Editor, journalist jailed for contempt in Bangladesh

New York, August 20, 2010–Bangladesh’s Supreme Court should review and overturn jail terms and fines it gave to three journalists from a pro-opposition daily Thursday for contempt of court, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

The court’s appellate division sentenced Mahmudur Rahman, acting editor of the Bengali-language daily Amar Desh, to six months in prison, plus a fine of BDT 100,000 (US$1,436) or an additional month in jail, according to local and international news reports. Rahman, a former opposition energy advisor, has been in custody since June facing charges his supporters say are intended to suppress his critical news outlet, according to the reports.

Amar Desh staff reporter Aliullah Noman was also sentenced to a month in prison, the news reports said. The court gave Noman and Amar Desh publisher Hashmat Ali a fine of BDT 10,000 (US$144) each, or seven days in prison.

The charge was based on an April 21 news report in the daily, which accused the country’s courts of bias in favor of the state, according to Agence France-Presse. The court is allowed by the Article 108 of the country’s constitution to punish public statements denigrating its reputation, according to Rahman’s lawyer, Rafique-ul Huq, who spoke with CPJ by telephone. The court can agree to review the judgment within two months, he said.

Two Amar Desh editors included in the charge were released without penalty.

“We call on the Supreme Court to overturn the convictions of Amar Desh staff, which set a chilling precedent for Bangladesh,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “Journalists should be able to report on the legal system without fear of criminal charges.”

Contempt of the Supreme Court has not been clearly defined by law and the court has broad power to enforce it, according to Huq. “Their interpretation of the charge is unfortunate,” he told CPJ. Attorney General Mahbubey Alam was quoted by news website BDnews24 as saying it was the first time the Supreme Court’s Appellate Branch had issued such a ruling, according to local news reports.

Other journalists expressed concern. “Any media could fall in this trap after writing anything on law and court,” Manjurul Ahsan Bulbul, a prominent journalist and former head of the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists, told CPJ by e-mail.  

A judge questioned Mahmudur Rahman’s journalism credentials in the verdict, according to the New Delhi-based Indo-Asian News Service. Rahman, who served former Bangladesh National Party Prime Minister Khaleda Zia as energy advisor, is the majority shareholder of Amar Desh and has been a vocal critic of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government since he became acting editor.

Rahman has faced a barrage of charges this year, including sedition, failing to cooperate with a corruption investigation, and more than 20 defamation charges filed by Awami League supporters based on a December 2009 Amar Desh article, according to local news reports. Police shut down the newspaper and arrested Rahman for publishing irregularities and obstructing police in June. The paper was closed for about a month before being allowed to publish again on July 18, according to city editor Zahed Chowdhury, who spoke with CPJ by telephone.  

Another contempt charge against Rahman is also pending–it involves a May 10 Amar Desh report titled “Farce in the name of independent justice,” according to BDnews24. He will appear before the Supreme Court to face that charge on August 24, Huq said.