Saturday, March 28, 2009

Bangladesh blocking free expression

Bangladesh blocking free expression
By Rater Zonaki
Source: UPI Asia Online
March 26, 2009

Hong Kong, China — Freedom of expression and freedom of the media have become key issues around the world, especially with the advent of the Internet, which has broadened the opportunities for innumerable individuals, institutions and communities to express their views without restriction.

Bangladesh has not yet been able to connect the majority of its population with the Internet, however, because of outdated policies and practices. Corporations, non-government organizations and private institutions are more advanced in the use of information technologies than are public institutions.

Public officials are too lazy to check their email regularly. Sending an email to an official address is unlikely to get a response. On most occasions emails are bounced back to the sender.

There are three reasons that Internet communication is ineffective. First, a serious shortage of electricity means that local Internet servers cannot be maintained without interruption in many places. Secondly, the lack of computers with Internet access in many parts of the country means the habit of online communication has not taken hold in Bangladesh. Thirdly, an email does not carry a bribe to a public official, so there is no incentive to respond through this medium.

Moreover, many people who do have Internet access are not yet accustomed to checking their email even once a day. The sender of the message must inform the recipient by telephone to check the email if it is important.

At the same time, there is also a small group of people who cannot think of passing the day without checking their email.

During her election campaign Sheikh Hasina, who is now prime minister, pledged to build up a "digital Bangladesh." She has followed through on this by holding Internet conferences with activists of her party and selected citizens. But so far, the majority of the people can only hope that access to this modern technology with its ease of communication will be expanded to the whole nation, instead of only to politically chosen persons.

Journalists and the print and electronic media always come to the forefront to raise their voices on behalf of the voiceless persons everywhere in the world. The standard of freedom of expression in a country can be judged by its press and the protections afforded to journalists.

Since colonial times Bangladesh had been nourishing freedom of expression as a right belonging to its people. The media contributed immensely to the country’s independence movement and its quest for sovereignty. There were a number of journalists among the 3 million liberation martyrs.

In theory, according to the Constitution of Bangladesh, freedom of expression is enshrined as a fundamental right. However, in reality the opposite is true. Under every regime journalists have faced threats and intimidation and media have been subject to censorship. The atmosphere created in the country compels the media to practice self-censorship when it comes to reporting abuses of power by the armed forces and leaders of the ruling political parties.

In the past decade, a number of journalists who have failed to practice self-censorship have been victims of assassination. The families of these journalists are still waiting for justice; there are allegations that respective governments have provided impunity to the perpetrators of these crimes.

Prior to the parliamentary election in December, 2008, the Bangladeshis expected that an elected government would realize the importance of freedom of expression and protect those in the media. The Bangladesh Awami League also made its pledges in this regard. Ironically, after the election the government has been found reluctant to respect the rights of the press.

For example, the editor of an English national daily newspaper has been under threat for weeks for being too outspoken. His car was chased by six gunmen on two motorbikes in Dhaka on the evening of March 5. Luckily he was not in the car at the time; his driver escaped with his life by speeding off.

A complaint was registered with the local police concerning this incident, but the authorities have not been able to arrest any of the gunmen nor have they taken any initiative to protect the journalist. On the other hand, a politically powerful person reportedly suggested that the journalist "control" his views.

Bangladesh should be facilitating freedom of speech and encouraging its people to express their views independently, without fear or favor. If the conscientious segment of the country's population is held at gunpoint, the future is bleak for the nation and the aspirations of its people.

The government should not fail to protect the journalists who speak out for the ordinary voiceless people. It should extend to the people affordable information technology of the current century, and encourage its active use by public officials.

If the nation wants to achieve progress in terms of democracy and infrastructure, it needs more than just election pledges.

(Rater Zonaki is the pseudonym of a human rights defender based in Hong Kong, working at the Asian Human Rights Commission. He is a Bangladeshi national who has worked as a journalist and human rights activist in his country for more than a decade, and as editor of publications on human rights and socio-cultural issues.)

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