A deluge of lawsuits against editor Mahfuz Anam on charges of criminal defamation and sedition is an indication of the worsening state of free expression in Bangladesh, PEN America said in a statement today.

Mahfuz Anam, editor of The Daily Starthe largest circulating daily English-language newspaper in Bangladesh—faces a total of 38 lawsuits, of which 30 are based on defamation charges and eight are based on sedition charges. It appears that the onslaught was in response to a televised admission on February 3, 2016, that he had made a mistake by running stories about corruption based on uncorroborated information provided by the DGFI, the country’s military intelligence agency, between 2007 and 2008. Subsequently, a number of politicians, including current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, were arrested on corruption charges by the then-ruling military-backed caretaker government. Under Bangladeshi law, a charge of criminal defamation carries a prison sentence of up to two years and/or a fine.

“The recent slew of charges leveled against Mahfuz Anam illustrates an escalation of the assault on media freedoms in Bangladesh,” noted Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of free expression program at PEN America. “The government and ruling party should cease using criminal defamation and sedition laws to harass the press, and should remove such restrictive statutes from the penal code. Bangladesh’s democracy will be immeasurably weakened if the media is not able to fulfill its watchdog role and speak truth to power without fear of disproportionate repercussions.”

Criminal defamation and sedition legislation is just one of many ways that the Bangladeshi authorities are stifling media and free expression in the country. The Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Act and contempt of court laws are also used to silence critical voices, including that of British journalist David Bergman, charged with contempt of court in December 2014. Television talk shows have also been subject to censorship because of critical coverage, such as “Frontline” which was hosted by Matiur Rahman Chowdhury. Chowdhury’s outspokenness and critical voice resulted in “Frontline” being pulled off the air indefinitely in February 2015. In November and December 2015, the government shut down Facebook, Twitter, Skype, WhatsApp, and other similar services that are crucial outlets for the sharing of news and information. Physical attacks against and harassment of reporters are on the rise, in addition to the attacks by Islamic extremists against secular bloggers and publishers last year that resulted in the deaths of five individuals in 2015.  

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Founded in 1922, PEN American is an association of 4,300 U.S. writers working to breakdown barriers to free expression worldwide. www.PEN.org

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Sarah Edkins, Deputy Director for Communications: sedkins@pen.org, +1 646 4830