Bangladeshi editor who faced 83 lawsuits says press freedom under threat

Mahfuz Anam (centre), editor of the Daily Star of Bangladesh.
  • As U.S. approves $526m to Tanzania to fight AIDS

Mahfuz Anam still laughs at the size of the damages claims he was landed with last year.

“It amounted to about US $8bn [£6.2bn],” the editor of Bangladesh’s Daily Star newspaper said. “I’m in the realm of Bill Gates.”

In a two-week flurry in February 2016, Anam was served with about 67 criminal defamation cases and 16 sedition charges.

Most were lodged by members of the Awami League, Bangladesh’s ruling party. “It was farcical,” he said from his office in Dhaka.

“Its purpose was to intimidate me and my institution. The message was: if we can do that to the Daily Star and its editor, we can do it to anybody.”

Avoiding jail became a logistical challenge. The cases had been lodged in far-flung districts across Bangladesh deliberately, Anam said.

As a result, he spent weeks traversing the country making bail applications, some scheduled for the same time in multiple districts at once. “It was legal harassment,” he said.

The Bangladesh high court criticised the charges and stayed them in April last year. Those suing Anam have yet to respond to the court’s decision and the cases are sitting in limbo.

Anam still eyes the charges warily. “A stay means they are frozen in time,” he said.

“If the government felt I was exercising too much press freedom, they could revive the cases … or they could institute new ones. It all depends on how I behave.”

The spree of killings of writers and LGBT activists in Bangladesh in the past four years has drawn international scrutiny.

But editors, journalists and bloggers in the south Asian country say they have plenty of other worries – not just the threat of machete attacks from Muslim extremists.

The Bangladesh government is increasingly charging and jailing writers using vague new laws against “prejudicing the image” of the state, threatening national security, and “hurting religious belief”, according to a report this month from Amnesty International.

“Between the violence of armed groups and state repression, secular voices in Bangladesh are being consistently silenced,” said Olof Blomqvist, the Bangladesh researcher for the London-based human rights group.

In the meantime, the U.S. on Thursday approved 526 million dollars in aid to Tanzania over the coming year to expand the roll out of life-prolonging Anti-Retroviral (ARVs)drugs to people infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Some 1.4 million Tanzanians are estimated to be living with HIV in the nation of around 50 million people, with about 850,000 of them currently on ARVs.

“This support will bring the total number of Tanzanians on HIV treatment up to 1.2 million,” the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania said in a statement.

The embassy said that the funds were donated through the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the world’s largest provider of AIDS-fighting medicine.

The programme has been credited with saving millions of lives around the world.

The financial assistance represents a 12 per cent increase over 2016’s budget and will also support HIV testing for 8.6 million Tanzanians and provide treatment to an estimated 360,000 people who newly test positive with the virus.

The funds will also support the care and treatment of orphans and vulnerable children and voluntary medical male circumcision to further prevent HIV transmission.

PEPFAR emergency plan, is a U.S. governmental initiative to address the global HIV and AIDS epidemic and help save the lives of those suffering from the disease, primarily in Africa.

Additional report from Guardian