Asia

Why Bangladesh wants to 'silence' its civil society

A new measure passed by Bangladesh's parliament makes it a criminal offense to make "malicious" comments on any constitutional bodies in the country. Many say the controversial move is a blow to freedom of expression.

Presse Dhaka (picture-alliance/dpa/S. Stache)

A new bill passed by the Bangladeshi parliament on Wednesday, October 5, sparked widespread criticism and concerns that the government is trying to tighten its grip over non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in the country.

The ''Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Bill,'' which will become law once the nation's president gives his assent, has a provision that empowers officials to withhold the registration of a foreign-funded NGO or ban its activities for making "malicious" or "derogatory" remarks on any constitutional bodies of the South Asian country.

The controversial provision was added to the bill after a comment by Transparency International Bangladesh's (TIB) chief Iftekharuzzaman on the absence of lawmakers during parliament sessions last year. While publishing a report on the state of affairs in parliament, Iftekharuzzaman said that the current legislature had turned into a "puppet show stage" due to the absence of an active opposition party.

In the report, the anti-graft watchdog pointed to a "low-level of participation" of MPs in lawmaking, question-answer sessions and discussions on important issues in the current parliament, according to local media.

Iftekharuzzaman's comment irked some lawmakers, who demanded punitive action against the TIB, the Bangladeshi chapter of the Berlin-based watchdog, which has embarrassed the country's successive governments many times with its yearly global corruption perception index. The country has topped the index a couple of occasions in the past and corruption remains a major problem facing Bangladeshi society.  

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Iftekharuzzaman believes the latest measure will cause harm not only to his organization, but also to other foreign-funded NGOs working on good governance and anti-corruption campaigns. "It's definitely disappointing. And it will not be a good example from the point of view of the prospect of democracy and democratization of Bangladesh,'' he told DW.

A blow to freedom of expression

Legal experts and NGO activists view the controversial move as a blow to the freedom of expression of the people of Bangladesh, as it makes criticism of constitutional bodies a criminal offense.

Sara Hossain, a lawyer at Bangladesh's Supreme Court, sees it as an attempt to create an environment of fear and intimidation against dissent as well as freedom of opinion and expression.

"I think the law could threaten the exercise of not only the fundamental right to freedom of expression but also the freedom of association of any organization that is registered under the NGO affairs bureau,'' she told DW, adding: "This includes groups working on rights of vulnerable persons, people with disabilities, children's rights, minorities, women's groups and even mega development organizations.''

The bill was adopted at a time when free speech in Bangladesh is increasingly under threat. Over the past couple of years, a number of secular bloggers in the country have been killed for freely expressing their views online.

Badiul Alam Majumdar, secretary of an NGO that works to promote good governance, disagrees with the bill's provision aimed at protecting constitutional bodies from "malicious" statements. "These restrictions shouldn't be imposed upon us," he told DW.

"The right to freedom of expression is safeguarded by our constitution and part of various international conventions that Bangladesh ratified," Majumdar added. 

Lawyer Hossain pointed out that the word "malicious" can be interpreted in many different ways, which may provide the regulatory authorities with the unregulated or unfettered power to penalize NGOs and stifle speech.

"Who will decide what is 'malicious' and on what basis? Our constitution allows restrictions on free expression but only if they are 'reasonable' and for certain specific purposes, for example, to maintain public order.

"I cannot see how this provision can be justified since it is clearly unreasonable and is not specified to be for a constitutionally approved purpose,'' she said.

Attempt to 'silence' civil society

Bangladesh has been afflicted by political uncertainty since the country's last parliamentary election in 2014.

The main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and its allies didn't take part in that vote, as their demand for the establishment of an interim government to conduct the elections was not met.

As a result, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's ruling Awami League party retained power by securing a huge electoral victory. This has also led to a parliament devoid of the principal opposition parties.

Badiul Alam Majumdar says this void is currently being filled by Bangladesh's civil society, which is playing the role of the opposition party.

He said, "in an environment where there is no serious political opposition, and the government has authority on everything, and the government can get away doing anything, and in such environment, these types of laws are enacted, resulting in the infringement of people's rights.''

"The civil society's role is to safeguard or speak for the rights of the people. And the authorities usually impeach those rights. So, if a human rights defender speaks up, that will necessarily go against the authorities,'' Majumdar told DW. 

Experts consider NGOs as a part of the civil society, and they say any move to limit the freedom of expression of those organizations will have an adverse impact on the community.

For Hossain, the new bill is a threat to the hard-won guarantees of fundamental rights included in her country's constitution. "It will have a chilling effect on the ability of citizens to participate in efforts to strengthen constitutional bodies and the discourse and practice of those in such bodies through critical and constructive comments."

Furthermore, the Supreme Court lawyer believes it will silence civil society and stifle voices seeking accountability. It will mean those with power to make or interpret laws can evade any scrutiny of their actions and speech by fellow citizens,'' she stressed.

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Calls to revoke the bill

Terming the bill as "highly controversial,'' the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, an international network of NGOs, has called on the Hasina government to immediately revoke it.

"The bill imposes disproportionate restrictions on freedoms of expression and association in Bangladesh, in violation of international human rights standards. Therefore, it represents a real threat to the legitimate activities of independent NGOs," international human rights activist Dimitris Christopoulos said.

A number of Bangladeshi activists have also demanded its repeal as they believe it would stain the country's image globally.

Meanwhile, for TIB, restrictions imposed by the government is not something new as it works on corruption, a problem that no government wants to acknowledge on the scale the Berlin-based organization exposes.

"We have learned to live with such an adverse situation, and we consider it as part of our professional hazards,'' Iftekharuzzaman said. 

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