‘Freedom of expression should not be criminalised’

Freedom of expression should not be criminalised, but the opposite prevails in Bangladesh. Free expression is integral to democracy, but the space for such expression is steadily shrinking, observed discussants at a seminar in the capital city on Sunday.

Organised by the Norwegian embassy in Dhaka, the seminar bearing title ‘Henrik Ibsen and Freedom of Speech’ was addressed, among others, by Norwegian ambassador Sidsel Bleken, Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) director Sara Hossain, professor of English at Dhaka University Fakrul Alam and professor Ahmed Ahsan of Khulna University.

Article 21 director Tahmina Rahman moderated the programme.

The speakers found a parallel to Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s search for freedom of thought and expression, in the today’s circumstances.

In Bangladesh, this was all the more pertinent, given certain trends and events that affected artistic expression, the media, human rights, freedom of speech and other fundamental rights.

“We should have no illusions about the shrinking space of freedom of expression in the country,” said BLAST director and human rights activist Sara Hossain.

“While free expression should not be criminalised, the exact opposite is happening here. Even a child’s sketch of Bangabandhu led to a case against the government officer who had arranged the drawing contest.”

She said it was not just the British laws or the Pakistan laws that had curbed freedom of speech in the country, but the post-colonial laws of independent Bangladesh itself too.

“Our constitution upholds freedom of expression, but it has its limitations too. Such freedoms are curbed when it comes to state security, public order, certain leaders particularly if they are in power, countries with whom we have friendly relations, and so on.

“But the one which stands out most and we are all familiar with Article 57 [of ICT law]. It is being said that this article will be repealed, but there is no call for any relief, as it will merely be replaced,” Sara added.

Professor Fakhruzzaman referred to the writings of Henrik Ibsen, saying the writer was popular in Bangladesh because of the timeless appeal of the issues with which he dealt – freedom of speech, women’s rights, power play in the name of religion and so on. Ibsen advocated free thought.

Professor Ahmed Ahsan of Khulna University highlighted a recent exhibition of art based on Ibsen’s works, held at the university.

Ambassador Sidsel Bleken spoke about Ibsen and how his works reflected the importance of freedom of expression.

Vice chancellor of Khulna University Mohammed Fayek Uzzaman made the closing remarks and presented ambassador Bleken with two paintings done by the university students on Henrik Ibsen.

Source: Prothom Alo


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