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Concern in Bangladesh over NGO regulation bill

The provision will give the government powers to shut down NGOs that make comments it seems are defamatory

Concern in Bangladesh over NGO regulation bill

The Bangladesh Parliament building in this file photo. A new bill in parliament aims to make it an offence for foreign-funded Non-Governmental Organizations to make 'derogatory' remarks about constitutional bodies. ( photo) reporter, Dhaka

October 18, 2016

A new bill in Bangladesh will make it an offence for foreign-funded Non-Governmental Organizations to make "inimical" and "derogatory" remarks about the constitution and constitutional bodies.

The bill passed on Oct. 5, empowers the country’s NGO Affairs Bureau to cancel or withhold the registration of foreign-funded NGOs or ban their activities.

More than a dozen national and international NGOs have voiced their opposition to the bill and urged President Abdul Hamid not to approve it, a requirement before it becomes law.

"This provision goes against democratic thinking and practice," said Sultana Kamal, a prominent rights activist.

The new provision might turn into a "tool of repression," said Theophil Nokrek, secretary of Catholic Bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission.

"The government is concerned and wants to put pressure on human rights groups and anti-corruption groups who are vocal against rights violations and corruption," Nokrek said.

He was also concerned that Christian development groups such as Caritas might lose out to the proposed law.

"The Catholic Church often doesn’t protest against unjust government actions directly but Caritas works for human rights and justice for downtrodden communities like the tribal people," Nokrek said. "There is scope for this poposed law to be exploited and used to threaten and harass Christian groups."

Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh, the country chapter of the Berlin-based watchdog, had similar concerns.

"This is absolutely disappointing," he said. "This provision doesn’t clearly articulate what actions would be deemed 'anti-state' or terms what would be considered 'indecent or derogatory.' So there is a huge scope for misinterpretation and abuse."

Many see the government's move as a stern response to a "mocking remark" made by Iftekharuzzaman on Oct. 25, 2015, during the launch of his organization's report.

He said the Bangladesh Parliament was a "puppet show" because they had no effective opposition and was formed by a largely uncontested and boycotted election in 2014. 

The comment enraged government ministers and parliamentarians, who leveled a series of tirades against Transparency International Bangladesh and called for its registration to be cancelled immediately.

Suranjit Sengupta, a ruling Awami League parliamentarian and chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs defended the proposed law in an interview with the BBC’s Bengali Service.

"Transparency International Bangladesh has made extremely derogatory remarks about the parliament," Sengupta said. "No country in the world would accept such attacks on its constitutional body. A country has some sovereign bodies which nobody has the right to defame."

"This law is not meant to control or squeeze NGOs as we are not against criticism but we won’t allow defamation. We will scrutinize whether a comment or an action is criticism or defamation before taking any action," he said.

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