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Freedom of Expression Is no License to Anarchy

Abdul Mannan

by tbhad

Like the word ‘democracy’ the definition of ‘human rights’ also changes from country to country. Unfortunately neither the United Nations nor the economically developed countries of the West could come to a conclusion about a universally accepted definition of the two terms. Burning a Holy Book like the Holy Qur’an is thought to be part of freedom of expression in some European countries and the US. Pastor Terry Jones announced that he would burn 2,998 copies of the Holy Qur’an in Florida to mark the 9/11 Twin Tower attack of 2001. He considered it as his way of protesting the incident. Large numbers of cheer leaders gathered to ‘enjoy’ the event scheduled for 11 September 2013. However law enforcing agencies arrested Jones before he could attempt this outrageous act. In the previous year Jones did burn the Holy Book and was fined only US$271, that too not for desecrating a Holy Book but for beginning a fire. In some Scandinavian countries like Norway and Sweden it is considered a legal right to burn a Holy Book. Such deplorable incidents happened in Norway and Sweden in January of 2023. The daily Guardian of London reported that one such incident in Stockholm was funded by a Journalist to create a sensation (The Guardian, 27 January 2023).

Last August a 70 year old Utah man in the USA was shot by FBI agents for threatening to kill US President Joe Biden. The threat was made on social media. In the US such killings are known as ‘justifiable homicide’. Ironically when such an incident happens in a country like Bangladesh US accuses the law enforcing agencies terming such killings as extra-judicial killing and slams a Visa ban or other sanctions on senior law enforcing officials.

Countries across the world are governed by their own laws and international covenants like the UN Charters. While formulating laws, countries consider their own history, heritage, common practices and on top of everything its sovereignty. On 17 September former French Prime Minister Edward Phillip (2017-2020) to ‘control’ the Muslims France should have a law and institution (The New Arab, 18 September 2023). Unfortunately the economically developed countries of the West often disregards the laws and sovereignty of other countries and for their own self-interest  or  to suit their own needs conveniently conclude that it is their right to invade,  occupy or destroy other countries, sometimes even disregarding  the UN decisions. In recent times these countries with few exceptions have turned their attention towards Bangladesh and outrageously feel it necessary to interfere in its  internal matters forgetting that Bangladesh is a sovereign country. Recently they have taken upon themselves the responsibility of ‘fixing democracy and human rights’ in Bangladesh without considering the status of these issues in their own countries.

The countries which have got into the habit of regularly preaching sermons on ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ in Bangladesh, unfortunately fail to distinguish the difference between certain issues. They often fail to distinguish the difference between ‘human rights’ and what is intentional spread of misinformation, lies and rumour. Recently a trial court in Bangladesh has convicted one Adilur Rahman Khan and his colleague Nasir Uddin Elan of ‘Odhikar’ a human rights organization for intentionally spreading misinformation for destabilizing the government and creating political tension and unrest  across the country putting human lives in danger. Adilur Rahman Khan was a former Deputy Attorney General during Begum Zia’s rule.  In 1994 he floated ‘Odhikar’ with funds from abroad. There is nothing wrong with floating such an organization in Bangladesh. But ‘Odhikar’ came into the limelight after they had their own version of the infamous 5 May Shapla Chattar incident of 2013 when thousands of religious bigots supported by some political parties like BNP, Jamaat and Jatiya Party attempted to take over nation’s capital through extreme violence and arson. Though they declared that their intention was to force the government to abolish the thirteen point ‘Women Development Policy’  their day long action was enough to prove it was an anarchy staged to destabilize the  government.

By midnight of 5 May the city-centre of Dhaka was completely taken over by Hefazati goons. A section of the nearby national mosque, Baitul Mukarram was set on fire, hundreds of copies of Holy Qur’an were burnt and shops looted. Number of vehicles parked around was torched. When the day-long mayhem was at its peak, the law enforcing agencies around midnight of 5 May had to intervene to stop the carnage. They used teargas shells, rubber bullets and sound grenades to disperse the unruly and violent mob. The operation lasted approximately two hours before the Hefazatis were flushed out of the area. From the morning of 5 May till the end of the operation, local and international media were broadcasting the unfolding events live. None of the media, whether print or electronic, reported any casualty on the spot though. Law enforcing agencies claimed that eleven persons including few members of the law enforcing agencies were killed when the armed goons clashed with them in the outskirts of Dhaka.

Once the Dhaka city centre was cleared, Hefazat began their premeditated campaign of spreading misinformation and rumour saying that it was a state sponsored ‘massacre’ that killed 2,500 people. This claim among others was endorsed by BNP and Jamaat. To reinforce this claim, even photographs of 2010 Haiti earthquake victims were used. Soon ‘Odhikar’ jumped on the bandwagon and supported the claim of Hefazat but neither Hefazat nor ‘Odhikar’ could come out with any credible evidence. On 10 June ‘Odhikar’ published a report saying that 61 Hefazat activists were killed on that fateful night though no list of the ‘victims’ was disclosed.  Not only the government but also a few other rights groups including the popular ‘Aim-o-Shalish Kendra’ requested ‘Odhikar’ to share their information with them which they refused. Even some renowned media contradicted the report. The  Daily Star reported 18 person died on that day. The Daily even found names of people dead earlier, kept in Dhaka Medical College Morgue included in the list. ‘Odhikar’  remained defiant on the issue of sharing their information compelling the law enforcing agencies to arrest Adilur Rahman and his colleague on 10 August and raided their office on the following day and recovered a list  that proved   not only to be  fake but also intentionally doctored. Later on enquiry it was revealed that those ‘Odhikar’ claimed were killed were very much alive and some listed even did not exist. Both Adilur and Elan were formally charged on 8 January, 2014 under the ICT Act (now Cyber Security Act). The trial of Adilur Rahman and his colleague was heard in an open trial court under the existing law of the country that lasted for ten years. The accused got all the due protection of the law and the sentence was announced. Those present during the sentencing included representatives from few international human rights organizations and members from some foreign missions which by any standard is unprecedented.

Adilur and his colleague were convicted for spreading misinformation and rumour with the intention of creating unrest in the country that would be harmful to religious and ethnic minorities including members of the general public. Sadly within 48 hours of passing judgment EU Parliament came out with a resolution demanding that the judgment against Adilur and Elan be quashed which is a gross interference in the judiciary of Bangladesh. This resolution was adopted within 48 hours of the conviction which is proof that it was premeditated.

Those who find that the convicted were punished for expressing their views are grossly misinformed. There is a sharp difference between ‘misinformation’ and ‘freedom of expression’. The European Union itself has Acts like ‘Digital Services Act of 2020 (revised)’ that acts as deterrence for spreading any sort of disinformation or misinformation for deceiving people or endangering public life. US Code 18 (35) clearly states, ‘Whoever imparts or conveys or causes to be imparted or conveyed false information, knowing the information to be false…shall be subject to a civil penalty of not more than US$1,000…or imprisoned (for) not more than five years, or both.’ Every country has similar laws as in the age of advanced information technology, it is easy to spread misinformation and rumour and cause public discomfort or endanger people’s life and property. It must be appreciated that ‘right to freedom of expression’ is not a right to create anarchy and unrest. It is true for any country in the West and Bangladesh too. In Bangladesh the concept of human rights has extended to such an extent that any political party can take permission from the government and announce datelines to unseat the government and kill the Head of the Government.  Such a misuse of ‘Freedom of Expression’ would be unthinkable anywhere in the world.

Bangladesh and countries of EU and US have had a long standing bilateral and multilateral relationship for decades that have benefitted all concerned. The economic and strategic ties have grown from stronger to stronger on a regular basis which should not be allowed to be weakened by actions based on incomplete information and facts. Countries should learn to respect each other’s sovereignty.


The writer is an analyst and a commentator

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