At the Dhaka Literary Festival, Restrictions on Free Speech Will Be the Elephant in the Room

Given that it is in effect state sanctioned, the 'festival of writing' will not see discussions on the restrictive and censorious environment Bangladeshi writers are forced to work in.

Updated with a response from the organisers of the Dhaka Literary Festival

For English-speaking residents living in Bangladesh’s capital city, the Dhaka Literary Festival, which started on Thursday, has become a very welcome institution, bringing writers of all kinds – novelists, poets, historians and journalists – from all around the world to this bustling metropolis.

In a city where cultural opportunities of this kind are rare, there are few things more pleasant than to sip a latte in the gardens of the Bangla academy having just heard the quiet words of Nayantara Sahgal, about to hear the jestful opinions of Shobhaa De and needing to choose between listening in on the political view of Jon Snow or the quirkiness of writer Marcel Theroux – all speakers at the festival last year. Choices like this don’t come often to Dhaka.

Yet, whilst there are many positive aspects to this year’s festival, it is nonetheless a rather peculiar affair. This ‘festival of writing’ ignores the elephant in the room for Bangladeshi writers – the highly restrictive and censorious environment in which they are forced to work.

Unreasonable restrictions on the freedom of speech and writing have existed in Bangladesh under all regimes, but arguably since the country’s independence, under no previous non-military regime has freedom of expression become as restricted as it is now.

Newspapers have been closed down or curtailed. TV stations have been taken off air and talk shows controlled. Many editors, journalists and ordinary writers have been arrested and some remain in detention. Writing the wrong thing in Bangladesh can be dangerous.

The festival’s failure to engage with this issue is not necessarily the fault of the organisers.

In order to hold such an event, significant compromises no doubt need to be made – and not riling the government is one of them. While the organisers might not wish to acknowledge this, like many other civil society events in the country, this festival is in effect state sanctioned, with the government as a ‘special partner’ to the festival and not one but two ministers speaking at the inaugural session.

As a result, while there will no doubt quite rightly be mention at the festival of the seven atheist writers and their publishers killed by Islamic militants between February 2015 and April 2016, there will be very little (if any) mention of the longer term and more significant government restrictions on writing in Bangladesh.

Attacks on newspapers and editors

Just over a year ago, in August 2015, the army’s intelligence agency ordered the country’s largest companies to stop advertising in Prothom Alo and the Daily Star, Bangladesh’s most popular newspapers in Bangla and English respectively.

As a result, overnight the two papers lost about 30% of their advertising income, putting their very existence under threat. This unwritten and unlawful ban continues to this day, with reportedly over 20 companies ordered not to advertise in the papers.

The trigger for this ban was the publication of a story in both papers on the army’s killing of five men in the Chittagong Hill Tracts – but it is likely to really be about payback for the newspapers’ independent reporting on the failure of the ruling Awami League to hold free and fair elections in 2014 as well as the government perception that during the 2007-09 emergency government both papers had supported the removal of the two leaders of the country’s main political parties, including current prime minister Sheikh Hasina.

Such governmental action not only intimidates these two papers, but also the rest of the country’s media, none of whom dared to even report on the advertising ban.

And the attack on the Daily Star did not stop there.

Following an interview in February 2016 when the editor of the paper, Mahfuz Anam said that he regretted having published uncorroborated intelligence agency reports in the 2007-09 emergency period – a common practice of newspapers during that period which continues today in many papers – Hasina called for him to resign and her son (and chief communications advisor) called for his prosecution for treason.

Awami League activists then filed 62 cases of criminal defamation and 17 cases of sedition against Anam in 53 different courts in the country, requiring him to travel the country. Civil suits totalling £11.8 billion were also filed against him.

Such actions are far from anomalous. They follow earlier restrictive measures on newspapers and TV stations.

In April 2013, Mahmudur Rahman, the editor of Amar Desh, the main newspaper opposing the Awami League government, was arrested on charges involving criminal defamation in the publication of leaked transcripts of judicial conversations. The newspaper has not been able to publish since then and he remains in prison, with many other cases also filed against him.

A month later, in the wake of their coverage of the police action following the rally of the Islamic fundamentalist organisation Hefazet (where Human Rights Watch reported that “at least 58 people” were killed), two TV stations, Islamic TV and Diganta TV, were also forced to close and have not yet gone back on air.

And in January 2015, the police arrested Abdus Salam, the chairman of one of the most popular television stations, Ekushey TV (ETV) on charges of pornography. His arrest took place one day after the station carried a speech critical of the government and the country’s independence leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who is also the father of the prime minister, which was given by Tarique Rahman, a Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader and the son of former prime minister Khaleda Zia, who has been living in London since 2008. Salam remains in jail and his TV station has been taken over by a pro-government businessman.

Attacking journalists and other critics

There has also been direct prosecution of journalists and other individuals who have written critically about the government or its members, or in a way that the government dislikes.

The cases are mostly filed under the Information, Communication and Technology Act 2006, which allows a person to be prosecuted for publishing material online or in a digital form which is considered amongst other things to “prejudice the image of the State” or “a person”. This is very wide language, allowing the possibility of prosecution for any criticism of the government or its members.

On August 8 this year, three journalists belonging to an online newspaper were arrested for publishing a correction to a false rumour circulating on the internet relating to an air crash involving Hasina’s son.

A couple of weeks later, Dilip Roy, a student leader at Rajshai University was arrested  for writing ‘derogatory’ remarks about the prime minister and her policy on the establishment of a power station close to the Sundarban mangrove forest.

And a few days into September, Siddique Rahman, an editor of a specialist education website, was arrested for defaming a former senior educational bureaucrat who is the sister of a minister and is also married to a member of parliament.

Cases of this kind, which can result in heavy punishments, act as a significant deterrent effect for anyone who might seek to write critically about the government.

Indeed, two years ago, 25-year-old Tonmoy Malick, an electronics shop owner in the southern district of Khulna was sentenced to seven years in prison under the ICT Act for defaming Hasina.

Malick was accused of digitally storing and distributing a song that parodied Hasina and her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who led Bangladesh to independence in 1971 and is revered by many as a founding president. It included the lyrics “Sheikh Hasina and her father have sold out the country, they are causing damage to the country, they think the country belongs to them”.

New laws

As though the ICT Act 2006 was not enough, the government has enacted or is planning to enact a number of laws with further censoring provisions.

The Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act 2016, which was enacted in parliament last month without debate, allows the NGO bureau – a body that operates under the supervision of the prime minister’s office – the power to suspend the registration of an NGO or to close it down if it makes any “derogatory” remarks about the constitution or “constitutional bodies”. Constitutional bodies in Bangladesh include the parliament, the election commission, the comptroller and auditor general, the attorney general’s office, the public service commission and the judiciary.

“The clause in the law is a way of intimidating NGOs working on governance and human rights,” Iftekharuzzaman, the head of Transparency International, has said.

In addition, in late August the cabinet agreed in principle to enact the Digital Security Act that would make it an offence to spread ‘propaganda’ against the ‘spirit’ of the 1971 war that resulted in the country’s independence or against its independence leader Rahman.

The government is also considering enacting another law, the Bangladesh Liberation War (Denial, Distortion, Opposition) Crime, drafted by the Law Commission, that would criminalise the “inaccurate” representation of the 1971 war or any “malicious” statements in the press that “undermine any events” related to the war. “Propaganda about the trials that deals with these crimes” committed during the war would also be an offence.

Writing about the 1971 war or about the country’s independence leader – in the form of a novel, history or journalism – will become practically impossible unless ones follow the expected narrative of the government of the day.

And back to the festival

Ironically, of course, the festival does have sessions dealing directly with censorship in two other South Asian countries.

There is a session called ‘Can India speak?’ and another one dealing with the closure of the magazine Himal in Nepal. There is, however, no similar event dealing with the situation in Bangladesh.

So enjoy the festival. Gossip at the food court. Delight in the speakers. But don’t forget that there is a Bangladesh elephant out there that needs to be seen, talked about and confronted. And events like this festival of writing should not take the easy route and ignore it.

David Bergman is a writer based in Bangladesh. He also runs the Bangladesh Politico and Bangladesh War Crimes blogs. Follow him on @davidbangladesh


Dhaka Lit Fest clarifies:

The organisers of the Dhaka Lit Fest informed The Wire that the program included a number of panels on freedom of speech, such as “Words Under Siege” and “Literature: Everything Is Political.”

A Bangla panel titled “Ruddho-shor: Boltey Keno Mana” (Choked Voices: Why Stop Speech?) focused on the situation in Bangladesh and counted a blogger-at-risk among the panelists. The Ruddho-shor panel led to a “voice-vote” to repeal the dreaded Article 57 of the ICT Act. Discussions were entirely free, and criticisms of government and other quarters robust.

This year’s guests also included two high officials of PEN International.  Panels on communalism (Shamprodayikotar Epar O Opar) and small ethnic groups (Adi Kotha), and traditional forms of discourse (Pala Gaan and Baul Alaap) also afforded opportunities for dissenting views from different perspectives.

The full program, which included still more panels with room to discuss free expression at home or abroad (e.g. “What Not To Wear” or “Juddho Shesher Juddho” (The War After The War), can be seen here: http://dhakalitfest.com/programme.html.”

David Bergmann responds:

My article focused on the highly significant restrictions on all kinds of writing and journalism imposed by the Bangladesh government  – from advertising bans on newspapers, to imprisonment of editors, closing of TV stations, censorship of newspapers, new proposed legislation that would give even more censorship powers, and the imprisonment of journalists, bloggers and face-book users – and the failure of the Dhaka Literary Festival to engage appropriately with this issue. The article, written before the conference began, stated that ‘there will be very little (if any) mention’ at the event of this systemic censorship which would in effect be the ‘elephant’ in the room
In the end, though in one festival session there was some spirited discussion about section 57 of the ICT Act, there was as suggested ‘very little’ reference throughout the festival to the issues set out above and the reality of working as a writer/journalist etc in an environment highly censored by the government.
The panel on ‘Words under Siege’, was primarily about the situation internationally, and whilst there were indeed panels on ‘communalism’, ‘small ethnic groups’, ‘women’s clothing’ and on ‘war’, these were not panels dealing with government restrictions on writing.
My article referred to the many delights of the DLF, and this year was no exception. However, as the article says, this ‘festival of writing’ remained a ‘curious affair’ (perhaps understandably in light of its government sponsorship, its inauguration by two government ministers, and simply having to run in Bangladesh) totally failing to reflect the risks and dangers inherent in writing or saying the ‘wrong thing’ against the government or the country’s leaders.”