Protecting Freedom of Expression in Bangladesh

Following is the English translation of the statement made by academics, writers, women?s rights, human rights and cultural activists, including freedom fighters, on December 18, 2014 regarding the conviction and sentencing of British journalist David Bergman by the International Crimes Tribunal-2, in Dhaka. The statement was published in Prothom Alo, the largest Bangla daily, the next day. One of the statement makers, Khushi Kabir, withdrew her name from the statement the following day.
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On January 14, 2015, the Tribunal served notice on the 49 statement makers asking them to explain their statement: ?Prima facie it appears that the core content of the ‘statement’ questions ‘transparency and openness’ of the judicial proceedings before the tribunal and also justification of the order sentencing a journalist [Bergman] for the act of scandalising the tribunal constituting the offence of contempt.?
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Over the next two months, 26 statement makers tendered in writing their ?unconditional apology? before the Tribunal. These were accepted as they ?upgraded the majesty of the Tribunal? (Order No 11, dated 18.03.2015), and the 26 were exonerated from further proceedings.
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The remaining 23, who had expressed their ?regret? for any inadvertent impression the Tribunal may have received about it?s ?authority and institutional dignity? having been belittled, have failed to satisfy the Tribunal as their explanation lacks ?true remorse and repentance.? And, in the eyes of the Tribunal, they have, on the contrary, sought to ?defend? their statement by citing the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution of Bangladesh.
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The Tribunal has now decided (Order No. 12, dated 1.04.2015) to initiate contempt proceedings against Masud Khan (consultant), Afsan Chowdhury (liberation war researcher, university teacher), Ziaur Rahman (lawyer), Hana Shams Ahmed (writer, rights activist), professor Anu Muhammad (university teacher), Anusheh Anadil (singer, rights activist), Muktasree Chakma Sathi (rights activist), Lubna Marium (cultural activist, freedom fighter), Farida Akhter (women?s rights activist), Shireen Huq (women?s rights activist), Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury (public health activist, freedom fighter), Ali Ahmed Ziauddin (freedom fighter), Rahnuma Ahmed (writer), Dr. Shahidul Alam (photographer), Dr. C. R. Abrar (university teacher), Dr. Bina D’ Costa (peace and conflict analyst), Mahmud Rahman (writer), Dr. Zarina Nahar Kabir (university teacher), Leesa Gazi (cultural activist), Shabnam Nadiya (writer), Nasrin Siraj Annie (anthropologist and film-maker, Tibra Ali (physicist), and Dr. Delwar Hussain (anthropologist).
 
If found guilty they face a fine or imprisonment of up to 1 year.
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Statement of Concern regarding Tribunal’s Contempt Judgment on David Bergman
We express our deep concern about the use of contempt of court law to curb freedom of expression and at the recent conviction and sentencing of journalist David Bergman by the International Crimes Tribunal 2 on charges of ?contempt of court?. We state firmly and unequivocally that those responsible for committing genocide and other international crimes during the Liberation War must be prosecuted and punished. We also believe that the process of accountability should be above reproach, and that this can be best done through ensuring an open and transparent process of justice.
We are aware that in his blogs, posted most recently two years ago, Bergman cited figures from published research on deaths and other casualties during the 1971 Liberation War. These were sent to amongst others a senior Tribunal prosecutor, the Tribunal investigation agency as well as an Additional Attorney General and did not elicit an adverse reaction from any of them.
We firmly believe that it falls within any person?s right to examine and comment on the differing historic narratives about the 1971 liberation war including the official ones and that all institutions including the judiciary should welcome a fair share of commentary and rigorous analysis. The number of killings carried out during the genocide by Pakistani forces and their collaborators, whether more or less, does not in any way diminish the truth that heinous and widespread war crimes were committed in 1971 – and, in any case, Bergman?s articles in no way seek to do that.
It is in the nature of scholarly practice that all histories, including 1971, should be subject to scrutiny, review and continuous verification. Even more so in cases where legitimate researchers and historians widely differ.
We are also particularly concerned about the portrayal by the Tribunal of David Bergman who worked on an award winning film documenting 1971 war crimes which was used as key evidence in the Tribunal?s own proceedings against Chowdhury Mueenuddin; and has written widely in support of the need for accountability and war crimes trials in relation to the liberation war.
We find the Tribunals? decision may have a stifling effect on freedom of expression with ramifications for journalists and other writers and hinder research and debate on the history of our War of Liberation. We also express our distress that no appeal is allowed against contempt orders of the court which undermines the very concept of due process and rule of law since appeal against any conviction is an integral part of fundamental rights. We urge and appeal to the authorities concerned to reform the contempt of court law as it is a relic of our colonial past that undermines the very spirit of Bangladesh?s glorious war of national liberation.

Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.” His recent book “The Tide Will Turn” published by Steidl in 2020, is listed in New York Time’s ‘Best Art Books of 2020’. Alam received the “International Press Freedom Award” for 2020 from ‘The Committee to Protect Journalists’.

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