Freedom of expression is under a serious threat once again in Bangladesh, where four freethinkers have been brutally murdered within a month:
- On April 25th Xulhaz Mannan, a gay rights activist and an editor at LGBT magazine, Roopbaan, and a fellow activist and USAID employee Tanay Mojumdar were killed in Mannan’s apartment.
- On April 23rd Professor Rezaul Karim Siddique, an academic and cultural activist, was hacked to death by machete men in Rajshahi.
- Nazimuddin Samad, a law student, wrote critically on Islam on his Facebook page and was brutally murdered in Dhaka on April 7th.
In 2015, five secular bloggers, online activists, writers and publishers were killed in attacks. Among them was Avjit Roy, a founder of Bangladesh’s leading secular blog, Mukto-Mona.
These savage acts send a loud message of intimidation. There is a climate of silence, fear and extreme danger prevailing for secular people of Bangladesh. The recent trend of spiralling terror of radical Islamists against secular freethinkers and religious and sexual minority groups is highly alarming. It’s also unexpected from a secular country, which has a composite national identity and a long history of tolerance.
Since 1975, Bangladesh has gone through a religious transformation under two military rulers. After the student-led mass uprising in December 1990, Bangladesh entered into a new era of parliamentary democracy in 1991. But the democratic leaders made dangerous liaison with Islamist parties keeping in mind the electoral politics. As a result, Islamist narrative has gained leeway in democratic policy. The current government of Awami League came to power through a flawed election in 2014 that did not bear international standards. The election was conducted amidst the boycott of the main opposition party demanding installation of a credible election commission. The opposition was emboldened by tacit support of the Islamist groups. In the absence of a credible democratic environment and divisive politics, Islamists are flexing their muscles now. So far the country’s government has shown an utter failure in protecting secular voices who exercise their lawful right of free expression.
“The [Bangladeshi] government response has been shocking – at a speech to mark the Bangla New Year, while calling for tolerance, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed chose to criticise the vulnerable bloggers, saying it was not acceptable to write against religion, instead of warning the emboldened killers, who continue to act with impunity”, said Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.
A secular government in a democratic state can’t dictate its citizens what to write – it’s against the main principle of free speech, the fundamental cornerstone of a democratic society. What makes it particularly appalling is that the government is turning its back and showing clear unwillingness in protecting its own citizens, who represent the country’s brightest thinkers – those, who stand for education, equality, human rights and worry about the future of their country. This is unacceptable.
The current crisis in Bangladesh reflects the fight for the soul of the country. To be able to retain its secular identity and save its representative democratic institutions from falling in the hand of political Islamists the top Bangladeshi politicians must make a choice. It can only be possible through honest and open dialogue among major political parties of the country. Questions remain: can political leaders rise over their partisan and parochial interests? This requires courage and vision.
What the Nordic and Estonian PEN centres see is a crisis of a democracy and a country falling into a chaos. What we receive is desperate cries for help from the bloggers and freethinkers dreading for their lives. It is a heart aching, critical situation in which the Nordic and Estonian democracies and the international community must act together with Bangladesh’s government.
Unesco’s World Press Freedom Day is being celebrated in Helsinki, Finland, on May 3–4 2016. This is the time and place for the international community to reaffirm their commitment in defence of the right to freedom of expression, show support for the Bangladeshi freethinkers and discuss the ways of cooperation.
We, the Nordic and Estonian PEN centres, stand with secular freethinkers of Bangladesh in their right to freedom of expression as enshrined in our own charter and various global conventions including that of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
We urge Bangladesh government to:
- Protect secular bloggers, writers, publishers, academics and human rights activists from violent campaign of radical Islamist groups.
- Bring perpetrators of violence to justice and put end to the culture of impunity.
- Protect the space for freedom of expression in the country.
- Protect minority groups including religious and sexual minority groups and others.
- Take steps to arrange a credible national election in cooperation with all major political parties because in the absence of a proper democracy, undemocratic forces flourish.
We urge our own governments in Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden to:
- Find ways to protect freethinkers in Bangladesh.
- Offer more safe havens in our countries to those who are in a critical state.
- Support and ensure the democratic development in Bangladesh, and to build stronger diplomatic ties with the country.
Kätlin Kaldmaa, Eesti PEN – Estonian PEN
Sirpa Kähkönen, Suomen PEN – Finnish PEN
Ola Larsmo, Svenska P.E.N. – Swedish PEN
William Nygaard, Norsk P.E.N. – Norwegian PEN
Sjón, PEN á Íslandi – Icelandic PEN
Per Øhrgaard, Dansk PEN – Danish PEN
PEN, the worldwide association of writers, defends freedom of expression
according to its charter everywhere in the world.