Free speech and Bangladesh's growing climate of fear

The latest conviction and death sentence handed down by the ICT has already sparked further protests. As the state-sponsored clampdown on the press quickly grows to encompass anyone willing to speak out, what does this mean for demands for accountability?

Today the opposition leader and internationally renowned orator Delwar Hossain Sayedee has been convicted by Bangladesh's International Crimes Tribunal and sentenced to death. The murkiness around Sayedee's trial almost does not bear repeating - this is the defendant whose witness was abducted by police and never seen again, and whose trial was most affected by the revelations brought by The Economist. Human Rights Watch published multiple statements demanding the missing witness be found and that a retrial take place in Sayedee’s case, but to no avail. While the court was in session, the government turned off social media, Facebook in particular, to prevent 'negative propaganda'. Since the verdict, nationwide protests have erupted with dozens already dead and many more injured amidst police shooting. Meanwhile, protests are also taking place in the diaspora, with crowds gathering outside the Bangladesh embassy in London today.

A climate of fear has gripped Bangladesh following a rise in state-sponsored clampdowns on voices of commentary and dissent. While victims primarily include opposition commentators, with the recent escalation of violence, the net of attack has widened. The increasing erosion of free speech is a matter that should concern any believer in a just and democratic society, yet the relative silence in the international community is a worrying affair.

While the suppression is hugely troubling it is, however, nothing new under the ruling Awami League regime. In 2010, Mahmudur Rahman, the Acting Editor of the daily Amar Desh was arrested and brutally tortured in custody. Meanwhile his newspaper was also shut down. This was in response to an article printed in Amar Desh which implicated Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s son, Sajeeb Wazed Joy, in corruption. More recently Kader Siddiqi, a decorated 1971 war hero, was summoned to court for suggesting the Bangladesh Home Minister, MK Alamgir, was involved in collaboration with the Pakistani Army in the war of 1971.

Mahmudur Rahman, was ultimately released and his paper resumed, yet his grief from speaking truth to power was not over. More recently he again fell afoul of the authorities after he published exposing material on the War Crimes Tribunal (ICT). In December, an iconic investigative piece by the London based The Economist revealed a cache of leaked material which exposed collusion between the Bangladesh ICT judge, state and prosecution. Following this Amar Desh proceeded to print transcripts of the leaks in the public interest of exposing the political farce that is the ICT. Kader Siddiqi praised Rahman for his actions, proclaiming him a hero worthy of the Nobel Prize; Amar Desh was sold out and forced to reprint copies which were flogged at incredibly high prices. However, court orders were soon issued, Amar Desh offices surrounded by police and Rahman has been unable to leave his premises since under threat of arrest. Amnesty issued a statement calling on the Bangladesh authorities to refrain from harassing the Editor.

The recent Shahbag protests, propelled and promoted by the ruling regime, have served to only exacerbate the situation. Shahbag’s undemocratic calls to ban opposition and dissenting institutions and media have driven the government to take an ever more aggressive stance against its critics. Recently, in tragic circumstances. a Shahbag blogger, Rajib Haidar, better known by his blog nickname, Thaba Baba, was found brutally murdered by unknown assailants. While investigations continue on this unresolved case, the protesters of Shahbag were swift to assume the opposition party, Jamaat-i-Islami, was responsible. The ruling regime pounced on the suggestion in spite of Jamaat’s denial, going so far as to threaten the party with banning.

Soon after, Sonar Bangla, a prominent blog run by the opposition that published critique of both the ICT and the Shahbag movement was shut down by the government. This especially followed circulation by Shahbag activists of screenshots from a particular Sonar Bangla blog in which Rajib had been identified as a lead Shahbag campaigner and atheistic in belief. The blog was hardly evidence for a murder, yet the Shahbag online activists circulated it as such and demanded that Sonar Bangla be closed. The government, in the obliging manner reserved only for its Shahbag supporters, seized upon the opportunity to shut down one of the opposition party’s few if not only prominent portals for citizen journalism in the country.

Sonar Bangla’s Editor, Aminul Mohaimen, was also arrested. By Bangladeshi law, any arrested individual must be produced before court within 24hrs. Arrested on Feb 16th, Mohaimen disappeared for a week, leaving his family traumatised for his life. His wife, Aasia Khatun, commented, ‘I along with my two children am passing days with huge agony and an unbearable trauma’. Khatun further stated she attempted to make an application with the police in connection to Mohaimen’s disappearance, but it was not accepted. There were fears Mohaimen had joined a long list of forced disappearances, a rampant issue under this regime. Past such victims include War Crimes Tribunal defence witness and victim of 1971 atrocities, Shukho Ranjan Bali, whose abduction has been reported by Human Rights Watch and in whose case also the police refused to accept any applications. Thankfully, Mohaimen was brought before court on February 23rd. The court charged him for destroying a shop, a remarkable accusation he denies, and placed him behind bars.

Opposition press offices continue to be intimidated by the state and are regularly raided by the police, with attacks intensifying since the Shahbag protests erupted. The protesters have been calling for boycott and closure of opposition media outlets, a worrying cry against free speech. The offices of newspaper, Naya Diganta were attacked and arsoned by ruling regime youth following Shahbag’s calls. When the police arrived afterwards, far from dealing with the arsonists, they raided the offices and detained an employee. Meanwhile another opposition newspaper, the Daily Sangram, has suffered repeated police raids upon its offices without any specific allegations being made. Shahbag has threatened arson against both these papers, as well as the daily Amar Desh; the latter was symbolically burned within Shahbag itself. Shahbag has been particularly vociferous in their chants against Mahmudur Rahman for his paper’s critical stance on the protest, more recently demanding the government arrest him. The police accordingly sued him and there are fears he may be arrested at any time. Should the state detain him, there are serious concerns for his life.

Worryingly, recent events prove that violence against the press has now broadened. On Feb 22nd during countrywide opposition rallies, 25 journalists from diverse media outlets were wounded from police fire and baton charge. This included senior reporter of the Daily Amader Otthoniti, Aminul Hoque Bhuiyan who was shot, as well as Mir Ahmed Meeru, chief photojournalist for Amar Desh who was shot no less than five times in the leg. Journalists have since expressed the fear that the state does not spare them from attack.

The environment created is such that now even the nation’s most decorated war hero gets accused of treachery and threatened for voicing critique. The result is the creation of a deep climate of fear; people are no longer comfortable to speak out for fear of arrest, custodial torture and even possible death. It has made it increasingly difficult to garner statements from within the country; only those safely living abroad seem to have the courage to speak. This writer has been in communication with numerous people within Bangladesh who have declined to comment out of terror and have even deactivated social media accounts due to increased state surveillance. As one Bengali expatriate commented:

If I were in Bangladesh right now, I would have never dared to write this, never ever. You can take risk on your own life, but no one wants to put their family members in harms way. In Bangladesh, now, if you say something and it goes against the interest of the government and/or its allies, you must pay the price. RAB (Rapid Action Battalion) or DB (Detective Branch) police will be haunting you. If you are lucky enough to escape, well, there is always someone in your family to pay off.

Apart from the disintegration of human rights such circumstances give rise to, fewer dissenting voices mean less accountability; where the people can no longer hold its leadership accountable things can only get worse in an already troubling situation of extraordinary state corruption and oppression. With the erasure of free speech and a free press, Bangladesh is fast turning into an oppressive autocracy; one in which justice and liberty mean little and security is measured by silent subservience to the state.

About the author

Mahin Khan resides in England and is an avid follower of British and Bangladeshi politics.