Intolerant govts

Shafik Rehman, a well-known pro-opposition magazine editor in Bangladesh was arrested this month for sedition

Kamal Siddiqi April 25, 2016
The writer is Editor of The Express Tribune

Shafik Rehman, an 81-year-old well-known pro-opposition magazine editor in Bangladesh was arrested this month for sedition and his alleged involvement in an abduction plot of Prime  Minister Sheikh Hasina’s son in the US last year.

The editor of popular Bengali monthly magazine Mouchake Dhil he had worked as a speech-writer for former prime minister Khaleda Zia. Rehman was approached by three men in plain clothes who identified themselves as reporters and asked to accompany them. He was taken to a police station where he was arrested on the basis of a sedition case lodged in Dhaka last year.

Shafik Rehman is the third pro-opposition journalist to have been arrested by the government. Two other journalists associated with Bangladesh’s leading Bengali and English newspapers have also been booked for defamation and sedition. In his case, Shafik shot to fame for his criticism of the government during General H M Ershad’s dictatorship in his weekly column after becoming editor of Jaijaidin in the 1980s. Things are not looking good for the media.

Two writers were hacked to death with machetes on the streets of Dhaka during a six-week period this year. Avijit Roy was murdered on the evening of Feb. 15, as he and his wife were leaving a book fair in the capital. On the morning of March 30, Washikur Rahman Babu, an occasional blogger, was attacked as he walked to work.

While radicals have threatened freedom of speech in Bangladesh, the main threat comes from restrictive laws and an intolerant government. It is feared that Pakistan is following the same path. We have seen strains of intolerance in India and other countries in the region too.

In Bangladesh, a political crisis has been brewing for long. The ruling party no longer accepts the legitimacy of the main opposition party. It has described actions of opposition party leaders as tantamount to terrorism.  Over the last few years, the opposition has been significantly weakened by criminal cases filed against the top leadership and others.

In light of these developments, opposition supporters and those who take a political middle ground are increasingly at risk if they criticise the government. The same is also applied to any media house that is critical of the government.

One sign of the growing intolerance towards dissent and unorthodox views in Bangladesh has been its use of section 57 of the Information, Communication and Technology Act of 2006, also known as the ICT Act. This is somewhat similar to the Cyber Crimes Bill that our parliament is planning to pass in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, in Nepal, things are also going from bad to worse. The country’s anti-graft body this month arrested publisher, editor and journalist Kanak Mani Dixit from his Lalitpur-based residence. Dixit is the publisher of Himal Media, a reputed publication house that publishes Himal South Asia, Nepali Times and Himal Khabar Patrika (in Nepali language). He is also a columnist for many international media outlets. He was arrested, ironically, by the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA).

Dixit, also a vocal human rights defender, is chairman of Sajha Yatayat, a state-run transportation company that is finally becoming a profitable venture. Though the exact reason behind the arrest has not been revealed by the CIAA, it is claimed his explanation to the authority about property details was found unsatisfactory.

After the CIAA served a notice around five months ago about accumulation of property, a tussle between Dixit and the CIAA surfaced. Dixit has termed his arrest arbitrary and contempt of court. He told reporters after the arrest that it was a vendetta against him by CIAA chief Karki.

Kanak was very vocal against the appointment of Lok Man Singh Karki as Chief Commissioner of the Commission given his corruption and how unpopular he was during his time as chief secretary.

An earlier investigation had declared Karki unfit for any government position and it is widely held that his appointment as CIAA chief despite this declaration is due to Indian pressure. Kanak has continued to be vocal against Karki and also against the Indian economic blockade of Nepal. If we continue to silence the media, who will be there to speak for the people?

Published in The Express Tribune, April 25th,  2016.

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