Bangladesh: Violations against free speech have hit record levels

Civic Space 4 min read
ARTICLE 19
Bangladesh:  Violations against free speech have hit record levels - Civic Space

50 year old Mohummad Ali is interviewed at Dhaka airport having just returned from Libya. He left Dhaka 17 months ago. He was a farmer in his village. His poverty forced him to migrate to Libya. He spent five days at the port waiting for a ship, tired and hungry. He exclaims that it is a miracle that he was brought back to Dhaka. On 17 February 2011, Libya saw the beginnings of a revolution against the 41 year regime of Col Muammar Gaddafi.

Last year, violations of the right to freedom of expression in Bangladesh reached their highest point in five years, with 335 incidents, according to new figures released by ARTICLE 19 to mark World Press Freedom Day.

“Our new research reveals an urgent truth about the environment for expression in Bangladesh: violations of this crucial human right are more prevalent than ever. With elections on the horizon, we are deeply concerned about the situation,” said Tahmina Rahman MBE, ARTICLE 19’s Regional Director for Bangladesh and South Asia

In 2017, there were 65 prosecutions for criminal defamation, and 76 applications of the restrictive Section 57 of the ICT Act 2006, as well as two arbitrary arrests and 24 cases of vexatious litigation used to censor and silence. Imran H Sarkar and Shonaton Ullash, members of the of Gonojagoron Mancha, a well known bloggers platform were arrested under Section 57 of the ICT Act over derogatory posts about the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. 

The problem of physical violence is still urgent. There were nearly twice as many physical attacks on journalists and human rights defenders in 2017 as there were the previous year, and attacks on journalists occurring with impunity, with investigations slow and convictions of perpetrators rare. One journalist was killed in 2017, 28 suffered serious injury, and a further 75 suffered serious assault. Abdul Hakim Shimul (correspondent for the Daily Samakal of Shahzadpur, Sirajgonj) was shot by then-Mayor of the Shahzadpur Municipality, Halimul Haque Miru, who was also organisational Secretary for the district of Shirajganj for the ruling Awami League. Shimul died in hospital. His case is still pending investigation, though the perpetrator is in custody.

Almost 70% of violations were against grassroots and local journalists, and women journalists are not adequately protected from gender-specific threats, particularly online.

Local level leaders and activists of the political party in power emerged as dominant groups acting against the safety and security of journalist in 2017. In a number of cases, the student wing of the ruling party, Awami League, were directly involved in violations. State actors responsible for violations included law enforcement agencies and, in some cases, public officials themselves.

“This spike in attacks on the rights of journalists and activists nationwide and continuing restrictive legal framework create fear and self-censorship, and prevents people in Bangladesh from speaking out, or exercising their human rights.

This World Press Freedom Day, we call on the authorities to act to ensure that laws are brought in line with international human rights standards and attacks on our free speech do not continue to go unaddressed.” Rahman concluded.

Key findings:

  • 335 violations of the right to freedom of expression in Bangladesh in 2017: this is the highest figure in five years.
  • The nature of violations is changing significantly: cases of legal harassment of communicators rose from 33 in 2013 to 169 in 2017; meanwhile the use of physical force and assault as a silencing tactic dropped from 173 in 2013, to 113 in 2017.
  • Of the 76 cases of legal harassment, 35 were initiated on grounds of defamation, 19 on false information, 14 on grounds of tarnishing the image of state or of individual, three on grounds of provocation, two on obscenity, and a further two for hurting religious sentiments.
  • In 2017, there were 28 cases of serious bodily injury, 75 cases of minor assault, and 10 cases of abduction. In the 10 cases recorded, journalists were released after promising to refrain from publishing certain reports. In 2017 there was only one murder case: that of Abul Harkim Shimul.
  • 93% of violations were carried out by non-state actors: 49% by leaders and political corps including student activists of the ruling party.

Read the report