Bangladesh activists demand changes to restrictive law

Government offers bloggers punishment, not protection: critics
Bangladesh activists demand changes to restrictive law

Secular activists call for changes to restrictive law muzzling free speech. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)

More than 1,000 secularists, bloggers and writers marched onto the streets of Dhaka on Aug. 21, to demand changes to a restrictive law that they said would muzzle free speech and dissent against the government.

The Gonojagoron Moncho, or Public Uprising Forum, a national network of young activists campaigning for a secular Bangladesh and against religious extremism, organized the rally in response to the Aug. 16 arrest and interrogation of journalist Probir Sikdar that sparked massive public outrage.

Police in Faridpur district arrested Sikdar over a defamation charge filed by local government and rural development minister Mosharraf Hossain. The minister was angered by a recent report by Sikdar that accused the minister of grabbing Hindu properties.

The government was forced to release Sikdar on bail Aug. 20 following a series of protests by journalists and media workers.

Sikdar was arrested under a 2013 law that makes it illegal to publish any material over the Internet that would "deteriorate law and order," prejudice the image of the state or individual or defame religion. The law, part of the larger Information and Communication Technology Act, allows police to make an arrest without a warrant.

 

'The law needs to be rational'

Protesters said the law and subsequent arrest of Sikdar violated constitutional protections of freedom of thought and expression.

"From the beginning we have spoken against this 'black law' and expressed concerns that it would be abused and misused. Now, we see this is being used to abuse people and suppress free thinking," said Imran H. Sarkar, a blogger and Gonojagoron Moncho coordinator.

"This kind of repressive law can't be used in a democratic state and it goes against our constitution. It must be changed immediately," Sarkar added.

The law was used to arrest several bloggers, journalists and human rights activists over the past few years.

Secular writers and bloggers in Bangladesh face threats from both the government and religious extremists, says Ananya Azad, a secular blogger who fled to Germany in June after Islamic militants issued death threats.

"While religious extremists are out to hunt free thinkers, the government is haunting them with punishment instead of protection — as if they are criminals. If Bangladesh wants to remain a truly secular and democratic nation, it must drop the [law] immediately," Azad told ucanews.com via email.

Bishop Gervas Rozario of Rajshahi, president of the Catholic bishops' social communication commission, said the law was confusing and open to misuse.

"In the law it is unclear what is a crime and what is not. So, it can be easily misinterpreted and misused," Bishop Rozario told ucanews.com. "We respect laws, but we also believe in freedom of expression. A writer needs to be logical in writing, and the law needs to be rational as well."

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