Tougher laws choke civil society independence in Bangladesh

Association 

The authorities in Bangladesh continue to target civil society, most recently through draconian legislation designed to undermine the sector's independence. On 4th October, parliament passed an amendment to the widely-criticised Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Bill (FDRB). The law strengthens the government's power to revoke CSO licenses for a variety of offences, including defamation, involvement in subversive activities and terrorist financing. The law also permits authorities to arbitrarily interfere with and overly regulate the work of civic groups. CSOs now need to gain mandatory approval from the NGO Affairs Bureau before implementing foreign-funded projects; despite vague and unclear reasoning as to why approval might be rejected. Many feel that the law's vague provisions will prevent critical voices from speaking out because of a fear of reprisals, thus undermining the freedoms of association and expression. In a recent press statement, CIVICUS stated: 

'Worryingly, the law endows government officials with broad powers to sanction civil society groups which are critical of the state or its policies and imposes arbitrary restrictions on access to vital funding to engage in sustainable development activities.'

Repression of opposition voices continues unabated in Bangladesh. Local rights group, Odhikar reported that between August and November at least 26 people have been disappeared and as many as 69 people have been extrajudicially killed. Sources on the ground allege that in many instances these human rights abuses were perpetrated by security forces.   

Harassment of the minority Santal community has also increased recently. In late November, the community came under attack over a long running land dispute with the government. The Santal community had attempted to reclaim their land after they were evicted by security forces. Mobs, reportedly backed by police, violently attacked the community. Five community members went missing after the clashes erupted and at least two have been confirmed dead. The footage below highlights the plight of this indigenous minority community. 

Expression

Many fear that conditions for journalists are reaching breaking point in Bangladesh. In a recent crackdown, the authorities shut down pro-opposition electronic and print media, including Channel 1, Diganta TV, Islamic TV and the daily Amar Desh. Thirty-five web portals were also shut down by the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission on 4th August. 

Between August and November, 12 journalists were injured and four were assaulted. In addition, the editor-in-chief of news portal Dainikshiksha, Siddiqur Rahman Khan was detained by the cybercrime unit on the charges of publishing 'fictitious, false, and shameful' news. Khan was later released on bail. 

Peaceful Assembly

While conditions for civic activism are often suppressed by authorities, people in Bangladesh have used their right to gather peacefully in order to further a range of social causes. Recent mobilisations have focussed on anti-radicalisation initiatives, education issues and environmental concerns. Despite some protests taking place peacefully, many have been blocked or disrupted by security forces.  

Political gatherings and protests led by the political opposition are particularly targetted, and systematically denied permission to proceed by the government. In the latest example of this trend, on 4th November an opposition party was denied permission to organise a mass gathering. 

In another example of state interference in peaceful protest, on the 30th September a group of environmental activists and students organised a bicycle rally against a proposed plan to set up a power-plant near the Sundarbans. The peaceful rally was blocked by members of a student union affiliated to the government and the mobilisation was subsequently dispersed by security forces using water cannon. The protest formed part of a broader campaign to prevent a coal-fired power station being built next to the world's largest mangrove forest; a location that could devastate the delicate local ecosystem. The protest group, consisting of students, left-leaning political groups and environmental activists came under intense criticism for organising a press conferences and repeatedly coordinating peaceful rallies and demonstrations. Security forces in Bangladesh have a well documented history of using excessive force to prevent protests. 

On 28th August, students at Jagannath University protested and boycotted classes in order to call for residential halls to be provided. During the student's procession to the university campus, they were intercepted by nother group of student activists from the ruling party. The resulting clashes left 25 students injured.

Some recent protests have taken place peacefully and without incident. On 3rd September, students across Bangladesh held rallies to raise awareness of anti-militancy programmes against terrorism. Organisers of the protests aimed to build social cohesion to confront the issue of radicalisation in educational institutions. The event engaged teachers, students, guardians, community leaders and journalists in building sensitivity to the drivers of youth militancy in Bangladesh.