The Transparency International yesterday expressed concern over a provision of the recently enacted foreign-funded NGOs law, saying it would reduce the “space and possibility of action of civil society''.
“Our message is to the government -- we are not the enemies. The enemy is corruption. The enemies are the corrupt,” said José Carlos Ugaz Sánchez-Moreno, chair of the TI's Board of Directors.
Speaking at a Meet the Media event, he said the graft watchdog wanted to support the government in all its anti-corruption efforts, but the organisation could not remain silent after watching things going wrong.
Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) hosted the programme at the Senate Bhaban of Dhaka University.
The Jatiya Sangsad on October 5 passed the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Bill-2016 with a provision (section 14) that stipulates that making “derogatory” remarks on the constitution and constitutional bodies by foreign-funded NGOs will be an offence.
Protesting the provision, local and foreign NGOs had urged President Abdul Hamid not to sign the bill, saying it would violate people's constitutional rights to freedom of speech, thought and organisation.
The president signed to the bill on October 13.
Ugaz, a Peruvian jurist and professor of criminal law, said there were international standards to guarantee the actions of civil society. “When those standards are reduced, when we feel that we cannot really express our opinions and our critiques, we believe that the space for our work shrinks.”
The governments of Venezuela and Russia had tried to restrict the TI national chapters' activities, claiming that talking about corruption is synonymous to doing politics, he added.
“In these cases, any attempt to silence those who have something to say in order to reduce corruption in our environment is an attempt to reduce the liberty of the citizens to have a better life.”
The anti-corruption activities have nothing to do with politics, and the TIB is not aligned with any party, Ugaz said, adding that the graft watchdog wanted to free Bangladesh of corruption.
He expected that the space for organisations like the TIB, who are willing to fight corruption for the benefit of people, would not be limited or restricted.
The TI chief said the corruption situation in Bangladesh was very bad, but a vibrant civil society dealing with corruption gave a tremendous hope that things could change significantly.
Bangladesh ranked the 13th most corrupt country in the TI's 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Corruption in Bangladesh is systemic and structural, Ugaz said.
He suggested the government take a comprehensive approach to address the problem. For example, there should be systems to know the sources of money for elections, reduce discretionary space of bureaucracy, monitor wealth and asset declaration of the authorities, ensure transparency of the decision-making process and have access to information.
“We expect you focus on the education system to promote values to avoid corruption,” the TI chair said. He stressed the need for the judiciary and the attorney general's office to investigate and sanction the corrupt.
It is observed that corruption has been accepted by people as part of their life, he added.
“We need to change this. People have to understand that this is not the normal way to live -- that corruption denies people's right to health, education, has impacts on human rights.”
According to him, it is not a good strategy to target only the minor corruptions.
“We need to go to the top. We need to rectify those who are recurring in the worst cases of corruption and they have to be brought to justice. They have to explain their conducts for justice. If they are found guilty, they should be convicted.”
There are examples that big fishes like former Peruvian president Fujimori and his chief of intelligence were tried and jailed for 25 years, Ugaz pointed out.
“I think that's a way of showing the people that there is a real political will to free the country from this systematic corruption,” he told newsmen.
TIB Chair Sultana Kamal and Executive Director Iftekharuzzaman also spoke at the programme.
Ugaz visited Bangladesh on the occasion of the TIB's 20th anniversary.
Since his arrival here on October 15, he met Prime Minister's International Affairs Adviser Gowher Rizvi, Anti-Corruption Commission Chairman Iqbal Mahmood, senior TIB officials, civil society members, journalists and TIB youth volunteers involved in anti-graft campaigns.
He was scheduled to leave Dhaka last night.