Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right and its absence turns a human life into an animal’s life, rights activists said yesterday.
At a discussion on “Freedom of Speech Under Threat”, the speakers, who included lawyers and university teachers, urged everyone to raise their voice in favour of freedom of speech as it underpins the other rights and allows them to flourish.
The right to speak freely plays a vital role in the healthy development of a society, they said at the discussion, organised by Moulik Adhikar Suraksha, a platform for rights activists, in the capital’s Jatiya Press Club.
“Raise your voice to ensure freedom of speech. If you do not have the right to speak, you will not have any other rights,” eminent jurist Shahdeen Malik said while presiding over the discussion.
“In the absence of freedom of expression, our life will turn into that of animals. We were not born in an independent Bangladesh to live like animals.”
He pointed out that one of the vital reasons behind the Soviet Union’s fall was the absence of freedom of speech.
Malik also said that in Bangladesh hurting or maligning someone’s image was still a criminal offence, whereas in most countries it has been a civil offence since the 1900s.
Professor CR Abrar, former Dhaka University international relations, said freedom of expression was the mother of all rights.
“Without ensuring it, we cannot express ourselves fully as humans,” said Abrar, also president of rights organisation Odhikar.
Quoting a Reporters without Border report published this year, he said Bangladesh stands 150th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index.
He added, “Last year, the position was 146th. Freedom of speech is not charitable; it is a right and not an issue for journalists only.”
DU teacher Robaet Ferdous said the space for freedom of speech was shrinking. “We are living in a state of fear. In such a situation, no creativity or innovation can take place,” he observed.
Asif Nazrul, another DU professor, said no rights exist in the absence of freedom of expression. “Freedom of speech is a fundamental component of the spirit of the liberation war …. Considering the terms of the right, we are passing the worst time. We all need to strongly raise our voices.”
Lawyer Jyotirmoy Barua said that after the introduction of the Digital Security Act (DSA), imposition of self-censorship has increased alarmingly. “It is so grave that journalists, activists and other professionals are imposing self-censorship”
He added, “The situation has taken us to a position where there is no place for dissenting voices. There is only one opinion and ideology.”
Meanwhile, discussants at another roundtable said that the culture of impunity opposes freedom of expression, adding that the state must ensure a faster judicial procedure against all crimes committed against journalists.
UK based human rights organisation ARTICLE 19 organised the roundtable discussion to observe the International Day of Impunity for Crimes against Journalists at The Daily Star Centre in the capital yesterday.
There, journalists and university teachers also said that violence against practitioners of freedom of expression was increasing due to the culture of impunity and the slow judicial process.
The United Nations recognised November 2 as the “International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists” and the day is observed annually worldwide.
Saleem Samad, the Bangladesh representative of Reporters without Borders, while presenting the keynote paper, said that 35 journalists were killed in Bangladesh between 1996 to 2018.
“The judicial process has been complete in only eight cases, and in five of those, the families [of the victims] rejected the verdicts,” he said.
He recommended special laws for the safety of journalists and removal some of sections from DSA 2018, which may allow harassment of journalists.
Nowsher Roman, brother and the complainant of the killing of journalist Runi, said that it has been eight years since journalists Sagor and Runi were killed. “The date of submitting the investigation report before court has been extended 68 times, which is frustrating.”
The roundtable discussion was chaired by Golam Rahman, the former chief information commissioner.
Faruq Faisel, regional director of ARTICLE 19 in Bangladesh and South Asia, lawyer Tania Amir, professor Shamim Reza, Dhaka Journalists’ Union General Secretary Shohel Haider Chowdhury, and Women Journalists’ Forum President Nasimun Ara Huq Minu, also spoke at the programme.