion writer.