Local and foreign NGOs yesterday urged President Abdul Hamid not to consent to a recently passed bill on foreign-funded NGOs, saying one of its provisions violates people's constitutional rights to freedom of speech, thought and organisation.
“We seriously condemn it [the provision] and humbly request the president not to give consent to the bill,” eighteen leading NGOs said in a statement.
The Jatiya Sangsad on October 5 passed The Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Bill 2016 with a provision (Section 14) that says it is an offence for foreign-funded NGOs to make "inimical" and "derogatory" remarks on the constitution and constitutional bodies.
The bill is likely to be sent to the president for consent in a day or two. He has the constitutional right to send it back to the House for reconsideration.
The NGOs demanded that the government discuss the bill with them again and make necessary amendments to Section 14 and other “undemocratic, risky and impractical provisions”.
The statement, read out by human rights activist Sultana Kamal at a press conference, said remarks by a foreign-funded NGO can be misinterpreted and labelled as “inimical” and “derogatory”. And therefore, the provision is oppressive and contrary to democratic practices.
Such provision curbing the right to freedom of speech and thought doesn't exist in any similar law in any democratic country in the world, it reads.
It is totally unacceptable to the NGOs, which are contributing greatly to the country's socio-economic development and establishment of good governance, Sultana Kamal said at the press conference at Dhaka Reporters Unity.
The provision says if any foreign-funded NGO engages in anti-state activities and finances or patronises extremism and terror activities, those would be considered as offences, and the NGO and its officials concerned would be tried under the country's existing laws.
It also empowers the NGO Affairs Bureau to cancel or withhold the registration of a foreign-funded NGO or ban its activities for committing the offences.
If the bill remains unchanged, it will not be acceptable to the international community as well, said Sultana Kamal, also chairperson of Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB).
If the bill is amended, recognising the right to freedom of speech and organisation, it would help the NGOs work more effectively and improve the image of the government, she said.
The government had set a good example by having consultations with the NGOs on the draft bill. It made them optimistic that the law would be more democratic than the ones framed by dictatorial regimes.
The optimism, however, was not reflected in the bill. The government actually wants to discourage voluntary initiatives and control the NGOs, especially by curbing freedom of speech, said Sultana Kamal.
“This is very risky for the NGOs, especially for those working on human rights and good governance.”
Bela Chief Executive Syeda Rizwana Hasan said the punishment for the offences mentioned in the provision is already there in other laws, and there was no need for incorporating this in the bill.
The NGO Affairs Bureau would be responsible for implementing the law though it doesn't have any mandate to deal with terror issues, she told reporters.
The bill doesn't differentiate between an offence by an individual and that by an NGO. For example, 600 individuals can work in an NGO, but the involvement of an individual in a crime doesn't mean that the NGO is involved in it, Rizwana said.
TIB Executive Director Iftekharuzzaman said there are specific laws on money laundering and terrorism. Yet, these issues were included in the bill. This is irrational.
As a citizen of the country, one has the right to freedom of speech. If anyone's comment constitutes an offence, the individual can be tried under law, not the organisation he works for, he noted.
International donor agencies have also voiced concern over the provision.
CARE Bangladesh Country Director Jamie Terzi expressed solidarity with the NGOs regarding the bill.
Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF) Executive Director Shaheen Anam said no NGO can get foreign funds, bypassing the NGO Affairs Bureau. The Bureau carefully looks at the details of project plans before approving those.
“If any NGO gets registered without proper verification, we cannot take blame for them,” she said.
Nijera Kori Coordinator Khushi Kabir said the government can take stern action against any NGO if it is found guilty of irregularities, but the government cannot violate the constitutional right to freedom of speech.
The press conference was organised by Ain O Salish Kendra, BRAC, Campaign for Popular Education (Campe), Nijera Kori, MJF, Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, Federation of NGOs in Bangladesh, ADAB, Association for Land Reforms and Development, PRIP Trust, Bangladesh Nari Progoti Sangha, Action Aid, Concern Worldwide, Water Aid, Oxfam International, CARE International and the TIB.