Ensure democratic space for civil society, media | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 04, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:14 AM, July 04, 2019

Ensure democratic space for civil society, media

Speakers say at roundtable

People’s participation and inclusion of minority voices in policymaking are key to democracy and good governance, academics and civil society leaders said yesterday. Therefore, it is crucial for the government to create space for civil society and media to make democracy work and ensure rights of all citizens, they opined. 

The observations came at a roundtable on democracy in Switzerland and Bangladesh, organised by the Embassy of  Switzerland in association with The Daily Star, at the latter’s  conference room.

Swiss scholar Peter Niggli said people in Switzerland do not delegate political decision-making exclusively to the elected government, and can force a vote on parliamentary decisions. 

Swiss Ambassador Rene Holenstein said people of Bangladesh -- who gained independence through a war in 1971 -- aspire for universal democratic practices that have intrinsic values such as power sharing, consensus building, citizens’ participation, inclusion and gender equality.   

Switzerland, as a long-standing friend of Bangladesh, will continue promoting the rights of the poor, disadvantaged and women, he said, adding that democracy cannot be exported, nor its model replicated; each country must find its own system of democracy.

Transparency International Bangladesh Executive Director Dr Iftekharuzzaman said the Swiss model of democracy demonstrates effective participatory social accountability.

The government needs to create and sustain a wide enough space for  people to raise their voices, and people also need to be aware of their rights and responsibilities -- having the ability to dissent and engage  with power holders, he added.

However, he regretted that Bangladesh is getting used to “unqualified concentration of power, deep politicisation and dysfunctionality of key institutions in accountability and rule of law.”

Also, there is intolerance of dissent, severe shrinking of space for civil society and media thanks to some draconian laws and policies, Iftekharuzzaman said. 

“Politics is becoming the dominant factor in crime and corruption, and the key driving force behind systematic violation of fundamental rights -- including freedom of expression and association -- as well as behind pervasive impunity,” he added.

Prof Dilara Chowdhury of North South University said people’s participation in the policy-making process in Bangladesh is marginal. People nowadays do not even talk about politics because they are afraid and feel hopeless, the political analyst added. 

There are also no opponents in the parliament or on the streets, she said, adding that democracy without opposition is dysfunctional.

Raja Devasish Roy, chief of Chakma Circle, said while the government does not interfere in the hill people’s customary laws, there is discrimination in political and social spheres.

For example, Jana Sanghati Samiti, a political party of the hill people, was not registered by the Election Commission because there are some rules that require certain number of votes. He suggested  proportional representation of small political parties in the parliament and government.

Prof Sadeka Halim, dean of Social Sciences Faculty of Dhaka University, said arbitrary amendment of Bangladesh’s constitution and state policies since 1975 contributed to the change in socio-cultural and religious practices that are sometimes rigid.

She said NGOs play a big role in Bangladesh but they emphasise more on economic, not social empowerment. Thus, they are not aware of how to interact with the local government.

She lamented that women’s participation in local government elections are decreasing compared to that of 2009 because of social and religious reasons.

Aroma Dutta, reserved seat lawmaker, said the present government is very eager to engage with civil society in a constructive way. She urged the civil society to take advantage of the interest, instead of only blaming the government.

She claimed democratic space for civil society in the country is not shrinking, rather increasing.

Dr Badiul Alam Majumdar, secretary of Sushashoner Jonno Nagorik, said the parliament in Bangladesh does not effectively work for people’s interest, while the local government institutions are also weak.

“We will not have a strong democracy without making these institutions strong,” he said.

Ain O Salish Kendra Executive Director Sheepa Hafiza said, “We have problems that we don’t know how to deal with.”

Funds for NGOs are decreasing with the country on the way to middle income status, she said, calling for a stronger democracy.

Sanjeeb Drong, general secretary of Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples’ Forum, demanded constitutional recognition of indigenous people for stronger participation in governance.

UNDP Human Rights Officer Zahid Hossain said an opinion poll found that 79 percent people support crossfire, which means they are uneducated. Measures should be taken to educate people on their rights, he added.

Shamsul Huda of Association for Land Reform and Development; Hasibur Rahman, executive director of Management and Resources Development Initiative; and Rafiqul Islam, executive director of Rupantar, among others, also spoke at the discussion moderated by The Daily Star Associate Editor Brig Gen (Retd) Shahedul Anam Khan. Editor-publisher Mahfuz Anam welcomed the participants.

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