Bangladesh

By Jazmin Pantoja

Flag of Bangladesh

Flag of Bangladesh

 

Introduction

Bangladesh had a long history of colonization before it became an independent nation in 1971. Since its beginnings, the country has been known for its political and social instability, poverty and underdevelopment. According to the 2016 Reporters Without Borders “World Press Freedom Index,” Bangladesh received a ranking of 144 out of 181 countries. The country achieved its highest ranking to date, 118/134 in 2002 (2016 World Press Freedom Index). Following that, in 2004 and 2005 the country experienced its worst period with ratings of 151/157 and 151/160 (2016 World Press Freedom Index). However, the country has only ever experienced rankings that show a history of abuse of free speech and press rights.

Historical Background

Bangladesh has a population of about 156 million people (South Asia: Bangladesh). The country has a poor economic status and agriculture and fishing dominate the economic sphere of the country. India borders three-fourths of the country of Bangladesh, so it comes as no surprise that the country would have some influence on the culture of Bangladesh. However, that influence is mostly seen in the customs and entertainment aspects of Bangladeshi life. Bangladesh has a diverse population and recognizes 27 ethnic groups. Bengali is the official language of the country (South Asia: Bangladesh).

 Bangladesh is located on the continent of Asia on the Bay of Bengal resting between India and Burma. The country has a very short history of independence having only been an independent nation for 46 years. Until 1947, Bangladesh (formerly known as Bengal) was under the rule of British India. The Partition of India, which formed the country of Pakistan, established the modern day borders of Bangladesh as what was then known as East Pakistan (Nepal & Bangladesh, 2002). Since 1975, the country has been plagued by instability and rapid succession with power transitions constantly occurring until 2013. Being that Bangladesh is a predominantly Muslim country, the religion is highly incorporated into their governing system of laws. The political climate in Bangladesh is characterized by civil violence, military coups, authoritarian regimes and a poor human rights record (Bangladesh: A Country Study).

After gaining its independence in 1971, the country implemented a parliamentary republic form of government with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the independent country’s first Prime Minister (A History of Bangladesh, 2009). With the adoption of Bangladesh’s constitution in 1973, Bangladesh had finally declared its sovereignty, created a form of government and defined the rights of the people. However, Bangladesh was not accepted as a legitimate country until being admitted into the United Nations in 1974 (Bangladesh The First Decade, 1982). During the final years of the rule of Mujibur, he started transforming Bangladesh into an authoritarian style single-party dictatorship abridging freedoms guaranteed in the Bangladeshi constitution. Shortly after, a military coup revolted against him, killing him and most of his family and leaving the country in a period of chaos (A History of Bangladesh, 2009). Between 1971 and 2013, the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party were the two dominant parties that alternated power. Since 2009, Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League has served as the dominant political figure, Prime Minister of Bangladesh. The citizens of Bangladesh experienced limited freedoms because they had to worry about backlash if they criticized the government.

Free Speech

Much like modern day Bangladesh, during the early years, the government would threaten jail or enact laws to keep people from speaking out against the government or anything the government supports such as the Islamic religion. Freedom of speech was highly regulated.

There are many articles within the country’s constitution that limit the people’s speech freedoms. It is mentioned that the citizens of Bangladesh have the freedoms of speech and press, but they are subject to any “reasonable restrictions” and imposes this long list of circumstances in which it is okay for the government to take away their basic freedoms (The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, 1972). There have been many cases of oppression in Bangladesh when it comes to free speech. Although freedom of speech is listed as a guaranteed right to the people of Bangladesh, it is subjected to the government’s “reasonable restrictions” (The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, 1972). In addition to this, repressive laws are constantly being passed to restrict the people’s right to freedom of expression and speech.

Anti-government demonstrations have been prevalent since the beginning of this independent nation. In 1990, an opposition movement by university students successfully ended the military government’s control but not without a fight. University students protested for weeks. A series of demonstrations and strikes took place where police fired on unarmed students protesting against military leader General Ershad running for another term. To stop the students from protesting against the current military government, violent criminals were released from prison and armed with guns to put an end to the demonstrations (The New York Times, 1990).

More recently, in February 2016, Shamsuzzoha Manik was arrested and jailed for eight months after his publishing company published his book titled “Debate on Islam” questioning and contemplating the country’s main religion (Pen America, 2017). 2016 proposed additions to the constitution would only worsen the already limited freedoms of speech and press the country’s citizens have. The passing of the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Bill in 2016 was highly criticized in the international realm for being “anti-democratic.” This bill “criminalizes the acts of engaging in anti-state activities and makes comments against the government illegal” (ifex, 2017). With the passing of this law and others like it, it can only be expected that further restrictions on expression and speech will occur (Bangladesh: Parliament, 2016). The push for free speech and expression in Bangladesh will remain a struggle.

Free Press

Much like its attitude towards free speech and expression, Bangladesh is highly restrictive when it comes to press freedoms. Since gaining its independence the country has had an issue with censorship, unlawful imprisonments, and executions of publishers and journalists. According to the Freedom House “Freedom of Press Index” the country’s status has declined to “not free” due to the “continued legal harassment of media outlets and press freedom advocates, government sanctioned economic pressure on certain outlets and attempts to censor social media” (Freedom of Press Index, 2016). The constitution of Bangladesh (1972) guarantees the right to the freedom of the press, but “the press and media in Bangladesh do not enjoy the freedom promised by the document” (Bangladesh’s Changing Mediascape, 2013). Holding the government accountable for its actions is one of the fundamental roles of journalism and free press (Bangladesh’s Changing Mediascape, 2013). There have been many instances where citizens press freedoms were violated. In 1993 and 1998, the government banned books that weren’t aligned with their religious views at the time (Bangladesh’s Changing Mediascape, 2013). In 1998, there was an outburst of violence towards media outlets and journalists. Thirty-four journalists were attacked, tortured, or killed while trying to perform their job. Legal action was also taken resulting in “the closing of two newspapers and eight periodicals and the licenses of four newspapers being

There have been many instances where citizens press freedoms were violated. In 1993 and 1998, the government banned books that weren’t aligned with their religious views at the time (Bangladesh’s Changing Mediascape, 2013). In 1998, there was an outburst of violence towards media outlets and journalists. Thirty-four journalists were attacked, tortured, or killed while trying to perform their job. Legal action was also taken resulting in “the closing of two newspapers and eight periodicals and the licenses of four newspapers being canceled by the government (ifex, 1998).” In addition, in 1999 during a three-day national general strike, members of the Bangladesh National Party “attacked two newspaper offices, burned four vehicles carrying journalists, assaulted four photojournalists, and stopped five other journalists from performing their professional duties (ifex, 1999).” In the process, the office of one of the country’s most renowned and credible news sources The Daily Star was vandalized and set to fire.

In more recent years, the country has experienced its worst and most outrageous restrictions on free press. In 2016, a publisher was arrested on the charge of hurting religious sentiment under the Information and Communication Technology Act and is currently on trial. This act was passed in 2006 and is often cited when views critical of the government are published. The Information and Communication Technology Act “criminalizes the online publication of material that is false, obscene, likely to harm law and order, prejudices the image of the state, hurts religious belief or advocates violence and allows for warrant-less arrests and prison terms of up to 14 years (ifex, 2017).” Ifex has hundreds of reported instances of journalists, publishers, bloggers and opposition writers in Bangladesh being silenced by murder, legal charges, imprisonment or exile.

In August 2016, the government blocked 35 opposition news sites without explanation or reasoning and the matter was not sent through the proper channels before action was taken. The government showed a significant overreach on its powers and a blatant disregard for its people’s basic freedoms (Reporters Without Borders, 2016). Currently, certain internet resources are still restricted and monitored by the government.

Critical Comparison

According to the 2016 Reporters Without Borders “World Press Freedom Index,” the United States received a ranking of 41/181. The United States ranked 103 spots above Bangladesh on matters of freedoms of speech and press. The contrast of free speech and press rights between the United States and Bangladesh is striking. The United States expressly states its citizen’s rights in its constitution and supports and protects those rights through judicial review. In its constitution, Bangladesh gives its people the semblance of such freedoms, but they are largely subjected to the government’s impulse.

The United States and Bangladesh significantly differ when it comes to free assembly and speech. In the past in Bangladesh, opposition demonstrations and movements were met with violent action taken by the government (New York Times, 1990). In Snyder v. Phelps (2011), with an 8-1 decision, the United States Supreme Court protected the Westboro Baptist Church’s right to protest at the funeral of a service member. They came to the conclusion that no matter how outrageous, offensive or distasteful speech may be people still have the right to express their opinion. The United States also does not use violent force on protesters. The United States Supreme Court has continuously protected First Amendment rights.

In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), Justice Black wrote, “only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.” New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) recognizes that the purpose of government is to serve the people. The case discourages self-censorship by protecting criticism of a public official to ensure that newspapers don’t censor themselves or hold back information of public interest or concern. Laws such as the Information and Communication Technology Act and the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Bill in Bangladesh that seeks to censor speech and press would have been struck down by the United States Supreme Court.

Prior restraint and censorship of the press are also more common in Bangladesh than in the United States. While the United States continuously strives to protect press freedoms even in cases against the government or public officials, Bangladesh does not. In Bangladesh, the government blocked 35 opposition news sites. In the United States, publishers and news outlets are permitted to publish things that may seem outrageous or distasteful to promote democracy. In Bangladesh, the press is censored at the government’s discretion. In Near v. Minnesota (1931), the United States Supreme Court ruled against prior restraint and censorship stating that “the press cannot be restrained except in exceptional circumstances.”

Conclusion

The free press and speech differences between the United States and Bangladesh could stem from the fact that the United States has had a sustained democracy since it first gained its independence, and Bangladesh has experienced interrupted periods of democracy. Since gaining its independence in 1972, Bangladesh has not made much progress towards a freer society when it comes to free speech and press. In fact, current legislation shows that they seem to be moving towards a more restrictive society. Despite the country’s return to democracy in 2008, Bangladesh still has made little progress on reducing censorship and faulty legislation that promotes oppression and violence. The country’s history up to this point in time gives a glimpse into why the country has not achieved the best ratings over the years. It seems like the cycle of oppression in Bangladesh will continue.

References

2016 World Press Freedom Index. (n.d.). Retrieved March 12, 2017, from https://rsf.org/en/Bangladesh

Bangladesh: Freedom of the Press. (2016). https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2016/Bangladesh

Bangladesh: Parliament adopts NGO Law aimed at eradicating any critical voice. OMCT. (2016). http://www.omct.org/human-rights-defenders/urgent-interventions/bangladesh/2016/10/d23982/

Bangladesh: RSF condemns government blocking of 35 news sites. Reporters Without Borders. (2016). https://rsf.org/en/news/bangladesh-rsf-condemns-government-blocking-35-news-sites

Crossette, Barbara. Revolution Brings Bangladesh Hope. The New York Times. (1990). http://www.nytimes.com/1990/12/09/world/revolution-brings-bangladesh-hope.html

February Featured Case: Violence and Censorship at Bangladesh Book Fair. Pen America. (2017). https://pen.org/february-featured-case-violence-censorship-bangladesh-book-fair/

Franda, Marcus. (1982) Bangladesh The First Decade. India: South Asian Publishers, 1982

Heitzman, J., Worden, R. L., Library of Congress. Federal Research Division & Nyrop, R. F. (1989) Bangladesh: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress: For sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. G.P.O. [Online Text] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/89600298/.

Media Watch Reports on State of the Media in 1998. Ifex. (1998). https://www.ifex.org/bangladesh/1999/01/12/media_watch_reports_on_state_of/

Near v. Minnesota. (1931)

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. (1964)

Photojournalist shot and injured, journalists assaulted, newspaper offices attacked, vehicles burned. ifex. (1999). https://www.ifex.org/bangladesh/1999/02/11/photojournalist_shot_and_injured/

Shoesmith, Brian and Jude William Genilo. (2013). Bangladesh’s Changing Mediascape: From State Control to Market Forces. Chicago, IL: Intellect LTD, 2013

Shrestha, Nanda R. (2002). Nepal and Bangladesh: A Global Studies Handbook. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC CLIO Publishers, 2002

Snyder v. Phelps. (2011)

South Asia: Bangladesh. (2017, January 12). Retrieved March 12, 2017, from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/bg.html

The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. (1972) http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/print_sections_all.php?id=367

Van Schendel, Willem. (2009) A History of Bangladesh. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2009

This essay was last updated April 30, 2017.

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