Labour MEPs: Bangladesh government must stand up to religious extremists and protect freedom of expression

The European Parliament today debated the grave situation in Bangladesh, with Labour MEPs calling on Dhaka to stand up to extremism and defend freedom of expression.

There is a deteriorating climate for free expression which has accompanied the rise of religious fundamentalism, intolerance, and extremist violence in Bangladesh. Atheist bloggers have been arrested, their websites have been banned, and the Bangladesh government has established an ‘intelligence panel’ to scan social media for potentially blasphemous content.

Labour MEPs believe that now more than ever it is vital the European Union stands up for and defends freedom of expression, from Saudi Arabia to Bangladesh, the world over.

Richard Howitt MEP, Labour’s European Parliament spokesperson on human rights, told MEPs:

“‘Secular writers, bloggers and publishers have been hacked to death in Bangladesh… No freedom of expression in Bangladesh,’ wrote Sakharov Prize winner Taslima Nasreen, when she heard about this debate.

“Here, she can have a voice, but in Bangladesh today such a voice risks being silenced for good. Unable to speak out anymore are slain bloggers Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman, Niloy Neel and Ananta Bijoy Das.

“Bangladesh ranked 12th on CPJ’s 2015 Impunity Index, which spotlights countries where journalists are murdered and their killers go unpunished.

“I’m proud that this resolution calls for independent investigations into such killings, but not resort to the death penalty in response. It is not just killings that prevent free speech – the government has criminalised criticism.”

Mr Howitt added:

“Section 57 of the ICT Act criminalised criticising Islamic religious views or reporting on human rights violations. I echo Amnesty International’s calls to repeal Section 57 so Bangladesh complies with its international human rights obligations.

“Last week the Bangladesh government banned Facebook and WhatsApp “indefinitely”, citing security reasons.

“George Orwell said: ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’

“The Bangladesh government, and the EEAS in their dealings with the government, must remember this.”

Neena Gill MEP, member of the European Parliament delegation for relations with Southeast Asia, told MEPs:

“The reason we have this urgency is because of the lack of freedom of expression in Bangladesh. The media clamp down, crack down on social media, attacks on secular thinkers and opposition, and shutting down of online platforms are a clear signal of repression.

“It’s concerning that violence is coming from two directions – radicalised groups as well as security forces. Western media have reported about the spread of radicalisation in Bangladesh, and threats issued by IS against the country.

“My message to the Bangladesh government is that there is no better weapon to guard a society from extremist violence than inclusiveness, democracy, respect for human rights, and freedom of speech.

“I would urge the government, led by the Awami League Party, to really heed this message. I know a significant step has been taken with the adoption of a zero tolerance policy towards human rights violations by enforcement agencies as well as a police reform act.

“But these measures really need to be implemented, and I urge the High Representative to support Bangladesh in these efforts, and equally, they need to convene a national dialogue that includes all democratic parties and civil society organisations.”