Dhaka’s “International Crimes Tribunal” yesterday found Bangladesh-based British investigative journalist David Bergman guilty of contempt of court for questioning the tribunal’s use of the 1971 independence war’s official death toll in one of its rulings.
The case has reinforced Reporters Without Borders’ concern about the readiness of Bangladesh’s courts to convict journalists of contempt of court. The tribunal ordered David Bergman to pay a fine of 5,000 taka (50 euros) or go to prison for a week for three articles he posted on his “Bangladesh war crimes” blog on 11 and 12 November 2011 that were entitled “Sayedee indictment - 1971 deaths”, “Sayedee indictment analysis - charges” and “Sayedee indictment analysis - legal”. In these posts, Bergman referred to the lack of evidence supporting the official toll of 3 million dead and cited independent estimates that were much lower. “This contempt of court conviction constitutes a direct attack on freedom of the media and information in Bangladesh,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk. “For the past ten years we have been asking the authorities to repeal the contempt law, under which journalists can be jailed just for expressing views different from those of the courts. The entire judicial system is now off-limits for the media. No critical coverage of the justice system and court cases will be possible as long as this threat continues to hang over journalists.” His lawyer is considering an appeal but added that the International Crimes (Tribunal) Act of 1973 did not provide a right of appeal and section 47a of the constitution could also limit any attempt to challenge this denial of a right. Many journalists have been charged with contempt – and often convicted – by high court judges or judges with the International Crimes Tribunal. In March, a high court judge found Prothom Alo joint editor Mizanur Rahman Khan guilty of contempt in connection with an article he wrote about a series of bail decisions. He was fined 5,000 taka, with the court considering his having stood in court for the previous five days sufficient additional punishment. In December 2012, two journalists with The Economist magazine who live outside Bangladesh were charged with contempt for an article questioning the tribunal’s independence. They were later acquitted. Mahmudur Rahman, the editor of the opposition daily Amar Desh, was sentenced to seven months in prison on 19 August 2010 on various charges including contempt of court. Two weeks after completing his sentence in March 2011, another warrant was issued for his arrest on a similar contempt charge in connection with a 2010 article criticizing Awami League leaders. Both the publisher and the editor of the Dainik Manabzamin newspaper were sentenced to a month in prison and a fine on a contempt charge in 2002. Bangladesh is ranked 146th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.