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free-speechOne after another curiosity-arousing stories on Bangladesh’s current state of free-speech kept on coming in the recent months. There was news where we learnt about editors of websites and newspapers being summoned by authorities. Talk show hosts were asked to explain their conversations with guests. And very recently, a young Jahangir Nagar University lecturer named Ruhul Khandakar got serious punishment for his Facebook status.

Some of the above news may make people from other parts of the world shiver. For us, the reaction is much more muted, since our country’s record of protecting free speech is not that stellar. Free speech remained tricky for us during all varieties of our governments — political, military, or bureaucratic. Now with this very recent event involving the Jahangir Nagar University lecturer, Bangladesh may even get a place in the Guinness Book of World Record for the first-ever trial of “sedition” stemming from time-wasting activities otherwise known as “Facebooking”.

It deserves mention that I absolutely have full faith and respect for the Bangladeshi government agencies, authorities, and of course, on the country’s judiciary. I truly want to believe that our judges are not only wise, but are of solid judgment and qualities.

I did read what that young lecturer of Jahangir Nagar University wrote in his Facebook status while in Australia on an educational leave. For avoidance of doubt, here is the full text of his Facebook status obtained from BBC Asia quoting AFP: “Tareq Masud died as a result of government giving license to unqualified drivers. Many die, why does not Sheikh Hasina die?”

It is clear that the young fellow’s writing lacked professionalism expected from a University faculty. The text was written purely out of anger and lacked proper judgment. In my personal view, this is nothing more than an “idiot” asking an irrelevant question. My personal views are, however, irrelevant here. The highest court of Bangladesh has already asked the government to bring “sedition charges” against this lecturer, besides pursuing several other measures and punishment.

Having full respect for all of the court directives, I would like to humbly mention that similar Facebook status would have been protected as free speech by the judiciary of various other countries of the world. A very basic tenet of strong democracy is that during times of struggle between the state vs. individual, the judiciary often has the responsibility to protect the individual on matters involving human rights and freedom of expression to the fullest extent possible. This honourable role of the judiciary protects individual liberty and freedom, which are often attacked by the powerful in almost all types of societies.

A few weeks ago in another incident our eminent citizen Nurul Kabir, a left-leaning Editor of the daily New Age had found himself in some “situation” with the judiciary. He was summoned to explain to Dhaka’s “International War Crime Tribunal” an article published in his newspaper. The article was written by a “foreigner Jamai” of Bangladesh named David Bergman. The word “jamai” was reportedly used by one of the honourable justices, since the British author is the husband of Barrister Sarah Hossain. According to news reports, the “Jamai” and his lawyers were willing to pursue a softer approach in their dealing with the tribunal judges.

It was not quite the case for the editor Nurul Kabir, who was more willing to take-on all the heat. News reports suggested, Nurul Kabir not only willingly took all the responsibilities for the published article, but also defended its views and context. Given that the issue is still under court proceedings and my coward heart is blessed with less pumping power than that of Nurul Kabir’s, I would stop discussing the matter right here. I still have one question, how many of our readers can correctly spell the name of the Daily Amar Desh editor Mahmudur Rahman?

There was another recent news item that appeared quite bizarre to me. The news stated that Zahid Hassan, a long lasting and popular actor/hero of Bangladesh got declared persona-non-grata by the student wing of the current ruling party in a northern district town of Bangladesh. There were processions and photo burning of the actor by the budding politicians-of-tomorrow. The actor’s folly was that he was acting in a drama serial titled “Tout Muzib”, where the title character is a “tout” or a fraudster. The drama reportedly had nothing to do with the famous man with whom it shared nominal linkage in its title. Zahid Hassan has already apologised and the name of the serial has changed to something else.

In sum, all of the examples above illustrate situations that ensued after a few individuals wrote, spoke, or performed acts of “free-speech”, as it is understood in various parts of the world. Now let’s revisit the Facebook status issue for one last time.

For argument’s sake, let’s accept that Ruhul Khandakar, the young lecturer, wrote a very dangerous thing in his Facebook status. But wasn’t his writing meant to be viewed only by his friends? Or did his profile have public access? Isn’t Facebook status generally meant for folks in someone’s friend list only? In that regard, how is this any different than cracking a vulgar or dangerous joke in front a group of friends in the drawing room? Are we now saying that what a person says to his friends in a casual manner can be used for bringing charges of sedition? Is our nation state in such grave danger that even a Facebook status of a man with less than few hundred friends on his Facebook can cause instability for the country or overthrow a government?

The respectable government authorities and judges of Bangladesh must know what is best for our country. For the rest of us it is perhaps more convenient to be simply idle, ignorant, and quiet.

Shafquat Rabbee is a freelance contributor who writes from New York, USA

16 Responses to “Curious case of free speech in Bangladesh”

  1. nasser

    The facebook comment of the JU teacher has seriously jeopardized our country and our democracy. Moreover he had the temerity of not coming to Bangladesh from Australia in spite of the court ruling. He has thus undermined our Judiciary. He should be extradited from Australia and after bringing him to Bangladesh he should be sentenced to life imprisonment. He can avoid death sentence as he made the comment in an interrogative sentence. Long live democracy.

    • navaar

      I believe your view is a tad bit extreme. I do not believe his comments jeopardize our country, nor our democracy. His comments certainly seem malicious, and should definitely spark a discussion on what constitutes freedom of speech.It is indeed a questionable act that he ignore the court ruling, for which he should perhaps face a penalty. Life imprisonment, in my opinion, is going too far though.

  2. Robert Imam

    You calling the man an “idiot” was somewhat of a deal breaker when reading your article! I have the same impression of you now… You have no right to lecture on ‘professionalilsm’. Trying to be a Bill O Reily here? Then its a different matter

  3. Yamuna Jamal

    Free speech or/and freedom speech are truly complex issues and probably, there is no standard equation to fit them all circumstances. We find only few people openly denounce free speech and many value it with idolatrous attention; but why?

    There could be two possible reasons; say (1) Psychological and (2) logical in nature. The psychological one is very simple; never underestimate the “Power of self deception”! These people strongly believe that they are the “true advocates and promoters” of free speech but strangely seek every available tool and opportunity to squelch speeches they dislike! They are blind to what they think, what they do, why they do it and the way they do it!

    The logical argument is a little comprehensive and critical; it comprises “when” free speech is appropriate and “when is not”. Many would agree that we need to suppress speeches only when those harm others; but then again, the same people have different opinion on “exactly when” free speech actually does harm to others resulting incipient disagreement or conflict on timing when a free speech can actually be restricted! The criteria of defining “harms” also has its own differentiating problems that brings the issue of ethics and morality, inviting ethical and moral disagreement. For example “Hate messages/speeches” against any race and groups or of religious beliefs etc., could cause expressive harms and thus should be restricted, is not always absolute.

    You must have heard this recent judicial complexity! A New Mexico man’s decision to lash out with a Billboard Advertisement, saying his ex-girlfriend had an abortion against his wishes has touched off a legal debate over free speech and privacy rights. The sign shows a 35-year-old Greg Fultz holding the outline of an infant and the text reads, “This would have been a picture of my 2-month old baby if the mother had decided to not killing our child!” Fultz’s ex-girlfriend has taken him to court for harassment and violation of her privacy. A domestic court official has recommended the billboard be removed. But Fultz’s attorney argues the order violates his client’s free speech rights! Interesting, isn’t it?

  4. Concerned

    Although we find it difficult at times to express our views and emotions properly through words, we all should try harder. It is ever more so for a social networking site like facebook. Having said that everyone should have the right to express their feelings — be it out of joy or sadness/frustration. I believe everyone should use this right sensibly being respectful to others.

    I find it hard to see how wishing someone was no longer alive be considered harmful to that person let alone being injurious to a country! It is just wishful thinking! I wish I could travel to Mars! Does this make me an astronaut? Or cause NASA to take up new space programs to send humans to Mars? The courts should keep themselves busy with real cases, not what people wishes on their facebook page! Otherwise, beware next we will see people being charged over political views expressed at tea stalls and restaurants!

    It was interesting to learn that the court found the JNU teacher guilty on contempt charges for not appearing before them, but did not rule on the original petition. With respect to facing the charge in person, who would have guaranteed security of the person upon his return?

  5. abdullah

    First, we should know the difference between freedom of speech and free speech. I can’t allow anyone in the facebook to call my parents a bad name; this is not freedom of speech.

    With freedom there lies the responsibilities. People should behave sensibly. People have no right to hurt the sentiment of other. I am against the harsh punishment given to the JNU professor, but at the same time I deplore the mentality of a highly educated professor, who doesn’t know how to communicate his feelings. The way he expressed his feelings no way matches his intellectual level (that is expected from a university professor). He played cheap.

  6. Joy Wahid

    Actually, in most countries making any threatening comment about the life of the head of state is a crime. If this person had written this on Facebook regarding President Obama, you can bet he would be behind bars for a long time.

  7. NA

    Of course, free speech is important. But so is an individual’s, judiciary’s and government’s right to punish someone for defamation, promotion of hatred and violence, etc.

    In article you mention “Some of the above news may make people from other parts of the world shiver” and “similar Facebook status would have been protected as free speech by the judiciary of various other countries of the world” insinuating that free speech is somehow treated as a different concept in the developed world. But Facebook statuses have already been used to convict two teenagers in the UK during the recent London unrest, and used in both the US and UK to deport and detain terror suspects.

    This article is an example of cheap, lazy and populist journalism that defends absolute free speech without proper analysis of its implication on a democratic society.

    • Shafquat Rabbee

      The London incident was different. There were vandalism involved and some youth urged others to join act of violence via Twitter and Facebook. They stole items from stores and bragged about that in Facebook/Twitter. The criminal intent was followed by criminal act. That is why some of those were sentenced. They were NOT sentenced for just writing some crap, but following through with act.

      I am by no means a fan of uncontrolled free-speech. No one should be. Slander, defamation, unprovable accusations etc are not free-speech, we all should agree. Does Ruhul Khandakar’s text fall under any of these?


      Shafquat Rabbee

      • akhtar shah

        Mr. Rabee you are spot on. Whilst majority of the comments on your piece are sensible and reasonable, I feel what’s being missed, is the actual point of “trying to control” people’s thoughts and expressions and acting like a big brother. Intolerance of another view!
        Whilst writing, one should not need to look out at all times for not upsetting the people in power. This stifles creative thinking.
        Decency at all times… it goes without saying!

  8. NazimFarhan

    Isn’t Mr Khandaker sentenced for contempt of court for not turning up in court despite a summon?

    Having said that, it is paramount that we protect our freedom of speech.

    “First they came for the communists,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
    Then they came for the trade unionists,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
    Then they came for the Jews,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
    Then they came for the Catholics,
    and I didn’t speak out because I was Protestant.
    Then they came for me
    and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

    ~ Martin Niemöller

    • abdullah

      Please don’t confuse between freedom of speech and free speech.

  9. Akhtar Shah

    Mr Rabbee, your muzzled writing makes a serious point. Reading it made me chuckle. Clearly one is unable to say what one actually wants to say in these types of articles. Shame. Any sound person would not want to write/express in a manner that may be seen as a “personal” attack or devoid of decency.

    The big BUT is, when one is a public persona, occasionally one has to step up to the plate and take the flack! One would hope, one is big enough and have thick skin and broad shoulders to simply not waste a nano second thinking over it. Flip side of this is, the adulation (fake or genuine) of millions of people!

    I personally think it’s all a bunkum and humbug!

  10. russel

    I for one can’t see any cause of sedition. The whole matter is ridiculous. Nevertheless the lecturer should be condemned for his act.

    Thanks Mr. Shafquat Rabbee for raising your voice over this.

  11. Michael Holding

    It reminds me of Pakistan’s self-style Field Marshal. He invented something called Basic Democracy to perpetuate his stay in power for eternity. He did not succeed. It’s a new form of free speech in Bangladesh. MODERATED Free Speech. All the free speech is allowed so long it does not hurt the ruling AL government. Any act to undermine the government, the “Father of the Nation” and whatever the current government considers “HOLY” would be considered seditious or blasphemous. Don’t you get it?

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