Freedom of speech shrinking in Bangladesh, says rights chief

Bangladeshi secular activists protesting against the killing of blogger Niloy Chakrabarti in Dhaka on Aug 14, 2015.
Bangladeshi secular activists protesting against the killing of blogger Niloy Chakrabarti in Dhaka on Aug 14, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

(THE DAILY STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The space for freedom of speech has been gradually shrinking in Bangladesh, said National Human Rights Commission chairman Professor Mizanur Rahman on Tuesday (Sept 8).

"This shrinking [OF SPACE]is a threat to journalism, a threat to right to information and human rights," he said.

Apart from addressing the launching ceremony of the Jessore-based Bangla weekly Shampratik Deshkal, Prof Mizanur also inaugurated its news portal

The state should be asked how much freedom of expression had been curbed by section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act, he said.

"But it has become even harder to raise questions," he said, referring to a recent High Court rejection of a plea challenging the legality of section 57.

According to section 57, if any person deliberately publishes or transmits false, obscene and derogatory information in a website or in any other electronic form, he or she will be sentenced to seven to 14 years' imprisonment and fined up to 10 million taka.

The section has triggered widespread criticism and outcry as legal experts have termed the provision as going against Article 39 of the constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech, expression and the press.

However, a High Court bench on Sept 1 questioned the legality of section 57, issuing a rule upon the government to explain in four weeks as to why the section should not be declared unconstitutional.

Speaking at the programme, Prof Mizanur said it was unacceptable in a democratic and civilised society that people's rights have been curbed only for the sake of state security.

He said the bigots posed a threat to freedom of expression.

An atmosphere has been created where the word "blogger" is taken as a synonym for atheism, said Mizanur.

"Even if we take that a blogger is an atheist, it could be tolerated. But the problem is atheism is being treated as anti-Islamic. This is where the threat lies," he said.

Critical of the state's role in this regard, the NHRC chief claimed that the state did not protest and play a role expected by the people.

He further said by providing facts the media, including online news portals, could play a role in creating space for freedom of speech.

Speaking as special guest, Prof Ahmed Kamal of the department of History at Dhaka University said a successful newspaper is the one that successfully interacts with its readers.