When I think about the state of free speech in the land of my birth, my memories take me back to 1970-71 when I was a higher secondary student in Dhaka, a time of upheaval when East Pakistan was making its way towards independent Bangladesh. Officially we were still under martial law, Ayub’s decade-long dictatorship deposed in favour of Yahya’s rule that came with the promise of elections. Political parties could organise, detainees were set free, the press could publish with fewer restrictions, and people began to launch new magazines and newspapers.
Spring of freedom
Every stripe of opinion found expression in print. Pushing aside the go-slow conservatism of existing newspapers, new ones emerged. Bengali nationalism, socialism, communism of various hues – all found expression in print. The main Islamist party’s paper acquired a modern press. Books were not that widespread, but you could easily get your hands on Russell and English socialists, and Marx, Engels, Lenin, or Mao. I remember engaging in a mix of agnostic, atheist, socialist, and liberal discussions.
There is something in that sort of "spring" that beckons the young to amplify their voice. Two friends and I wanted to publish a magazine. We came up with a name – The Rebel – and of course, a logo. We split the writing among us. I can’t remember much other than we were inclined towards independence for East Bengal. Our perspective was no doubt seditious but we couched our language with a bit of caution. Did we even know that British-era laws required that publications be registered? In that climate, we felt the state wasn’t looking all that carefully.
That spring of freedom came crashing down with the onslaught of the Pakistani military. Overnight, newspapers were suppressed, with several having their offices burned down. Journalists were killed or brought in line. Many fled. Print shops destroyed books or magazines that had been in embryo. Our magazine never made it into ink.
It was a time of silence backed up with mass murder. Dissent retreated into other forms: underground publications, verbal channels, or through the broadcasts of the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra. I recall walking the streets of Dhaka and wondering, upon passing military checkpoints, could the soldiers tell that you hated them? Could they read your treasonous thoughts?
Nine months later, Bangladesh won freedom. We would shortly ratify a constitution assuring citizens of freedom of speech and expression. Once again, despite the devastation, there was a spring of freedom. New publications emerged. That space too would not be stable, falling victim to a one-party state declared by the ruling Awami League, and later, through much blood and terror, the era of military dictatorships lasting over 15 years.
Each tyranny imposed new restrictions, but they also had at their disposal the old standbys: censorship and publications regulation laws inherited from the British, and from the Pakistani legacy, enhanced state control of radio, TV, and newspapers, bolstered by intervention from the intelligence agencies.
Every so often though, some type of spring has returned in Bangladesh, pressed on by upheavals against tyranny. The end of the Ershad dictatorship saw an outpouring of new magazines and newspapers. As soon as some were banned, others took their place. From 1991, elected civilian regimes followed but these also periodically placed restrictions on expression. And if the state lagged behind, thugs connected to ruling parties, Maoist remnants, or militants of political Islam would complete the circle. Taslima Nasrin was driven out in exile, blades were brought out to assault writers like Humayun Azad and Shamsur Rahman, and journalists were injured or killed for not bowing down.
Late in 2006, I returned to Dhaka for an extended stay to work on a novel. A year earlier when I was still in California, I had begun an irregular blog. Soon after my arrival, a military regime came to power, though this one had its khaki masked by a cabinet of suit and sari wearing civilians. With a state of emergency in place, censorship was re-imposed, politicians were thrown in jail, and during a brief rebellion, students and professors were tortured and imprisoned.
In the summer of 2007, Bangladesh had its own ‘cartoon crisis’ as Islamists were outraged by a mild cartoon that mocked a certain kind of believer. Alpin, the cartoon magazine associated with the daily Prothom Alo, was shut down, the newspaper editor went on his knees before the imam of the main mosque in Dhaka, and the cartoonist, a young man by the name of Arifur Rahman, was tossed into jail. Soon afterwards the government banned the Eid supplement of Shaptahik 2000 for carrying a personal essay by Daud Haider who had been exiled in the mid-70s for writing that offended Islamic zealots.
I remember writing a few blog posts commenting on these issues. I remember going over my words carefully, weighing the implications of every sentence. The climate forced extreme caution. One did not know who might come knocking: the police or Islamists. Thankfully no one did.
The military made a mess of things and soon bowed out. Politicians were freed, newspapers again found their voice, and a new election was held. Talk shows erupted. New blogging platforms emerged, and hundreds of people wrote posts. Then came an eruption of people joining social media: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube.
There are more people in Bangladesh today expressing themselves publicly, whether it be with blogs, newspaper articles, or posts and comments on social media. What used to be simply talked about has now found their way into print and video. Those inclined to policing mentalities – and our society is rampant with this – are horrified. Isn’t this Anarchy and License? But the reality is that no one can control anything.
For example, Islamic preachers have long sermonised against Jews, Hindus, atheists, and women. Despite the law saying you cannot offend religious sensibilities, the authorities have not cared about minority sensibilities. You can find these rants now on YouTube.
Atheists too have found a platform in a society that tends to be hostile to unbelievers. Some among them provide reasoned arguments if they are inclined to argue and educate, others rant or mock. Some voices counsel that this might not be the wisest of strategies in this society, but in the current era of technologically raised voices, who’s to decide anything? Youthful bloggers, incensed by Islamist-instigated crimes, whether in Bangladesh or worldwide, are often inclined to use sharp words. And sometimes be offensive.
There are plenty of offensive words coming from all directions. But only the Islamists respond with murder.
To them, "blogger" has become a word worthy of death. In 2013, Rajib Haider was murdered in the streets, other bloggers assaulted, and news emerged of a hit list. In the last few months, Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman were hacked to death in the streets of Dhaka. On social media, fundamentalists openly applaud such murders. Others who are not willing to openly support freelance murder believe the state should carry out executions: Islamist forces demand the death penalty for blasphemy.
Ultimately, though, it is the state that has to ensure a free environment. But instead of setting an example, unfortunately it is the state itself that’s taking significant steps to curb freedom of expression.
There is a new instrument in its hands: Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, 2006. Using this law, the government has imposed bans on YouTube, ordered blogging platforms to remove posts, and jailed people for Facebook posts, such as some that insulted the Prime Minister. The law is written broadly, people can be arrested without warrant, and it’s a non-bailable offense.
In other instances, TV channels have been pressured, talk shows on TV have been warned not to bring in certain guests, and a climate of self-censorship has descended among writers and journalists. People are afraid.
Once you encourage such an atmosphere, everyone wants to get in on the act and impose new kinds of censorship.
Courts have brought contempt of court charges against journalists, bloggers, and even mere signatories to a petition. And recently the police issued an order that any TV play or movie that portrayed police will have to get permission.
What’s next? Orders against portrayals in stories and novels? In my fiction I have portrayed police. Should I worry? Never had I dreamed that imaginative depictions would require permission.
In today’s tech-enabled world, how much silencing is realistic? Unless you cut off the internet or have resources to control it like China, what can Bangladesh do? True, the state is investing a lot of money on hi-tech surveillance, but surely they cannot imprison everyone. People can still find their ways to platforms outside the control of the state. You might ban a physical book, or force the publisher to take it back. But what’s to prevent the text from becoming available online? How many sites can be blocked? Then people will find ways to email attachments. Word will inevitably spread.
There is another worrying concern. During times of unified opposition to military regimes, Bangladeshis have rallied around a consensus that recognizes the importance of free speech. In other times, such as now, when politics is fractured along major and minor divides, this consensus weakens considerably. When the ruling party bans opposition papers or suppresses opposition editors or journalists, their supporters applaud, justify, or go silent. Should the opposition come to power, they would act similarly and it is their supporters who would support their decrees. Meanwhile, Islamist forces demand blasphemy laws to silence certain kinds of people, and secular nationalists believe religion-based politics can be defeated with bans.
Murderers must be brought to justice and more killings thwarted, but extremism is the far end of the spectrum. So much more needs to be done than mere law enforcement. In the drive to squelch expression, the institutions of the state themselves are failing society. It is unclear how this will change until a new ‘spring’ emerges again. Under the pressures of today, voices in favor of justice, tolerance, fairness, and truth must refuse to be stilled. Restrictive laws and legacies inherited from the past – colonial, Pakistani, our own home-grown tyrannies – need to be challenged.
The country must not allow itself to be cowed into silence.
Also See: Statement by Concerned South Asian Journalists on David Bergman Case
This was first published in Kafila
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