Muzzling Speech in Bangladesh

The fine is modest, about $65, but the message from Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal is ominous: anyone who challenges — however legitimately, however respectfully — the official number of three million people killed during the 1971 Bangladesh war for independence is guilty of contempt of court. The tribunal was created to try persons responsible for violations of international law during the war. David Bergman, whom the tribunal found in contempt of court on Dec. 2 and fined the equivalent of $65, is a respected journalist who lives in Bangladesh. Mr. Bergman attracted the court’s ire by reporting, as any good journalist should, disagreements over the number killed during the war. Mr. Bergman has been unwavering in his position that, whatever the exact number — estimates range from 300,000 to three million — crimes against humanity were committed and those responsible should be held accountable. But this is not enough for Bangladesh’s tribunal, which tolerates no questioning of the official number.

The court accuses Mr. Bergman of disgracing and demeaning “the nation’s wishes and holy emotion.” The court is wrong. It is the court’s attack on free speech, legitimate journalism and historical inquiry that disgraces and demeans Bangladesh’s struggling democracy. Journalism is a dangerous profession in Bangladesh. Local journalists have been physically attacked, and even killed, for reports that the government or Islamist extremists found offensive. Human Rights Watch and reporters for The Economist magazine have also been tried for contempt by the tribunal. In fact, the tribunal has set the bar for journalistic inquiry so low, and defined its terms so vaguely, that anyone who says or writes anything deemed to be offensive by the court’s arcane and arbitrary criteria is at risk of criminal charges. The result is a deep chill on freedom of expression and inquiry.

Citizens and residents of Bangladesh also have a right to an informed opinion and to express views that are fairly critical of official dictates. Journalists and scholars must be able to engage in legitimate inquiry into Bangladesh’s historical record without fear of punishment. If justice is truly what the International Crimes Tribunal seeks, it should immediately overturn Mr. Bergman’s sentence and conviction.


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