The battle lines are drawn

BY SUBIR BHAUMIK| IN Media Freedom | 19/08/2015
As the government came under pressure from not only media but also sections of the ruling Awami League, police produced Probir Sikdar in court, where he was granted bail.
SUBIR BHAUMIK report on a confrontation between the media and judiciary, temporarily averted.
Journalist Probir Sikdar walked on crutches as he was brought to a court

Recent events in Bangladesh have revealed that the media is becoming increasingly contemptuous about the judiciary and the latter is not taking this lightly.

When journalist Probir Sikdar was thrown into prison for his Facebook post against Bangladesh's Local Government and Rural Development minister, Khandkher Mosharoof Hossain, media organisations in Bangladesh clearly blamed the judiciary for a nexus with the government.  Sikdar's lawyer had strongly contested the contention that this was a non-baillable case and challenged it   in court, but it  sent him to prison anyway. 

The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) then lashed out at Bangladesh's legal system.  "Jailing journalists for publishing threats made against them further undermines confidence in Bangladesh's legal system," said CPJ's Sumit Galhotra in a statement.

After receiving threats over his Facebook posts, Sikdar had tried to file a general diary at a police station in Dhaka highlighting his insecurity. On August 10, Sikdar posted on Facebook that the police had refused to register the complaint and proceeded to blame Hossain for the threat to his life.

Sikdar was moved to Faridpurat midnight on August 16 after his arrest in Dhaka that evening. By then, a case had been lodged against him at Faridpur Kotwali police station  under Art 57 of ICT act.  (Section 57 of the law criminalises ‘publishing fake, obscene or defaming information in electronic form’ and this offences are non-bailable, so arrest is a must.)

The next morning, a court in Faridpur sent him to prison on three days’ police remand to ‘facilitate’ interrogation.

"We call on the authorities to immediately release journalist Probir Sikdar and investigate the threats against him," said Galhotra.  

The Facebook post, titled ‘Those who are a threat to my life and will be responsible for my death’, read:

“I am clearly saying that the people named below will be responsible for my life being at risk or my death.

1. LGRD Minister Engineer Khandker Mosharraf Hossain, MP

2. Razakar Nula Moosa alias Dr Moosabin Shamser

3. Death-row war criminal Bachchu Razakar alias Mawlana Abul Kalam Azad

And their supporters.”

Hossain said he had no idea about the case filed against Sikdar but defended the legal action by his supporters, saying ‘or else it would be like accepting his (Sikdar's) charges. God forbid, but if suddenly he died, I would be in the dock as prime accused."

Journalists across Bangladesh called for Sikdar's immediate release and blamed a nexus between the politicians and the judiciary for such brazen action against the media.

As the government came under pressure from not only media and secular groups but also sections of the ruling Awami League, police produced Sikdar in court ahead of the expiry of the deadline. He was then granted bail by court amid much jubiliation. Plaintiff Swapan Pal, who had sued Sikdar for 'defaming' minister Hossain, said the police had finished interrogating Sikdar and so he was produced in court before time. 

In the same week that Sikdar found himself in prison, two editors of Dainik Janakantha, a popular Dhaka Bengali daily, were punished with a modest fine of 10,000 taka. Both Dainik Janakantha editor, Atikullah Masood, and executive editor, Swadesh Roy, were made to stand the whole day in the Supreme Court after they were found guilty of contempt for an article on a matter that was sub-judice.

"That was some humiliation as both editors were confined to the courtroom as a mode of serving the sentence," said senior journalist Sumi Khan.

The Supreme Court also cautioned them against publishing any derogatory stories on the judiciary in future.The full text of the judgment will be published with a guideline for the media soon.

In another development, on the day the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty of 1971 war crimes convict and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) lawmaker Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, it issued a contempt ruling against Masood and Roy for publishing an article criticising the conduct of the judges who had dealt with Chowdhury's appeal.

Chowdhury, a BNP MP, had been awarded the death penalty for the massacre of Hindus and Awami League supporters during the 1971 Liberation War and had appealed against it in the Supreme Court.

In Roy’s July 16 article, he described Chowdhury as a 'heinous killer and a traitor '. The article went on: "His appeal verdict is on July 29. Father Mujib!  Here too, your daughter is being made to stand with her back to a crucifix.If it is not true, how did family members of Salauddin Quader Chowdhury have a meeting with those who were judging his case? How did they manage to go to the judges? Do judges ever meet the families of the victims? Is it within their ethics?"

Roy's article referred to a meeting between Chowdhury's relatives and Chief Justice S. K.Sinha.

While the final Supreme Court verdict upholding the death sentence might have made Roy’s criticism seem unfounded, there had been another development too. Earlier, Dainik Janakantha had found a recording of a conversation between Justice Sinha and another judge over Chowdhury's case. 

Later that evening, Ekattor Television, a popular TV channel, played the conversation and held a panel discussion on its implications. On August 10, the Supreme Court, while concluding the hearing on the contempt charge against the Dainik Janakantha editors, also directed  Ekattor TV to submit the video clippings of the broadcast. The Chief Justice has said the contents of the video will be reviewed thoroughly before a verdict is given.

There are strong rumours in the media that another Supreme Court judge was responsible for the leaks to embarrass the Chief Justice and questions were raised about whether the media was crossing the red line on the judiciary.

Bangladesh's judiciary has been regularly hauled up in the country's media for bias and incompetence and in return the judiciary has lost no opportunity to dragtop editors – for example the high-circulation Prothom Alo editor Motiur Rahman- to court.  

One civil society leader, Zafrullah Chowdhury, even called judges 'mentally unsound' over a verdict against British journalist David Bergman. Only an apology saved him from serving a sentence for contempt.

The media's contempt for the judiciary is clearly on display and so is the judiciary’s eagerness to take them to task for it. "This confrontation is not good for Bangladesh, especially if the tension between the media and the judiciary spins out of control," says media researcher Homayra Parveen Shukla.

Not only have the media come out strongly in protest over Sikdar's arrest, even Awami League leaders are openly critical.

"No conscious human being can act normal after such an incident," said senior Awami League leader Suranjit Sengupta.

“Handcuffing an amputee, publishing his photograph and remanding him hurriedly did not seem to be something normal to me.

“He had to be taken to Faridpur at the dead of night? The police and DB (detective branch) became so efficient?” is what Suranjit told a television channel on Tuesday.

But Home minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal denies the media is being muzzled.


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