Is Bangladesh doing enough to protect the freedom of speech of its citizens?

The recent murder of Faisal Arifin Dipan, a publisher of secular books in Bangladesh is just one of several attacks on and killings of secular writers, bloggers and publishers by Islamist extremists. Since 2013, the police have linked the violent acts to both local Islamist extremist groups and ISIS.

In the last couple of years, there has been an increase in international and domestic pressure on the Bangladeshi Government to take action against those who have been attacking secular authors. The UN issued a statement denouncing violence against secular writers and publishers, insisting that the government take “urgent, concerted measures to ensure the protection of all those who are being threatened by extremists operating in the country.” The United States has also publicly condemned the attacks, especially the killing of a Bangladeshi-born American blogger, Avijit Roy. Additionally, thousands of Bangladeshi authors and teachers marched asking to end the violence and fight for their right to free speech on the streets of Dhaka.

The Bangladeshi Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, has condemned the recent killings. After secular blogger Chottopaddhya was killed in August, PM Hasina said, “We’ll not allow any bloodshed in secular Bangladesh in the name of religion.”. This is not the first time the Prime Minister has spoken out in regards to human rights issues in the country. Since becoming PM, she actively supported trials against the war criminals of 1971 Bangladeshi war of independence. She also asked the international community to support her in this cause. The results were in favour of Sheikh Hasina’s narrative; several war criminals were sentenced to death and a couple to life imprisonment. However her outspokenness in light of the recent violence against secular writers and bloggers did not “manage to pacify the country’s blogging community.” It seems that community continues to be constantly in fear; “We won’t get police protection. We won’t get a visa. Where should we go then?”said one blogger.  

The Bangladeshi authorities have been criticised for not protecting the rights of their people. Six writers and bloggers went to the police when they found their photographs on a Facebook page with the following post: “There are three anti-Islamic poets and three organisers of bloggers. They are the enemy of Islam. We should do whatever it takes." The police responded to the report by proposing self-censorship to the writers and bloggers. Furthermore, Police General AKM Shahidul Hoque warned bloggers not to hurt someone’s religious sentiments, saying "No one should cross the limit,". He said if they did they could have a maximum jail sentence of 14 years. There has been backlash after Hoque made this statement by bloggers who are worried for their safety. One blogger asked “...how could he (Police General) justify murder, being in a position of a top law enforcer?". Legally Bangladesh does not ‘limit’ its freedom of speech - freedom of expression is a fundamental right in Bangladesh. Article 39 of the Constitution of the People's Republic of Bangladesh ensures this right 'subject to reasonable restriction imposed by law'. As Zafar Sobhan, Dhaka Tribune editor, shared, Hoque’s statement unveils the problematic mindset of authorities in Bangladesh in which the authorities themselves criticize secular authors, instead of protecting their rights. This mindset can be said to be partly responsible for the continued violence against secular authors. Bloggers and writers are questioning this “reasonable restriction imposed by law” that authorities seem to be taking advantage of as in the case of Hoque’s statement.

Posts on social media sites seem to be the contemporary method used by extremists to instruct and motivate individual actors and supporters. We have seen several similar cases here in the U.S in which lone wolves are triggered to act, such as the Boston bombers and the Fort Hood shooter. While it is difficult and complicated for authorities to track down and take action against the perpetrators of such posts on social media, it is important that they acknowledge them and protect those in danger. Bangladeshi authorities simply have not done enough to protect the rights of their citizens. While Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has condemned the killings but no serious ramifications have been imposed on those involved in attacking secular authors.