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Statement on the situation of Freedom of Expression in Bangladesh

Tuesday 27 October 2015 - 1:35pm

The Assembly of Delegates of PEN International, meeting at its 81st World Congress in Québec City, Canada, 13th to 16th October 2015

October 2015 - PEN International is seriously concerned by the deteriorating climate for free expression which has accompanied the rise of religious fundamentalism, intolerance, and extremist violence in Bangladesh.  Tensions between secular and religious forces have redoubled and violence against dissenting voices has increased, with many perpetrators still at large. Political divides between the incumbent secular party Awami League, the rightwing Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party have widened.  Nationwide protests by fundamentalist Islamist groups have called for the execution of atheist bloggers and the creation of an anti-blasphemy law.

Despite Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s public statements that she will never give in to religious extremists,  she has also defended her government’s arrest of atheist bloggers, the banning of their websites, and the establishment of an intelligence panel to scan social media for potentially blasphemous content,  stating ‘If anybody tried to hurt any sentiments of any religion or any religious leader, there is a law. We can take any action.’  Section 295A of the Bangladeshi Penal Code and Article 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act threaten imprisonment for ‘hurting religious sentiments.’ These laws and policies contravene Bangladesh’s obligation to protect free expression under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)  and Article 39(2) of its own Constitution.  On 26 August, a writ petition was filed and a legal notice was also served asking the government to scrap Article 57 of the ICT, amid severe criticisms regarding its alleged abuse by the law enforcement agencies.

For years, Islamist extremist groups have been targeting secular bloggers and writers for assassination, conducting brutal murders with relative impunity. In 2013, the group Hefazat-e-Islam , which has claimed responsibility for several killings, publicly released a hit list of 84 ‘atheist bloggers.’ The murders follow a pattern, with their targets being hacked to death with machetes as perpetrators escape with little or no prosecution. Prominent blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider was murdered in 2013,  university professor AKM Shafiul Islam in 2014,  and bloggers Avijit Roy, Washiqur Raman,  and Ananta Bijoy Das  in 2015. Many other bloggers have received death threats or survived assassination attempts. Several have quit their jobs, stopped writing, or fled the country.  In January 2013, blogger Asif Mohiuddin survived a stabbing near his office in Dhaka. Two months later, he was arrested for posting ‘anti-religious’ content. In April 2014, he fled to Germany.  Pinkai Bhattacharya, a friend of Avijit Roy, said, ‘In Bangladesh the easiest target is an atheist. An atheist can be attacked and murdered.’

Certain actions of Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) have also raised free expression concerns. The ICT was established in 2010 to examine war crimes committed during the 1971 independence war. In December 2014, the ICT convicted British journalist David Bergman of contempt of court due to his writing examining the tribunal’s evidence.  The tribunal stated that ‘free expression can be exercised in good faith and public interest,’ but that Bergman had not fulfilled either of these requirements and had ‘hurt the feelings of the nation.’

After the verdict, 50 activists, writers, and academics signed a statement of concern about ‘the use of contempt of court law to curb freedom of expression’, regarding the ICT’s conviction of Bergman. In January 2015, the ICT demanded the signatories ‘explain’ their statement. One signatory had withdrawn her name just before the ICT made its demand, and subsequently, 26 other signatories issued apologies, while the remaining 23 signatories were charged with contempt of court. Of these, 22 were eventually exonerated, but one signatory was convicted, which the Tribunal justified by noting that he had previously been cautioned in an earlier contempt proceeding.  The ICT’s use of contempt of court charges against individuals expressing viewpoints that simply question or comment upon the ICT’s decisions creates a serious chilling effect on free expression in Bangladesh, sending a message that dissent will not be tolerated.


Bangladesh: the fourth murder of a secular blogger highlights continued need for better protection
International writers call for justice for bloggers murdered in Bangladesh
Resolution on Bangladesh passed at 81st World Congress in Québec City, Canada, 13th to 16th October 2015