In Bangladesh, journalist summoned for criticism of court

It’s not the first time, and it likely won’t be the last: Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal has demonstrated little tolerance for criticism of its activities. Last week, the tribunal launched contempt of court proceedings against Dhaka-based British journalist David Bergman for his blog posts on the court. 

On April 17, Bergman, an editor for the local English-language daily New Age, appeared before the domestic tribunal and was ordered to provide written explanation within 15 days as to why he should not face punitive measures such as a jail term, fine, or both.

In February, a lawyer filed a case against Bergman relating to three articles he published between November 2011 and January 2013 on his personal blog that criticized the tribunal, which is investigating war crimes committed during the 1971 war of independence in which Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan.

Critics say the tribunal is being used to target political opponents of the ruling Awami League. As I have noted before, the proceedings relating to the war crimes trials have been blemished by poor standards of due process

This wasn’t the first time Bergman found himself in hot water with the tribunal. In 2012, the tribunal accused Bergman of contempt and let him off with a warning, according to news reports.

Bergman did not respond to CPJ’s requests for comment. In a statement posted on his blog, he said, “I am very disappointed by today’s tribunal decision to initiate contempt proceedings against me…” He expressed concern that he will not be allowed to appeal against any conviction, as the tribunal does not provide any right to appeal in cases of contempt.

The tribunal has bridled at criticism from others. Last year, it ordered Human Rights Watch to submit a response after prosecutors sought to initiate contempt proceedings against the international rights group for its coverage of the tribunal. Human Rights Watch’s South Asia director, Meenakshi Ganguly, told CPJ, “[The] matter is before the courts,” and declined further comment.

And in 2012, authorities leveled sedition charges against Mahmudur Rahman, the acting editor and majority owner of the Bengali-language pro-opposition daily Amar Desh, for coverage casting doubt on the impartiality of the tribunal. Rahman has been behind bars for more than a year as his trial continues. Authorities also accused the newsweekly magazine The Economist of hacking the computer of a former presiding judge on the tribunal following leaked conversations between the judge and a lawyer that cast doubts on the impartiality of the court. The magazine denied the accusations.

The credibility of the any court is dependent on unrestricted and independent coverage of its activities. With a few convictions squared away and several cases pending, it may serve the court to focus on its mandate rather than on journalists and rights groups that criticize it.