The Death of Dissent: Free Speech, Extremism, and State Suppression in Bangladesh

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This month, the Bangladesh government is supposed to finalize the “Digital Security Act,” a new law which will — among other things — revise and possibly replace Section 57 of the controversial Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act. Meant to protect against defamation and seditious speech online, Section 57 has instead been predominantly used by the government to target the opposition. Under its vague formulation, journalists, bloggers, and activists have been arrested for incidents as trivial as criticising ministers on Facebook. At least 23 journalists have been sued since March of this year alone, and the law has been decried by civil liberty groups around the world as a “draconian assault on free expression.”  

But amidst the growing outcry for its repeal, the ruling party has only given token reassurances. At a cabinet meeting last month, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina insisted the law was not meant to harass journalists, but rather to protect against those who “want to harm the country, write against it, or against any person intentionally out of personal vengeance.” Law Minister Anisul Haque has stated, on multiple occasions, that the new Digital Security Act will clarify the ambiguities of Section 57. But the Act, a draft for which was released last year, does not offer much hope for free speech defenders. So far, in its current form, all of the mechanisms for the suppression of speech have been retained (mostly translated from the old Section 57 into a new Section 19). Equally disturbing, perhaps, is the government’s persistently noncommittal attitude; which maintains the outward appearance of concern for human rights, while inwardly tightening its authoritarian grip.

The existing Information and Communication Technology Act, first enacted in 2006, translates roughly as: “If any person deliberately publishes or transmits or causes to be published or transmitted in the website or in any other electronic form, any material which is false and obscene...or causes to deteriorate law and order, prejudice the image of the state or person, or causes to hurt or may hurt religious belief or instigate against any person or organization, then this activity will be regarded as an offense". In 2013, despite broad criticism from human rights experts, the Awami League (AL) government amended the law to make it even more stringent. The maximum punishment was increased from 10 up to 14 years in jail, and — more significantly — law enforcement was empowered to make arrests without a warrant and detain those people, without bail, for an indefinite period of time.

Since then, according to the Cyber Tribunal in Dhaka, over 700 cases have been filed: 260 in the first half of this year alone. The law has increasingly been used — and abused —  to target and detain (without bail), not only suspected criminals and militants, but also members of the political opposition. According to Odhikar, a human rights group in Dhaka, more than 320 people have been unlawfully detained (or disappeared) since the AL took power 8 years ago. Further, the US State Department 2016 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices lists growing extra judicial killings, arbitrary detentions for the purpose of extortion, enforced disappearances, and torture among the abuses running rampant in Bangladesh.

In response to these condemnations, the ruling party has exhibited a familiar mix of apathy and denial. For example, after the release of a recent Human Rights Watch report, which highlighted the issue of forced disappearances and secret detentions, the Bangladeshi Home Minister dismissed the accusations immediately. “The organisation [HRW] has launched a smear campaign against us,” he said. “Whom will you say has disappeared?”

Moreover, the use of coercive tactics to suppress political opposition is nothing new in Bangladesh, and is certainly not the sole domain of the Awami League. Corruption, manipulation of the electoral process, and the intimidation of political opponents have marked Bangladeshi politics from their very first independent elections, in 1973. The triumphant “return to democracy” in 1991, after 15 years of military rule, has not changed the fundamental way power functions in the country. The most recent national election, which took place in January 2014, saw the Awami League retaining its power amidst massive boycotts and violence, and was widely discredited by outside parties.

But if suspect methods and suppression are almost as old as the nation of Bangladesh itself, what has changed since 1971 is, importantly, the rise of domestic terrorism and Islamic extremism within the country. This stream of radicalism, growing quietly for years if not decades, has taken on crisis proportions in the last few years. It has distinguished itself with a particularly sickening pattern of violence: a series of prominent “blogger killings” in which secular writers and activists have been hacked to death with knives and machetes. After the first spate of these attacks in 2013, extremist groups released a “hit list” of 83 journalists, writers, and bloggers that were labeled “anti-Islamic” and blasphemous. Since then, dozens of activists and freethinkers have been forced to flee the country, or fall silent in fear.

The possibility of such spontaneous violence would be enough, anywhere, to threaten the exercise of free speech. But the Awami League’s conspicuous absence of an unequivocal condemnation of militancy points to a larger problem. In February 2013, when prominent blogger Ahmed Haider was hacked to death by extremists with machetes, the authorities quickly arrested several men, and Sheikh Hasina personally visited the family to pay her respects. However in response to the outcry of the religious right, who threatened to take to the street against the “atheist bloggers,” Sheikh Hasina all but assured them that the government was on their side. “You [Islamic parties] don’t need to go for any movement,” she said at a party meeting that March. “As a Muslim, I have the responsibility to take action...We have already decided what action to be taken against those responsible for hurting people’s religious sentiments.”

Soon after, five writers - including four bloggers and a newspaper editor — were arrested for posting articles that were “critical of the government’s attempts to appease the Islamist demands, or said the government had failed to address the concerns of minority religions.” The police described these writers as “known atheists and naturalists,” who would be charged for “instigating negative elements against Islam to create anarchy.” The Bangladesh authorities later brought 55 cases against the editor and several writers of the country’s most popular daily, Protham Alo, for criminal defamation and “hurting religious sentiment,” and the Law Minister announced that the government would increase its control over social media, blogs, and online news websites.

Since the Holey Bakery attack of 2016, the most high-profile episode of militant violence in Bangladesh to date, the Awami League government has cracked down harder on terrorism. But in the name of this zero tolerance counterterrorism strategy, human rights abuses have only increased. The government’s long-standing history of appeasing Islamist groups, moreover, continues to cast a shadow on their commitments to free speech and secularism. Most recently, the AL has shown itself willing to compromise with the Islamist group Hefazat-e Islam (“Guardians of Bangladesh”), which emerged in 2010 to protest against secularism and women’s rights. The Hefazat famously roused crowds of over 500,000 in their 2013 Dhaka demonstration, demanding — among other things— the death penalty for blasphemers and atheist bloggers. The AL’s tacit appeasement of such a group points once again, to its “power at any cost” politics. And these politics — the politics of expediency, of illegitimate rule, of suppression and sham democratic institutions — are a threat not only to free speech defenders, but to all of civil society in Bangladesh.

The rising threat of extremist terror has placed Bangladesh at a vulnerable and critical moment in its history, one in which upholding human rights and democratic values seems particularly crucial. Yet at this exact juncture, the state has chosen to propagate a climate of fear and self-censorship, utilizing repressive laws such as Section 57 to thwart dissent. And in doing so it has confirmed, disappointingly, the problematic politics at play behind its display of democracy.