NGOs Criticize Bangladesh over Free Speech Curbs, Climate of Fear

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
2016.06.06
Dhaka
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160606_BD_PRESS_1000.jpg Television journalists give their pieces to camera in front of opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader Khaleda Zia's office in Dhaka during a nationwide strike called by the BNP, February 26, 2015.
AFP

Eighteen foreign NGOs have voiced collective concern about what they describe as a deterioration of free speech and a hostile atmosphere for the press in Bangladesh.

The South Asian country has been gripped by a series of killings of secular writers and bloggers by suspected Islamic militants since 2013. Prominent journalists have been charged for alleged criminal defamation.

“Recent years have seen a serious decline in respect for freedom of expression and the associated rights of freedom of association, assembly and of religion or belief in Bangladesh, a member of the United Nations Human Rights,” PEN International, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Committee to Protect Journalists and the other NGOs said in a joint statement issued late last week.

“Deeply entrenched and widening political differences between the ruling Awami League, the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and their allies are contributing to a government crackdown on freedom of expression, with Bangladesh’s vibrant civil society also under attack,” they said.

The NGOs said they were submitting their five-page statement for the U.N. Human Rights Council to consider during its session in Geneva this month.

“Legislative changes, poor law enforcement, lack of governmental support for the principle of freedom of expression, attempts to undermine independent media and a justice system ill-equipped to provide recourse to victims of rights violations have all contributed to the silencing of dissenting voices, through murder, imprisonment, self-censorship or exile,” the NGOs added.

‘If they remain within their domain’

The statement also criticized Bangladesh’s Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT), which criminalizes online publication of content deemed as likely to harm religious sentiment or disrupt law and order.

And the NGOs voiced concern about the draft Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act 2014, which would require all Bangladeshi NGOs benefiting from foreign aid to register with the government and seek its approval for projects using any of this money, they said.

Bangladeshi officials on Monday defended the government against the criticisms.

“What I can assure is that the proposed Foreign Donations [Bill] will not muzzle the civil society if they remain within their domain,” Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury, an organizing secretary of the ruling Awami League, told BenarNews.

Such a law was necessary because, when the Awami League was out of power and a military-backed caretaker government ruled the country in 2007-08, NGOs had strayed “beyond the limits” of their missions, he said.

Shah Alamgir Hossain, director general of the Press Institute of Bangladesh, which is overseen by the Ministry of Information, said the joint statement by PEN International, RSF and a host of other free speech advocacy groups was inaccurate.

“The policies are not targeted at curtailing the freedom of speech or expression,” Hossain told BenarNews.

“I have led the government initiative to constitute the Broadcast Commission in line with National Broadcast Policy and the Online Policy,” he said, responding to an allegation that Bangladesh’s National Broadcasting Policy “unduly restricts the dissemination of news, photos, or videos.”

According to the head of the press institute, such policies were designed for “bringing discipline” to Bangladeshi media outlets.

“[T]he managers of private television channels now lack necessary training and professional skills to decide what stuff should be aired and what should not. So, the government has initiated forming an independent Broadcast Commission that would suggest a code of ethics for journalists,” he added.

The only outlets

The Awami League now has no real opposition in parliament because its main rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), boycotted the 2014 general election, protesting the Awami League’s refusal to follow tradition by allowing a neutral caretaker government to run the country during the electoral season.

According to a Bangladeshi civil society leader, the absence of a formidable opposition bloc in parliament has led to a government crackdown on the media because local newspapers, news channels and websites are now the only outlets where the ruling bloc’s opponents can express themselves publically.

“With a … cornered opposition, the press and the civil society are the only dissenting voices left in Bangladesh. The opposition BNP is cornered now. So, if the civil society and media are checked, the government would have no trouble ahead,” Badiul Alam Majumder, general secretary of SHUJAN, a Bangladeshi NGO that champions good governance, told BenarNews.

“The existence of a strong opposition in parliament and outside would make the government think twice before initiating any move to curtail the freedom of expression and muzzle the civil society through different laws,” Majumder added.

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