One 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