Reporters Without Borders voiced outrage today at former cabinet minister Mirza Abbas’s decision to sue six publications for libel. A total of 18 editors and journalists currently face the possibility of prison terms as a result of criminal libel suits. One of the defendants, Shahadat Chowdhury, has been dead for the past two years.
“Bangladeshi politicians have a bad habit of suing privately-owned media that get too critical,” the press freedom organisation said. “These endless lawsuits expose journalists to the risk of being imprisoned for defamation, which violates international press freedom standards. We urge these politicians, especially Abbas, to withdraw their lawsuits in order to defuse tension between the press and political parties in the run-up to next January’s elections.”
Abbas, a former minister of housing and public works and senior member of the BNP party, brought libel suits against four daily newspapers - Jugantor, Inqilab, Janakantha and Bhorer Kagoj - and two magazines - Weekly-2000 and Weekly Shirsha Kagoj - before a Dhaka criminal court on 9 November. Five separate suits were brought against just one of the newspapers, Jugantor. It named the editor, the newspaper’s lawyer, and a correspondent.
The former minister’s lawyers gave the details of the lawsuits to judge Syed Mohammad Mojibul Haq. Everyone named in the suits has been summoned to appear before the court on 3 December. The judge has the power to issue arrest warrants.
The suits claim that Abbas was libelled in articles about people who said they were the victims of abuse of authority (including land seizures and discriminatory hiring) by him or people close to him. When questioned by Reporters Without Borders, Weekly-2000 editor Golam Mourtuza described his magazine’s August article, one of those cited in the lawsuits, as “clear and honest” investigative reporting.
Another of the journalists cited in the lawsuits said: “Our readers have a right to know the truth. I have no problem facing this suit. But each time we see that these lawsuits are being filed in order to harass us.” Bhorer Kagoj editor Shyamal Dutt denied the claims made in Abbas’ suit. “The facts cited in our article are completely true. Mirza Abbas has the right to bring an action, but he ought to examine the articles more closely before going before a judge.”
This year, Reporters Without Borders has registered a significant increase in the number of libel suits being brought against privately-owned media by BNP parliamentarians or ministers. Abbas already brought an action against the editors of the daily Prothom Alo in February. Another BNP parliamentarian, Abdul Mannan, sued Dainik Jugantor in May. His colleague Amzad Hossain Sarker brought a libel suit against four national dailies in January.