On February 3, 2016, Mahfuz Anam, the editor of Bangladesh’s respected English newspaper The Daily Star, appeared on a TV talk show. Hosted by Munni Saha, a familiar face on TV, the show featured two little known guests alongside Anam: a junior university teacher and a mid-level news editor of a news website.
The panellists were barely in a position to pass judgment on a newspaper as prominent as The Daily Star on a national TV, that too as a co-panellist with Mahfuz Anam. The curious choice of guests was, therefore, indicative of an interesting ploy. And, throughout the show, the guests bluntly criticized the paper for being “elite,” “irrelevant” and having “an insignificant readership.” Such an aggressive posture was strange given the fact that the show was meant to celebrate the paper’s founding anniversary.
At one point, the news editor raised the issue of the paper’s controversial role during the rule of the military-backed caretaker government.
In its less-than-50-years of existence, Bangladesh witnessed repeated overt or backdoor military interventions. The latest one dates back to 2007 when two rival political parties—Awami League (headed by Sheikh Hasina, the current prime minister) and BNP (led by Khaleda Zia, Hasina’s arch-rival and the outgoing prime minister)—brought the country to its knees.
The uncompromising positions of two “battling begums”—as The Economist famously called them—paved the way for an intervention from the military, which Sheikh Hasina strangely welcomed and even promised to legitimize should her party come to power.
However, in an apparent attempt to present itself as a neutral force, the caretaker regime quickly detained both the leaders and framed corruption charges against them, based on “confessions” made by their own party comrades, possibly under duress.
Media outlets were supplied with videotapes of those confessions implicating Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia and ordered to run stories based on them. Indeed, some outlets were more than happy to oblige those orders. Some others, however, were hesitant but compelled to do so without independently verifying the claims made in those tapes. The Daily Star possibly belonged to the second category.
Coming back to the talk show, the news editor asked Mahfuz Anam about this chapter. And, he went defensive and regretted his decisions to run those stories in retrospect, terming them as the biggest journalistic mistakes of his life. He, however, pointed out that except for New Age, edited by Nurul Kabir, almost all newspapers or news outlets had to publish what was supplied.
A chance of retrospection misused
Mahfuz Anam’s remarks should have triggered a long-due debate over how intelligence agencies in Bangladesh exert undue pressure on the press. Instead, they were instantly seized as a priceless chance to intimidate the editor.
Almost immediately after Mahfuz Anam made those comments, the said news outlet, whose news editor was present at the program as his co-panellist, ran a story headline that Mahfuz Anam ‘confessed to’ have run unsubstantiated stories. Moments later, Sajeeb Wazed, the son of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, posted a status on Facebook, explicitly demanding the editor be kept behind bars. In addition, the ruling party MPs demanded Mahfuz Anam be arrested and The Daily Star be shut down.
To be fair, Wazed had reasons to be upset. After all, his mother Sheikh Hasina, along with Khaleda Zia and many other political leaders, was jailed by the military-backed regime. Wazed argues that the newspaper stories based on intelligence agencies prepared the ground for his mother’s arrest.
However, Wazed’s criticism of The Daily Star for failing to have stood up to the powerful military conveniently ignores the fact that it was his party that chose not to pursue actions against generals who ran the caretaker government. It allowed the army chief, who was widely seen as the de-facto ruler of the country, to end his tenure after it returned to power.
In fact, many argue that Awami League was most to benefit from the caretaker regime: it came to the scene when the party needed it the most, and it exited in a way that left the party in power and while its opponent in an existential crisis.
Most importantly, if anyone wants to initiate a debate about the press’ role during that dark chapter of our history, why is it just Mahfuz Anam, not every other editor, who is brought under the scrutiny?
Clearly, the ruling party’s outrage could be linked to the fact that The Daily Star remains one of the country’s fiercest, most critical and independent voices, despite its imprecise records during the military-backed rule.
Meanwhile, clearly inspired by Wazed’s comments, the ruling party’s grassroots activists across the country lodged sedition and criminal defamation cases—79, as of now—against Mahfuz Anam, with the claims made in those cases standing at more than $1.6 billion. Plaintiffs of these cases know their cases against Anam would not stand in any court of law, but collectively these cases were very effective in serving their intended purpose: harass and intimidate an elderly man, who now has to appear before every court situated in rural districts of the country.
Press, not for the press
What makes this episode very interesting is that while Mahfuz Anam is facing obvious harassment, few of his colleagues in the media publicly came to his support. “The biggest thing that saddens me about Bangladesh is the lack of solidarity in the press for the press,” observed Irene Z Khan, the former chief of the Amnesty International, six days after Anam’s comments triggered widespread controversy.
In fact, as mentioned earlier, the matter was hyped by a report published by a news website—the same website whose news editor appeared as a panellist with Mahfuz Anam—describing an incomplete and misleading version of his account.
It is known in the media circles in Bangladesh that the editor of the news website holds grudges against Anam, as evident by the website’s frequent, disproportionate and even personal attacks on Anam and the Star.
Anam and the said editor were colleagues during the early days of the Daily Star and fell apart in an unideal situation. The editor recently penned an opinion piece, in which he made several vague but incriminating claims about The Daily Star (such as that it ran “hundreds of stories” with questionable headlines). The opinion piece, while urging to end Anam’s harassment, spent about 90 per cent of its space for what seemed far beyond journalistic or ethical criticism.
While The Daily Star and Mahfuz Anam, as its editor, have had their own flaws, the said news outlet is not a pristine example of fair journalism, either. The outlet published repeated sensational and unsubstantiated reports, including one that claimed the US government was working to topple the Bangladesh government, citing an unnamed source. In fact, its editorial stance and slant can be dubbed as extremely pro-establishment.
Democracy, journalism and The Daily Star
Despite all of its shortcomings, Bangladesh’s journalism is more matured than its politics. And, newspapers such as The Daily Star represent the best of Bangladeshi journalism, which questions the authorities, tries to hold those in power accountable and supports democracy.
The Star’s very emergence as a newspaper was emblematic of Bangladesh’s democratic transition. It was founded in 1991, shortly after the then-military government succumbed to the mass protests, leading to the subsequent restoration of the parliamentary democratic system.
Despite the initial enthusiasm, our democratic character has over the years eroded. But The Daily Star, more or less, has managed to position itself as an independent voice that is trusted, reliable and respected. Therefore, the paper and its editor will most likely survive this aggression, but the damage caused by this “Anamosity” to Bangladeshi journalism, in general, will be difficult to repair.