International Press Release
2 May 2017
The Bangladeshi government has not only
failed to protect dissenting voices or hold accountable the armed groups that
threaten them, it has also stifled freedom of expression through a slew of
repressive tactics and new laws, according to a new Amnesty International
report published today.
The report, Caught between fear and
repression: Attacks on freedom of expression in Bangladesh, documents how armed
groups have thrived in a climate of impunity, carrying out a high-profile spate
of killings of secular bloggers with few consequences. In four years, only a
single case has resulted in convictions.
Activists also regularly receive death
threats, forcing some of them to leave the country for their own safety, while
the authorities have refused to offer them protection.
Over the last year, the Bangladeshi
government has also intensified its crackdown on public debate and criticism,
harassing media workers, interfering with their work, and bringing criminal
charges against them under draconian laws.
“Between the violence of armed groups and
state repression of the state, secular voices in Bangladesh are being
consistently silenced. Not only is the government failing to protect people’s
freedom of expression, it has been blaming them for the threats they face and
criminalizing the work of bloggers and journalists through a slew of repressive
laws,” said Olof Blomqvist, Amnesty International’s Bangladesh researcher.
After the online activist Nazimuddin Samad
was hacked to death near his university campus in Dhaka in April 2016, the
government sought to blame the tragedy on him. The Home Minister Asaduzzaman
Khan Kamal said the police would scrutinize his writings for “objectionable”
content. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina denounced the work of secular
writers as “filthy words”.
In several other cases, activists told
Amnesty International the police refused to register their complaints about
threats they received. In other instances, the police suggested the victims
should leave the country, or even began harassing them for writing on “secular
One secular blogger, who received more than
a dozen death threats by phone and on social media, told Amnesty International:
“I made several attempts to get some help, but [to] my face they refused to
Meanwhile their attackers have been able to
enjoy almost complete impunity. Since the Awami League government was
re-elected in 2014, only one case resulted in convictions - eight alleged
members of Ansar al-Islam were found guilty in December 2015 for their role in
This has brought a climate of fear in
Bangladesh’s once-vibrant civil society, who now resorts to self-censorship.
Speaking to Amnesty International,
journalists described the repression as the worst they’ve endured since
Bangladesh returned to civilian rule in 1991. There are now “red lines” that,
journalists are careful not to cross. Few dare publish reports that may be
deemed critical of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina or her family, knowing that
they could be shut down without explanation or have pressure brought to bear on
“The Bangladeshi government treats
journalism as if it were a crime. Through imprisonment, threats, intimidation,
and constant interference in their work, Bangladesh’s government has done all
it can to silence critical voices in the media,” said Olaf Blomqvist.
The 2006 Information and Communications
Technology (ICT) Act, which carries a minimum sentence of seven years, is seen
as the principal instrument to muzzle critical voices in the country. Its
vaguely worded clauses empower the authorities to prosecute people “in the
interest of sovereignty, integrity or security of Bangladesh” or if they are
deemed to “prejudice the image of the State” or “hurt religious belief”.
The government has used the draconian law
to silence criticism in the media by bringing criminal charges against
journalists for simply doing their work. In December 2016, Nazmul Huda, a print
and television journalist, was arrested, viciously beaten in custody and then
charged under the ICT Act for covering protests by garment workers outside
In 2013, the government also used the ICT
to bring criminal charges against four secular bloggers for allegedly “hurting
Since 2013, several high-profile
journalists and editors have been subjected to politically-motivated criminal
charges. Most of them have been associated with media outlets that are critical
of the government or supportive of the political opposition.
One journalist told Amnesty International:
“The government has picked a few individuals to make examples out of. This has
been to instil fear in other media, to show what happens when you cross the
In one instance, Awami League supporters
filed a flurry of 83 politically motivated cases against Mahfuz Anam, editor of
Bangladesh’s The Daily Star newspaper.
Shafik Rahman, an elderly opposition
supporter and the editor of the weekly Mouchake Dil magazine, was held in
solitary confinement for over three weeks on a trumped-up charge of “conspiring
to abduct and assassinate” ruling party politician Sajib Wazed Joy.
Bangladesh’s authorities have frequently
invoked archaic, colonial-era criminal defamation and sedition laws against
The authorities are also now proposing new
laws, such as a Digital Security Act and Liberation War Denial Crimes Act. If
enacted, these laws would impose further restrictions on freedom of expression
by creating new criminal offences, sometimes using national security as a
“The crackdown on dissent and secular
thought in Bangladesh must end. The very first steps must include providing
protection to those who are threatened for raising their voices, and to repeal
or reform the draconian laws that are used to punish anyone voicing
inconvenient opinions,” said Olof