Defending the mother of all rights
Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and its absence turns a human life into an animal's. This observation was made at a discussion session of the Committee for the Protection of Fundamental Rights held in Dhaka on November 2. Expressing their concern over the ever-shrinking democratic space, journalists and rights activists called for scrapping of laws that undermine free speech and for creating an enabling environment so that dissenting voices find space in print, electronic and social media without fear of retribution. The event was organised to mark the "International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists".
The resolution declaring the day for protection of journalists was adopted by the UN General Assembly in commemoration of the abduction and killing of two French journalists in Mali on November 2, 2013. The UN resolution condemns all forms of harassment, attack and violence against journalists and urges member-states to do their best to prevent the same, and ensure accountability and bring the perpetrators to justice. The resolution calls on states to ensure that victims have access to appropriate remedies and that a safe and enabling environment prevails for the journalists to perform their work independently and without interference. States were further urged to adopt and implement specific measures to counter the present culture of impunity for crimes against journalists.
Along with their counterparts across the world, including those in the developed countries, journalists in Bangladesh face a number of challenges. Threat, intimidation and harassment from powerful quarters, including state agencies, work as a major impediment for journalists to work freely. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a total 1,053 journalists were killed globally during 2007-2019. In Bangladesh, the number stood at 14 for the same period. The CPJ further finds that in 90 percent of cases, the killers remain unpunished, a factor that likely contributes to perpetuation of the crime.
The criminal justice system in Bangladesh has thus far been unable to provide timely and appropriate redress. Dispensing justice gets bogged down by incompetence, if not malfeasance and delay. Over the last seven years in the sensational journalist-couple Sagar-Runi murder case, the date of submitting the investigation report before court has been extended for 68 times. This has happened despite the home minister's commitment to expedite the process.
The Bangladeshi representative of the Reporters Without Borders (RWB) notes that, of the 35 journalists killed in the country between 1996 and 2018, "the judicial process has been complete in only eight cases, and in five of those, the families [of the victims] rejected the verdicts."
According to a recently published report of the RWB, Bangladesh stands 150th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index. This was a drop from 146 in 2018.
Freedom of expression is not a matter of concern only for the journalist community. It concerns each and every individual of a society. The right to free speech is a well-recognised fundamental right enshrined in international conventions and covenants of which Bangladesh is a state party. Free speech is protected by the country's constitution as well. It was one of the most cherished tenets of the spirit of the War of Liberation.
The ability to think distinguishes a human being from an animal. The capacity to reflect is essential for an individual to harness his/her innate potential. It is incumbent upon every civilised society to create an enabling environment so that citizens—young or old, male, female or of the third gender, rich or poor—can think, reflect, share, argue and debate on issues that interest and affect them. Views expressed by an individual or group ought to be countered, challenged and contested by advanced logic, reason and explanation—not by control, threat or coercion. Creativity, innovativeness and progress get stunted in societies that do not endorse, encourage and promote contra-opinion and dissent.
Free media and a vigilant citizenry are necessary prerequisites for a vibrant democracy. Such a system alerts the rulers to the concerns of the ruled, and ensures accountability of the state to its people. Unfortunately, over the years as the state becomes alienated from the masses, citizens of Bangladesh are being subjected to a whole range of legislative instruments and practices that have a significant bearing on free speech. Foremost among those are the Information and Communication Act (ICT), 2006 and the Digital Security Act (DSA), 2018.
Following public outcry, the government repealed the draconian Section 57 of the ICT Act. However, journalists and rights activists felt betrayed as most of the freedom-curtailing elements of Section 57 were reincarnated in the DSA, 2018—in some instances, in a more severe form. No one disputes that there is a necessity for having a law for crimes like hacking or stealing information by illegally accessing computers. The newly passed law goes much beyond such remit and severely restricts freedom of expression. "Even if the law is not invoked, its sheer existence is enough to destroy journalistic initiatives," observes the president of Bangladesh Editors' Council. He states that a staggering 14 of the listed 19 offences under the law are non-bailable. In other words, the accused may have to spend months behind the bar before the trial process even begins. The law also accords enormous power to the police to conduct search on premises of news establishments or seize computer and other equipment only on "mere suspicion".
The defamation act is another legal instrument to intimidate journalists and free-thinking individuals. While defamation in most countries is treated as a civil offence, it is a criminal offence under Bangladeshi law. Although the law explicitly stipulates that the plaintiff has to be an aggrieved party, in practice, defamation cases filed by individuals who had no locus standi to file them were admitted by the magistrates. There are instances in which dozens of cases have been lodged for a single offence. In one instance, 84 cases remain pending against the editor of a leading English daily of the country.
The state also enjoys a number of prerogatives through which it can influence the media. Included among those are the authority to issue license, control and direct the flow of advertisements and tinker with formats and contents of programmes through "informal advice"—a practice that had its roots in the days of military dictatorship.
Social media has also been adversely affected by restrictive measures. Last week, Freedom House, an international organisation working on expansion of freedom and democracy, reported that Bangladesh is "partly free" in terms of using internet. Of the 65 countries assessed, 33 have been on an overall decline since June 2018. The biggest score declines took place in Sudan and Kazakhstan, followed by Brazil, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. The report notes that while the number of internet users in Bangladesh is steadily increasing, "constraints on internet freedom in Bangladesh tightened during the coverage period. The government used a variety of methods to restrict the online space; authorities blocked critical websites, circumscribed mobile networks to limit communication and mobilisation, announced new surveillance programs, and arrested journalists and users alike."
The non-state actors also constitute a major threat to freedom of expression. The killing of several bloggers, writers and a publisher by right-wing zealots is evidence enough of their intolerance of free thinking. Likewise, the October 2019 killing of Fahad Abrar, a Buet student protesting the recently concluded Bangladesh-India river agreement, has demonstrated how the student organisation affiliated with the ruling party acts as militia and can inflict immeasurable bodily harm on dissenters.
Freedom of expression is under a severe strain in today's Bangladesh. While the country marches forward economically and registers impressive growth in GDP figures, it slides in the scale of freedom of expression. Through a plethora of legal instruments and administrative practices, those in command of the state and their cohorts strive to curtail citizens' right to know facts and access contesting interpretations of events and developments.
So far, there has been little resistance to this assault on freedom of expression. It is disheartening to note that associations of teachers of universities, learned bodies, cultural organisations, poets and writers' guilds and those who have taken on themselves to champion the spirit of the War of Liberation have thus far remained silent. The right to free speech is the pathway to secure other rights. Thus, it is incumbent upon all to resist such moves and defend the right to free speech—the mother of all rights.
CR Abrar is an academic and rights worker.