The price of free speech in Bangladesh

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In February this year the authorities in Bangladesh took Shamsuzzoha Manik, a 73-year-old publisher, into custody for publishing a book titled “Islam Bitorko” (“Debate on Islam”). His arrest and the shutting down of his stall marked a sour moment in the nation’s largest book fair, Ekushey Boi Mela, held annually at Bangla Academy in honor of the International Mother Language Day. While the book, deemed to be offensive to Islam, has been taken out of circulation, seven months later the publisher remains behind bars.

Manik’s imprisonment adds to a series of recent attacks on freedom of expression in the country, which have included a number of killings perpetrated by extremist groups. There are laws that allow the government to ban or confiscate any publication that may be considered blasphemous. The law extends to any form of publication — in print or online — and led to the arrest of four bloggers in 2013 for “hurting religious sentiments” with their blog posts. Self and state-censorship coupled with lack of protection for writers at risk have meant free speech and freedom to publish are in dire straits.

Bangladesh is not unique in facing the threat of terrorism, which is now a global issue, but it is sadly the only country where writers and publishers are specifically on the hit lists of the killers.


Free speech in the country, however, is not new to scrutiny and undermining. In 1973, poet Daud Haider was taken into “protective custody” after one of his poems — critical of religious beliefs — brought him death threats. Two months later Haider was asked to leave the country and consequently became a stateless person in neighboring India, until he managed to leave for Germany where he resides to this day. During his exile, some of the great American writers, including Susan Sontag, Kurt Vonnegut and Sharon Olds, supported his case.

Throughout the ’90s, there have been several others who faced various degrees of intimidation and threats for speaking and writing their views, most notably Taslima Nasreen, a writer in exile with a number of her books banned in the country; and one of the leading Bangla poets, Shamsur Rahman, who was attacked in his home in early 1999.

It was, however, a fatal attack on Humayun Azad, a well-known writer and a professor of Dhaka University, which proved to be a turning point in the nature of threats against writers in Bangladesh. This was in February 2004, and machetes came out against the pen. Five years before the attack on Azad, Ahmed Sharif, another scholar of Bangla literature, had died after leading a peaceful life, in spite of his many controversial remarks on Islam. Azad and Sharif may have had similarly outspoken atheist views, but their fates were so different in the end.

So what had changed between the ’90s and the early 2000s? Apart from the increasing Islamist intolerance in the country, which was helped by a new government in power with strong alliance with the Islamic fundamentalists, a spate of Bangladeshi writers found the blogosphere a wonderful space to express their views. Bloggers felt a sense of freedom online to participate in conversations spanning all kinds of topics, ranging from cultural to socio-political. One of the Internet communities of free thinkers and rationalists that gained early popularity was Mukto-Mona, founded in 2001 by Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi-American online activist. In February 2015 Roy was hacked to death during the Ekushey Boi Mela.

Today that space is rapidly shrinking. Bloggers in Bangladesh face a twofold blow: a draconian Internet law that can be used by the authorities against them at any time, and the ominous threats from extremist groups that monitor the blogs and social media networks. Those threats extended to an array of independent publishing houses that were born in the last decade.

Authorities with the body of Faisal Arefin Deepan, a secular publisher killed in a 2015 machete attack at his office.
Authorities with the body of Faisal Arefin Deepan, a secular publisher killed in a 2015 machete attack at his office.
(A.M. Ahad / Associated Press )

Among the new generation of publishers, Ahmedur Rashid Tutul, who survived a brutal machete attack in his Dhaka office in 2015, is now in exile in Norway. At a round table jointly organized by English PEN and PEN International this summer in London, Tutul expressed his concerns for the safety of handful of remaining publishers that would publish critical, noncommercial books. Since the loss of Faisal Arefin Dipon, a publisher who was hacked to death on the same day Tutul was attacked, the publishing community are not willing to take risks and writers, too, are aware of either not choosing or avoiding certain topics that may be considered sensitive. “In essence, the environment for independent publishing is sadly not there anymore,” Tutul said.

The attacks on the bloggers and publishers have also affected Dhaka Literary Festival (previously Hay Festival Dhaka), of which I’m one of the three directors. Now in its sixth year and the largest international literary gathering in Bangladesh, the festival — a nonprofit entity — doesn’t require tickets for entry. The idea is to encourage the younger generation to attend and be part of the dialogues and panels that are programmed both in Bangla and English. In support of the event, leading writers and journalists came from all over the world to the capital, Dhaka.

But in 2015, the festival had to cope with 19 international speakers pulling out at the last minute, all citing security fears. Travel advisories issued by foreign embassies and high commissions had strongly recommended not traveling to Bangladesh. Those international travel advisories have grown more severe since the July 1 attack in the Holey Artisan Bakery café. It was the worst terrorist attack in Bangladesh’s history: five militants killed 20 hostages, which included 18 foreigners, and two policemen. Situated in an affluent neighborhood of the city, the café was popular with the expat community. The attack, soon claimed by Islamic State, was clearly targeted at foreigners. It is inevitable that the travel advisories, since July, are stating the possibility of further terrorist attacks in the country.

Although a similar threat level applies to many European cities, Dhaka – by virtue of its location and being a relatively unknown quantity among the world’s capitals – is prone to suffer significantly more. In the short run, it has become a less attractive destination for foreign investors and visitors. Like last year, it will possibly affect the number of international speakers attending the Dhaka Literary Festival in November. To expect writers to be any more courageous than others would be unfair. However, in spite of the assurance of state-level security, it remains a struggle to convince some of the writers to come to Dhaka. On this point, it is important to note that to this date no terrorist attack in Bangladesh has breached even minimal state-level security, something that cannot be said about many of the Western cities that suffered in recent times.

Not surprisingly, there have been calls to postpone or cancel the literary festival this year. The local literary community members feel stifled but they are keen to come together, as they realize the need for hosting such events is now higher than ever. The festival stands as one of the few creative and intellectual spaces for literary expression in the country, and the only one curated with an international program. Last year, in spite of the cancellations, 51 writers and journalists from 14 countries attended the festival, along with local writers, some of whose names have been on the “hit list” as declared by the killers.


Nonetheless, the literary conversations need to be happening throughout the year, and without fear.

On a positive note, the government has pledged its support, as it did last year, to ensure a smooth running of the festival in November. In addition, since the July 1 attack, we have seen commendable efforts to root out extremist groups, including successful raids, and measures to strengthen domestic security. These are highly applaudable steps, though one hopes the government would take a similar attitude with regards to free speech and freedom to publish in the country.

For now the price for those remains ridiculously high: imprisonment or death.

Ahsan Akbar is a writer and director of Dhaka Literary Festival. He divides his time between Dhaka and London, and is currently at work on a novel. Twitter: @kobial