This weekend’s arrest of Mahfuza Akhter Kiron shows how Bangladesh is increasingly turning into an authoritarian state in which baseless allegations of insulting the prime minister can lead to someone being jailed.
Kiron, who leads the women’s wing of the Bangladesh Football Federation and is a Council member of the world footballing body FIFA, was arrested on March 16 on claims she had defamed Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed. In an audio recording broadcast by Ekattor TV on March 8, Kiron allegedly said that the prime minister promotes cricket over football, and that the Bangladesh Cricket Board received more state support than the Bangladesh Football Federation.
But the routine grumbling of a sports official soon turned into yet another example of Bangladesh’s arbitrary crackdown on free speech. Kiron was arrested after a local sport official lodged a complaint about her “derogatory remarks against the prime minister.” Initially denied bail, Kiron was jailed for three days until her conditional release on March 19. However, she can still face a criminal investigation and possible charges for her remarks.
Kiron’s arrest made international headlines, which perhaps helped secure her swift freedom. But Human Rights Watch has documented numerous other cases where people remained in custody for weeks, even months, for simply posting, “liking,” or “sharing” a social media post about the prime minister or her family members. Others face arrest under criminal defamation laws.
These arrests have a chilling effect on free speech, particularly on political dissent. The renowned activist and photographer Shahidul Alam was arrested in August 2018 and imprisoned for 102 days under the country’s Information and Communication Technology Act, a law so misused that even the government agreed to revoke it.
But its replacement, the new Digital Security Act passed in October 2018, in some ways increases restrictions on free speech. Journalists complain that the law effectively prohibits investigative journalism.
Bangladesh should stop stifling freedom of expression. Already accused of winning the recent general election through unfair means, Sheikh Hasina’s government should realize that every unfair arrest, from Shahidul Alam to Mahfuza Kiron, only serves to further tarnish Bangladesh’s reputation.