Bangladesh on a slippery slope

While the world is watching with intense trepidation developments in what are known as hotspots around the globe—i.e. Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Palestine-Israel—a major catastrophic setting is being created in a country that, unfortunately, is more often in the news for all the wrong reasons. Especially after the non-election earlier this year the ruling party in Bangladesh has evidently embarked on an obviously well-thought-out project of enacting laws that will build a state structure which will gift the administration the full freedom to ensure that its decisions cannot be questioned on any ground, thereby assuring itself of comprehensive control over all the tentacles of the state.

bangladeshIn the heat of a hasty pursuit of that objective the government—in spite of the fact that it already has an ironclad grip on all branches and sub-branches of the administration gifting it asphyxiating grasp over the nation—has been legislating laws, rules, regulations, policies, et al, so that not a sliver of opportunity is left that might enable anyone or any organization from distracting it from overcoming every type, kind, sort or variant of adversarial opinions and/or actions. And this is the backdrop against which brand-new legislation is being minted:

“In Bangladesh human rights violations are rampant. There are allegations of torture, disappearance and extra-judicial killings perpetrated by security forces, including the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and the Detective Branch of Police (DB). According to information gathered by Odhikar, between August 01, 2013 and August 24, 2014 at least 51 persons have become victims of enforced disappearances and 224 were killed extra-judicially. The present Government led by the Awami League, has undertaken the practice of gagging the voices of human rights defenders and victims of violence.” (As reported by the leading human rights agency of the country in a statement to the United Nations secretary general.)

Meanwhile the administration has already adopted a new “media policy”, another similarly restrictive policy is being chiseled for the online news outlets, yet another set of guidelines are also on the anvil for the motion picture industry and a law is being enacted offering powers to the legislators to take action against “erring/errant” judges. In this context the comment of Bangladesh’s prime minister, as reported by Human Rights Watch (HRW), is incredibly revealing: “Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s veiled threats in defense of the media policy are of particular concern. Speaking with reporters on August 28, she warned journalists not to ‘cross the line’ set down in the new guidelines, local media reported. She was quoted as saying: ‘[D]on’t try to cut off the branch you are sitting on. You too will fall. I think a hint is enough for the intelligent.’ ”

In a recent briefing Amnesty International’s Bangladesh researcher Abbas Faiz commented that “Bangladesh has made progress on reducing poverty and other development indicators, but this has not been matched when it comes to respecting human rights, such as torture or removing restrictions on freedom of expression….We have also documented a disturbing trend that suggests the security forces are responsible for a continuing pattern of disappearances, even though they deny it. The government has to take a long, hard look at the conduct of its own security forces, and end the almost complete lack of accountability around these cases.”

Given that the incumbent administration is well ensconced in the seat of power and that it has inconceivable authority over all sectors of government, the question that jumps out of this milieu is, why does the government need or want further consolidation of its all-encompassing powers, in effect, providing it with authority more in consonance with dictatorial dispensations than with democratic practices and standards? The clear short answer is likely to be that it wants to take no chances with its hopes of perpetuation in government for as long it feels it is necessary for the attainment of its goals—and then some. Hence, no opposition to its rampant utilization of state powers is to be tolerated and, certainly, no quarter is to be given.

Underscoring its concerns HRW said in a recent statement: “Bangladesh is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and is therefore required to protect and uphold the right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to seek, receive, and impart information. The UN Human Rights Committee, which interprets the covenant, has stated that states may not prohibit criticism of institutions, and that ‘A free, uncensored and unhindered press or other media is essential in any society to ensure freedom of opinion and expression.’ ”

Human Rights Watch noted further that the slippery slope allowed by the media policy could have broad-ranging effects and that no media area is exempt from its reach. On September 3, 2014, the government issued a ban on English titles in local movie productions. The media policy includes a provision that instructs broadcasters “to be careful about pure Bengali pronunciation, and the contamination of Bengali language, distortion and pronunciation of Bengali to the tune of foreign languages have to be avoided.” “The new media policy appears to be little more than an attempt to establish a state ideology and set a trap for critics,” HRW director Brad Adams said. “It’s almost like the government is living in a bygone era when it could tell people what to think, watch, and read. The government should realize that in the digital age those days are over.”

As clear as daylight—and as tragic as they may be for a people that has continued to suffer indignities despite their unalloyed yearning for freedom and liberty—these efforts of the present government are a volatile mélange teetering on a version of xenophobia mixed and shaken with a liberal dash of zealotry ultimately concluding in absolutism. In view of these and other apprehensions (since human rights activists as well as media professionals and opposition politicians have been persistently and particularly targeted over the past half a dozen years) Odhikar appositely proposed the following to the UN Human Rights Council:

“1. To ensure that the Bangladesh Government stop persecution against Odhikar and ensure security to human rights defenders and refrain from the enactment of the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act, 2014. 2. To address the Government of Bangladesh to ensure freedom of expression and media; allow the broadcasting of banned media; free Amar Desh Acting Editor Mahmudur Rahman; and repeal the National Broadcasting Policy 2014 and Information and Communication Technology Act 2006 (amended 2013). 3. To ensure that the Bangladesh Government refrains from enacting the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution of Bangladesh, which will suppress the independence of the Judiciary. 4. To ensure the conducting of a free and fair election within a shortest possible time with the participation of all the political parties under the supervision of a neutral government.”

However, sadly, none of these has even a remote possibility of coming to fruition in the foreseeable future. Though miracles have been known to occur, but then only rarely. Is it therefore possible to expect a miraculous change of heart? The answer, under the extant circumstances, is likely to be either a heartfelt sigh or an exasperated groan. Meanwhile the nation is being transformed from a polychromatic conglomeration into a monochromatic mass as was once done—without success—by the same political party way back in the past.

The writer has been a media professional, in print and online newspapers as editor and commentator, and in public affairs, for over forty years.

– Fazal M. Kamal,