Speaking out Makes of You a Target - Human Rights Defenders and Journalists at Risk

The FIDH issues today a report on freedom of expression and association in Bangladesh, titled “Speaking out Makes of You a Target - Human Rights Defenders and Journalists at Risk”.

The report shows a pattern of grave violations of freedom of expression and association in Bangladesh. Those freedoms are arbitrarily restricted as soon as journalists, NGOs, academics, etc. cross the "red line"; sensitive issues are views perceived as inimical to the government, or information regarding political violence, minorities, religious groups or corruption.

Freedom of expression is restricted on politicized grounds on the basis of several pieces of stringent legislation. The public advertisement system and the control over the access to fair priced paper/newsprint for the media publications are used to financially pressurize media considered to be close to the opposition.

The very partisan public atmosphere prevailing in Bangladesh certainly does not help in this regard, as newspapers and media outlets (and this holds true of NGOs as well) are informally categorised as "pro-Awami" or "pro-BNP", making them easy targets when a government led by the opposing party takes power. Human Rights and development NGOs that are considered as "pro-Awami" are, under the current government, clearly targeted through lengthy checks and controls which do not result in any substantiated claim against the NGOs concerned. As a consequence, funding of a number of those NGOs has been blocked by the authorities, sometimes since more than two years. In that regard, some progress have been achieved in the first half of 2005 notably under international pressure.

Journalists are frequently threatened, intimidated or physically assaulted in the course of their work. There is a recent tendency among government representatives to belittle journalists in their public speeches, thereby denigrating them and exposing them to further harassment, including by non-State actors. In 2004, four journalists were killed in connection with their work. Attacks are often alleged to come from extremist Islamic groups; those attacks generally remain unpunished.

In addition, a number of human rights defenders were victims of judicial harassment, including arbitrary arrest, and those involved on women rights and the rights of minorities were particularly targeted.

The FIDH and the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (a joint programme of FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture - OMCT) issue a series of recommendations to the authorities of Bangladesh, notably:

- to put an end to any act of violence and any kind of harassment, including legal persecution, against journalists and human rights defenders
- to stop making public statements denigrating human rights defenders and journalists and, on the contrary, assert clearly and publicly that independent media, independent NGOs and a vibrant civil society are crucial elements of any democracy
- to enquire fully and independently into all allegations of attacks against human rights defenders and journalists, including when the alleged perpetrators are officials or non-State actors
- to screen the domestic legislation in order to bring it in conformity with the international human rights instruments binding on Bangladesh
- to establish the national human rights institution foreseen in the 1999 legislation
- to extend a standing invitation to the Thematic Special Procedures of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights
- to conform with UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders adopted by the UN General Assembly on 9th December 1998.
“We hope that this report will contribute to a better understanding of the restrictions on freedom of expression and association in Bangladesh; we also hope that it will condone the development of a more favourable climate for civil society’s activities in Bangladesh”, concluded Sidiki Kaba, President of the FIDH.

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