The undersigned journalists, writers, historians and activists from South Asia (SA), are deeply concerned about the use of ‘contempt of court’ law to curb freedom of expression. The conviction and sentencing on December 2, 2014, of Dhaka-based journalist David Bergman by the International Crimes Tribunal 2 on charges of “contempt of court” for citing published research on killings during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, is a serious set-back to Bangladesh’s commitment to free speech and independent scholarship, says a release of Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).
At the outset, they reiterate their belief that those responsible for genocide and international crimes during the Liberation War must be prosecuted and punished through an open and transparent process.
The statement said, we firmly believe that the right to expression must include the right to examine, analyse and comment on differing historic narratives. We are aware that in his blogs, posted most recently two years ago, Bergman cited figures from published research on deaths and other casualties during the 1971 Liberation War. A difference in the figures of total fatalities does not in any way diminish the truth that heinous and widespread war crimes were committed in 1971 – and Bergman’s articles stress this very point and call for evidence-based data. In his words, “There is enough substantiated evidence to suggest that whatever the exact number of deaths, a very large number of civilians were killed. Yet, at the same time, arguably it is important for the sake of accuracy that people do not claim that a particular number of people died – whether it is too high or too low – which has no basis at all in the evidence.” (http://bangladeshwarcrimes.blogspot.in/2011/11/sayedee-indictment-analysis-1971-death.html)
We are also particularly concerned about the personal attacks by the Tribunal on David Bergman. Having contributed to the Royal Television Society award winning Channel Four documentary, the ‘War Crimes File’, on which the Tribunal itself relied in another case to convict a war criminal, Bergman has consistently written in support of the need for war crimes trials for the atrocities and crimes against humanity in 1971.
We find the court’s decision may have a chilling effect on freedom of expression with ramifications for journalists, writers and scholars throughout the region.
We are concerned to note that the ICT’s governing statute does not allow any appeal against contempt orders or judgments, and allows no defence of truth, which undermines due process and rule of law.
We note that the accepted standard in emerging jurisprudence around the world is for courts to avoid resort to contempt of court as this reflects negatively on public respect extended towards the court itself.
We urge and appeal to the authorities concerned to reform the contempt of court law as it is a relic of South Asia’s colonial past and should be reformed in line with a broad understanding of freedom of expression.
Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, lawyer and columnist, Colombo, Sri Lanka
Kumari Jayawardena, feminist academic, Colombo, Sri Lanka
Kanak Mani Dixit, Editor Emeritus , Himal Southasian, Kathmandu
Aunohita Mojumdar, Editor, Himal Southasian. Kathmandu
Laxmi Murthy, Director, Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange, Kathmandu, Nepal
Vrinda Grover, lawyer, Delhi, India
Uma Chakravarti, feminist historian, Delhi, India
Amar Kanwar, film maker, Delhi, India
Shohini Ghosh, Sajjad Zaheer professor at the AJK Mass Communication Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi, India
Kavita Krishnan, National Secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association, India
Nandini Sundar, Professor of Sociology, Delhi University
Urvashi Butalia, Director, Zubaan Books, Delhi, India
Siddharth Varadarjan, Former Editor, The Hindu, Senior Fellow, Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University, India
Harsh Sethi, Consulting Editor, Seminar
Sukumar Muralidharan, Senior Journalist, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, India
Ammu Joseph, Independent Journalist, Bangalore, India
Geeta Seshu, Consulting Editor, The Hoot, India
Jyoti Punwani, freelance journalist, Mumbai , India
Kalpana Sharma, Independent journalist/columnist, Mumbai, India
Kavita Panjabi, Professor of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University, Kolkata
Sushil Khanna, Professor, Indian Institute of Management Calcutta
Selvyn Jussy, HOD Linguistics, Calcutta University
Rajashri Dasgupta, Journalist, Kolkata
Geeta Ramashesan, High Court Lawyer, Chennai