Rights and Justice Program
“Strengthening and Monitoring the Scenario of Freedom of Expression for Promoting Human Rights in Bangladesh”
Expressing one’s social, political and religious views in Bangladesh has become riskier than ever. A sweeping drift towards monitoring and striking down freedom of speech, particularly in digital space, is now unmistakably evident in Bangladesh. Journalists, bloggers and online activists are being categorically targeted by both extremist groups as well as the law enforcement agencies.
Since inception, the Bangladesh Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act was riddled with sweeping controversies and criticism. Enacted in 2006 and amended in 2013, the lCT act was full of gaping loopholes making it a perfect instrument to subvert online expression in Bangladesh. The ICT act was routinely used to suppress freedom of speech and harass writers, activists, and journalists, often for their comments on social media. According to the Cyber Tribunal in Dhaka, around 700 cases were filed under section 57 of the ICT act between 2013 – early 2017.
This ICT act later transformed into the Digital Security Act (DSA) of 2018 which is even broader than the law it replaced and violates the country’s international obligation to protect freedom of speech. Writers, bloggers, journalists, newspapers, TV channels, social-media-users of Bangladesh are directly affected by the adverse effects of the digital security act. The situation has created a condition wherein media and journalists live in constant fear of sanction of the Government for it can label anything they publish as unlawful under the DSA and thereby, subject to detention. This fear or mindset of deference compels news media to comply with the process of the practice of constitutionalism and pledging to ensure rule of law.
In 2107 year, violations of the right to freedom of expression in Bangladesh reached their highest point in five years, with 335 incidents, according figures released by international watchdog ARTICLE 19 in 2018. (May 2018, ARTICLE 19 report to mark World Press Freedom Day 2018).
• 335 violations of the right to freedom of expression in Bangladesh in 2017: this is the highest figure in five years.2
• The nature of violations is changing significantly: cases of legal harassment of communicators rose from 33 in 2013 to 169 in 2017;
• Of the 76 cases of legal harassment, 35 were initiated on grounds of defamation, 19 on false information, 14 on grounds of tarnishing the image of state or of individual, three on grounds of provocation, two on obscenity, and a further two for hurting religious sentiments.
• In 2017, there were 28 cases of serious bodily injury, 75 cases of minor assault, and 10 cases of abduction. In the 10 cases recorded, journalists were released after promising to refrain from publishing certain reports.
Reporters without Borders ranked Bangladesh at 146th out of 180 countries in its index of press freedom. Online activists and human rights defenders have reduced writing in both print and online media, as well as reducing their expression or posts on social media on topics related to freedom of expression, women’s rights, labor rights, indigenous peoples’ rights, freedom of religion and secularism.
Furthermore, censorship of digital content and communication medium, including blocks on YouTube, Face book, Skype and blogging platforms, has become rampant. ‘Freedom of expression and speech’ and ‘freedom of press’, as enshrined under article 39 of the Bangladesh Constitution, are qualified rights. Hence, the Digital Security Act is in a path of conflict with the Constitution of Bangladesh. Similarly, Bangladesh is a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The DSA is also in collision with article 19 of the UDHR which guarantees freedom of speech from all forms of censorship.
The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, particularly, SDG-16 asserts: “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all level.” Bangladesh government is committed to achieve SDGs by 2030. However, freedom of expression is widely restricted that sharply indicates that Bangladesh is violating fundamental freedoms and is not complying its commitment on SDG 16.
Strengthening Freedom of Expression Online
The Strengthening Freedom of Expression Online project helps to raise critical awareness among different stakeholders and to help organize capacity-building training and multi-stakeholder consultations for the rights to online freedom of expression by all citizens. Both activities address issues of privacy and freedom of expression in digitally connected spaces. Particularly we focus on most vulnerable sections of society to violations of online freedom and privacy.
Strengthening and Monitoring the Scenario of Freedom of Expression (FoE) for Promoting Human Rights in Bangladesh project issystematicallyanalyzing thelegal instruments affecting FoE in Bangladesh. Through the interventions of the project, in line with UN guidelines and directives; policymakers will be sensitized and media personnel will be equipped with adequate knowledge and skills on sensible reporting on violent extremism, peace and harmony, and human Rights.
The Surveillance and Freedom: Global Understanding and Rights Development (SAFEGUARD) is a collaborative research and advocacy project undertaking between Privacy International (PI) and VOICE for capacity building of civil society and other stakeholders in rights to freedom of expression and privacy. The program aims to enhance respect for human rights and the right to privacy in Bangladesh. The project includes research and policy engagement through dialogue, national consultations, capacity building workshops and multi-stakeholder consultations engaging concerned stakeholders including media, civil society, NGOs, professional bodies, companies, rights groups, and youth.
WOMEN RIGHTS, EMPOWERMENT AND GENDER BASED VIOLENCE /VAW PROGRAMME
Projects on GBV/VAW
Since inception, issues surrounding human rights have remained at the forefront and as a cross-cutting theme in all of VOICE’s initiatives. As a principle, VOICE continues working on gender rights through its different projects, such as, gender and climate change, gender and food sovereignty etc, and also gender rights issues are manifested through observing 16 Days Campaign on Violence against Women in a regular basis with or without donor funding since its beginning. As like every year, in 2020 VOICE developed an info-graph on Violence against women which was widely circulated and praised among the global networks. Moreover, VOICE is an active partner of Association on Progressive Communication (APC)’s and continues “Take back the Tech” campaign– on violence against the women which runs intensive activities on media and social media including twitter campaigns during the International observation of 16 days campaign. VOICE successfully implemented a few projects related to women’s rights and GBV and also on Human Rights reporting training with journalists and journalist forums since 2013.
In 2019, VOICE has completed a project on Violence against Women titled “Campaign for Action against Online Gender-Based Violence in Bangladesh” With the funding of APC/SIDA that highlights online violence against women.
In 2018, VOICE conducted a brief study on Gender Based Violence online titled “Cyber Violence against Women: The Case of Bangladesh” with the support of APC which was published in renowned genderit.org and praised globally; and the study was republished in VOICE’s newsletter EXCHANGE and was widely circulated among global networks.
From 2013-18, VOICE implemented a project on human rights and livelihood specifically focusing on women titled ‘Skill enhancement and livelihood security for the Rana plaza survivors’ funded by Beautiful Store Foundation (supported by KOICA). The project also upheld the rights of women workers.
Other than these specific experiences on VAW/GBV VOICE has accomplished a project titled “Strengthening and Monitoring the Scenario of Freedom of Expression for Promoting Human Rights in Bangladesh” with the support of UNDP from November 2019 to February 2021. A major element of the project was to provide trainings to journalists on human rights reporting and 100 journalists received the training in Mymensing and Jamalpur district on “Enhance Capacity of the Journalists on Human Rights” and “Defending freedom of expression and ensuring safety and security of Journalists”
In 2005 to 2008 VOICE implemented a project on women’s rights and empowerment through REFLECT approaches to facilitate women’s access and participation in decision making process in local government in Mymensingh district. The project also facilitate women’s literacy and access to food through building local seed houses.Regular activities on GBV/VAWVOICE regularly observes International Women’s day, 16 days campaign etc. through different events. And as part of regular activities media is monitored to document cases on Violence against women and the information is disseminated through VOICE’s dedicated website for VAW www.resistviolence.net which at the same time works as a data bank too. Additionally, VOICE regularly publishes its newsletter EXCHNAGE that highlights violence against women in particular. Moreover, as a relevant event VOICE regularly organize events to observe World Press Freedom Day in collaboration with journalists, media houses and journalist forums. Below is a highlight of VOICE’s observation of such days provided:
Observation of International Women’s Day 2021- Media Coverage
World Press Freedom Day – 3 May 2021
In observance of the World Press Freedom Day, the webinar titled `Information as a public good’ was jointly organized by six civil society organizations VOICE, Article 19, Internews, Forum for Freedom of Expression, Pen International-Bangladesh and Reporters San Frontiers (RSF). In the discussion journalists, rights activists and civil society representatives have urged the government to take appropriate measures to ensure freedom of press and demanded immediate removal of all restrictions on media and create an enabling environment for free and independent journalism. VOICE also worked on press freedom supported by UNESCO from 2005 to 2007.
World Press Freedom Day – 3 May 2020
VOICE hosted an online discussion in observance of the World Press Freedom Day while 2020 theme was “Journalism without Fear or Favour.”
International Human Rights Day – 10 December 2020
In observance of International Human Rights Day VOICE calls on the civil society actors to speak up to stop discrimination and ensure human rights of all irrespective of persons with disabilities. “STAND UP FOR HUMAN RIGHTS: BETTER RECOVERY” titled seminar was organized by VOICE to observe the Day at the auditorium of NGO Affairs Bureau, Dhaka.
Observation of 16 days Campaign 2020
Moreover, VOICE closely works with Journalists’ forums like Dhaka Reporters Unity (DRU), Law Reporters Forum (LRF), Economic Reporters Forum (ERF), and National and Local Press clubs on various issues ranging from gender rights, public heath, human rights and freedom of expression to environment and climate conservation.