Free speech in Bangladesh is under attack as never before, held hostage between angry, machete-wielding radicals on one hand and a government, quick to take offence, on the other.
Four bloggers have been murdered this year by religious extremists for promoting secularism, a principle which these groups consider to be anti-Islam. Following the killing of blogger Nilroy Neel earlier this month, Ansar Al Islam, an insurgent group linked to Al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility, saying they had the “permission of Allah” and warning of further attacks. While police were aware of threats to Nilroy Neel and the other slain bloggers, they failed to properly protect them.
A reasonable government would have swiftly condemned these murders, and tried to hunt down the attackers. Instead the police’s first instinct was to urge self-censorship, with Bangladesh’s inspector general of police, AkM Shahidul Hoque, warning that “hurting religious sentiments is a crime.” It took more than a week for police to arrest three suspects in Nilroy Neel’s murder, despite the alleged perpetrators’ identities being known to the police.
The police chief’s comments were shocking, but not surprising, because Bangladeshi authorities are increasingly cracking down on freedom of expression.
Just this week, the journalist Probir Sikdar was arrested by the dreaded Detective Branch, a specialist police intelligence unit, for his Facebook posts accusing a cabinet minister and other politicians of committing war crimes during the country’s war for independence. The prosecutor said Sikdar had “cast aspersion on the minister using information technology”.
Last week, a Bangladesh court sentenced IT lecturer Muhammad Ruhul Amin Khandaker in absentia to three years in prison for a 2011 Facebook post on the death of an acclaimed Bangladeshi filmmaker in a road accident, blaming politicians for not ensuring road safety and wondering how the prime minister was spared such mishaps. For this remark, judges found him guilty of sedition.
And just two weeks ago the police issued a statement criticizing two prominent human rights groups for reporting on extrajudicial executions and other abuses by security forces, saying any activity that harms the police reputation amounts to defamation, and can be considered subversive.
Bangladesh needs to change course, adopt international standards, and uphold constitutional freedoms, and do it fast. Because as long as authorities continue to crush free speech, those who speak out risk losing their lives.