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DHAKA, Bangladesh — Two writers were hacked to death with machetes on the streets of this capital city during a six-week period this year. They were targeted for openly criticizing Islam, the country’s main religion, in their work and in Facebook commentary.
Avijit Roy, a dual citizen of Bangladesh and the United States, was murdered on the evening of Feb. 15, as he and his wife were leaving a book fair in the capital. On the morning of March 30, Washikur Rahman Babu, an occasional blogger, was attacked as he walked to work.
Roy’s attackers escaped, but two of the three men who murdered Babu were caught by bystanders and admitted to police that they were part of a small radical group called Ansarullah Bangla Team.
“Washiqur was killed for making defamatory remarks about Prophet Muhammad on Facebook, which hurt us,” one of the two men told the magistrate’s court the day after the attack.
Bangladesh has become a dangerous place for those who write critically about Islam. But for most people, including those who work in the media, it is not religious radicals who pose the main threat to freedom of speech. Rather, it is restrictive laws, an intolerant government and a judiciary that enforces a rigid interpretation of contempt of court.
This state of affairs can be attributed in part to the deep-seated conflict between the ruling Awami League government and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Until last year, they had alternated power every election for the previous four cycles. In 2014, the AL returned to power for the first time for a second consecutive term, and the BNP continues to dispute the legitimacy of those elections, which they boycotted. Since the beginning of this year, more than 60 people have been burnt to death in protests organized by a BNP opposition alliance seeking new elections. In response, the government has imprisoned more than 10,000 opposition activists; dozens have been killed by law enforcement agencies or died in their custody in what are alleged to be extra-judicial killings.
The Awami League no longer accepts the legitimacy of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The AL has described its actions as “tantamount to terrorism,” and over the last few years the BNP has been significantly weakened by criminal cases filed against top leadership and field-level leaders. In light of these developments, opposition supporters and those who take a political middle ground are increasingly at risk if they criticize the government.
One sign of the government’s growing intolerance towards dissent and unorthodox views has been its use of section 57 of the Information, Communication and Technology Act of 2006, also known as the ICT Act.
The offense in the ICT Act is vague and unspecific, practically anyone dissenting can be framed under this law.
Under this section, anyone can be prosecuted for publishing material on a website or in digital form that is “fake and obscene,” “creates the possibility for the deterioration of law and order,” “prejudices the image of the State or a person” or which “may cause hurt to religious belief.” Conviction can lead to between seven and 14 years imprisonment. Nearly 30 cases are currently being tried before a specially constituted cyber-crimes tribunal, and hundreds more are under investigation.
One recent case involved 25-year-old Tonmoy Malick, an electronics shop owner in the southern district of Khulna who was sentenced to seven years in prison under the ICT Act for defaming Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Malick was accused of digitally storing and distributing a song that parodied Hasina and her father, Sheikh Mujib, who led Bangladesh to independence in 1971 and is revered by many as a founding president. It included the lyrics “Sheikh Hasina and her father have sold out the country, they are causing damage to the country, they think the country belongs to them.” Malick was arrested after a person he shared it with played it over loudspeakers in a marketplace in the small town of Dacope in Khulna.
Opponents of the law believe that Malick’s conviction sets a dangerous precedent. “The offense in the ICT Act is vague and unspecific, practically anyone dissenting can be framed under this law,” said Jyotirmoy Barua, a lawyer who has represented a number of people prosecuted under this legislation. “Anyone can be accused of publishing something false, or can claim that their feelings have been hurt.” India’s supreme court recently struck down a similar law targeting people accused of publishing “offensive” material online.
The prosecutor in Malick’s case, Mohammad Nazrul Islam Shamim, argues that instances such as this one can justify prosecution. Referring to the song in question, he said, “For our prime minister and our great leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, these are scandalous words, they are very defamatory. Criticism is okay, but in these cases involving the ICT act, it is false criticism.” He added that many similar cases are under investigation or currently making their way through the courts.
The ICT Act has also been used against Odhikar, one of Bangladesh’s two main human rights organizations. In June 2013, Odhikar released a report on its website that found that law enforcement personnel had killed 61 people following a large rally held in Dhaka the previous month by the fundamentalist religious organization Hefazet-e-Islami.
Two months later — and just a week after Human Rights Watch reported that “at least 58 people” died at that same rally — Adilur Rahman Khan, a director of Odhikhar, was arrested by police and charged with publishing “a product of fiction” that sought to “destroy the image of law enforcement, the government and the state.”
To Khan, there was no legitimate reason for his arrest. “The purpose of the prosecution against me was to silence our organization and other human-rights defenders,” he said. “To set an example, so that people know that if someone goes over a red line, then they will have to face persecution. It was also used to stop others from publishing about the killings on that day.” Khan was detained for two months before he was granted bail, and proceedings against him have since been temporarily suspended.
Atheist bloggers have been targeted under the ICT Act, suggesting that they don’t only have religious radicals to fear. In April 2013, police in Dhaka, apparently to satisfy the demands of Hefazet itself, filed a case against four men — one of whom had recently survived a violent attack by radicals — which claimed that their online writing had “caused hurt to religious belief” by criticizing Islam. After spending two months in detention, the men obtained bail and in February 2014, a court stayed the proceedings.
Editors and journalists are also concerned about government efforts to silence the media. “It is clear that the current Awami League government is an administration whose tolerance of any criticism is very low,” says Zafar Sobhan, editor of the English language newspaper, the Dhaka Tribune.
International findings seem to back this up. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Sheikh Hasina-led AL government began to muzzle opposition press during its first term of office. In the 2014 index published by Reporters Without Borders, Bangladesh ranked 146 out of 180 countries in press freedom, and the year before, the independent nonprofit Freedom House judged the country’s media as “partly free.”
Over the past few years, there have been a series of arrests and media closures that Sobhan views as especially worrying.
In April 2013, the editor of Amar Desh, the main newspaper that had opposed the AL government, was arrested on charges that included printing false information in order to incite religious tension. The newspaper has not been able to publish since. A month later, in the wake of their coverage of the police action following the Hefazet rally, two stations, Islamic TV and Diganta TV, were also forced to close and have not yet gone back on air.
More recently, on Jan. 7 of this year, police arrested Abdus Salam, the chairman of Ekushey TV (ETV) on charges of broadcasting pornography. His arrest took place one day after the station carried a speech critical of the government given by Tarique Rahman, a Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader and the son of former BNP prime minister, Khaleda Zia, who has been living in London since 2008 and faces criminal charges back home.
“Whatever the legal justification for these closures, the message to us, the media, is that you will be under scrutiny and you have to be very careful about what you say,” said Sobhan. He added, “if you cross the line — not that you know exactly where the line is — but if you cross the line, there will be trouble.”
Last month, the country’s leading English-language newspaper was accused of doing just that. On Feb. 11, The Daily Star published a photograph of a poster pasted on a city wall by the banned religious organization Hizb-ut Tahrir, along with the headline “Fanatics raise their ugly heads again.”
A few days later, a lawyer, apparently acting on his own initiative, lodged a criminal case against the paper’s editor, Mahfuz Anam, and two of its journalists, claiming that the article was instigating “a breach of the peace.” After that, Prime Minister Hasina told parliament that the newspaper “helped the radical cause” by publicizing the image, and said that the government would “move against” The Daily Star. In a Facebook post several days later, Hasina’s son and advisor, Sajeeb Wazed, called for the editor’s arrest for sedition.
Iftekharuzzaman, head of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, sees these responses as a means of intimidating the press. “The Daily Staris a well-known, important voice in the media,” he said. “If the government can go after it, then anything can happen … it is a veiled threat to other actors in media.”
No further action has been taken against Anam, but he recently lamented what he sees as a deteriorating situation for press freedom in an interview with the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Over the past year, the media has gone into a mode of self-censorship,” he said. “The government has become totally intolerant of critical voices.”
Making matters more complicated, it has become risky for journalists in Bangladesh to criticize almost any kind of judicial conduct — including judgments — due to the courts’ broad interpretation of “contempt of court,” which involves allegedly “scandalizing” the court. This charge, which is rooted in old English law but was repealed in England two years ago, was designed to prevent malicious criticism of courts and judges.
If you cross the line — not that you know exactly where the line is — but if you cross the line, there will be trouble.
Editor, Dhaka Tribune
Last December, Prothom Alo, the Bangla-language sister paper of The Daily Star, published an article about appointing a new chief justice to the country’s appellate division and the criteria that should be involved. On the day the article ran, the court passed an order stating that the report “undermined the integrity, competence, ability and the impartiality of the Judges of the Apex court,” and summoned the paper’s editor, Motiur Rahman, and the author of the article, Mizanur Rahman Khan, to appear before the appellate division. Faced with the possibility of being held in contempt of court, and a potential jail sentence, the two men apologized unconditionally for the article.
“I have been writing on the judiciary for over 15 years and it has never been so difficult to write critically about it,” says Khan, who is also a co-editor of Prothom Alo.
A notable flashpoint for many contempt proceedings are the International Crimes Tribunals, two of which were set up since 2010 to prosecute those accused of war crimes during the country’s 1971 war of independence.
These tribunals have initiated contempt proceedings against a number of local and international journalists and researchers — including those from the Economist, Human Rights Watch, and The New York Times — for publishing commentary critical of the tribunals and their rulings. I was also a target of these proceedings, and was convicted of contempt of court last December for comments I made about one tribunal’s first judgment, which sentenced a former member of a religious party to death in an in absentia trial.
After the tribunal found me guilty of contempt, 49 Bangladeshi lawyers, academics, writers and prominent civil society members signed a statement criticizing the judgment for its “stifling effect on freedom of expression with ramifications for journalists and other writers.” Soon after the publication of this statement in a national newspaper, that same tribunal sought an explanation from each of the signatories. Earlier this month, the court initiated contempt proceedings against 23 signatories who were not willing to both make an unconditional apology for backing the statement and to “throw themselves at the mercy of the court.”
One well-respected lawyer told Al Jazeera America, “The way the contempt-of-court law is being utilized by the International Crimes Tribunal, I am uncertain what are the principles, the standards and the processes that it is using when dealing with criticism.” The lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was scared of being prosecuted, used to write about the tribunals for national newspapers. Now, he says, he will not “take the risk” of writing on the subject.
Bangladesh’s government rejects the accusation that media freedom is limited in the country, pointing to hundreds of newspapers, including a number of pro-opposition ones, that are published in Bangladesh, as well as dozens of private TV stations that continue to broadcast. “There is no law in the country restricting freedom of the press, either print or electronic,” information minister Hasanul Haq Inu said in a recent statement. “There is also no instance where any journalist had been arrested for expressing their opinions."
That, however, is not the way Zafar Sobhan sees the situation. He is concerned that media freedom and government intolerance might get even worse. “I think the overall situation of restrictions on the Bangladesh media is as bad as it has ever been,” he said. “But the fear is that we are on a slippery slope, so that what is allowed today will be beyond the pale tomorrow.”