Civic Space Protection
In Bangladesh Civil Society has played a very important and vibrant role however for last few years CSO voices is repressed due to authoritarian rule particularly the Civil and Human rights defenders, bloggers, writers, cartoonists, artists, filmmakers and media etc. UN Universal declaration of Human Rights and Constitution of Bangladesh allows citizens’ right of freedom of assembly and association and freedom of expression from both individual and collective point of view. However, for more than a decade one party rule in Bangladesh threatens the freedom of expression including freedom of press, freedom of assembly and association both online and offline. Human rights violations such as enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture and custodial deaths, targeted killings and mass arrest are a common phenomenon. For CSOs, there is an environment of fear and self-censorship in the country.
Bangladesh is committed to act on Busan document and principles and it is playing the role as one of co-chairs in GPEDC. However, CSOs space in the country is squeezing gradually and the Istanbul principles are not implementing properly. The State is aggressively framing laws and regulations curbing the rights of citizens. Included among those were the Special Powers Act, Printing Presses and Publications Act, sedition law, blasphemy law, defamation law etc. A plethora of laws legalizing wiretapping and regulating internet, NGOs and the media, including the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA), were enacted. Since the enactment of DSA nearly 2000 cases have been filed this includes more than 800 cases filed in the first 9 months of 2020 (Government’s Cyber Crime Tribunal). Very recently writer and columnist Md. Mostak Ahmed died in custody who were in prison under a DSA case and cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore were brutally tortured in custody who were also imprisoned under a DSA case just being vocal of government irregularities to handle COVID 19 situation. The securitization process adversely impacted on the people as their fundamental rights, including those of freedom of expression, press and assembly as well as academic freedom was substantially curtailed. And all these contributed to shrink civic space in the country.
The outbreak of Covid-19 has thrown further challenges to the enjoyment of human rights. State’s responses during Covid-19 led to further shrinking of rights to freedom of expression and ultimately squeeze the civic space. From the beginning of the pandemic, the government imposed restrictions on the free flow of news about the impact of Covid-19 and its handling of it. On March 25, 2020 the government issued a memo announcing the formation of a cell tasked to monitor if 30 private television channels spread misinformation and rumors. The following day, the remit of the cell was expanded to monitor if such misinformation is propagated in the social media. Towards the end of May, the media and publicity wing of police headquarters informed that Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission had announced the disbanding of 50 websites and launched an enquiry to check who are involved in the administering of 82 more social media accounts that spread rumors (Somoy TV). Among hundreds number university teachers were sued under DSA, the doctors, teachers and nurses were asked to refrain from engaging with the media without prior permission of the authorities.
The above narrative clearly demonstrates that the civic space allowing freedom of expression and individual and collective freedom is under threat in Bangladesh both online and offline. Restraints, censorship, sanction and retaliation by the state squeezed the civic space. The project will address to overcome the challenges and build an alliance and a new strategy to counter shrinking civic space.
VOICE with the support of ICNL, runs a project on Civic Space protection. Under the project, VOICE conducted a study on Shrinking Civic Space in Bangladesh and continued advocacy campaign to strengthen civil society to protect civic space during Covid-19. It also published infograph, case studies and poster and widely disseminated among stakeholders to raise awareness.