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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 70
May 31 , 2008

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Law analysis

Freedom of speech and our rights

Mufassil M M Islam

We invented words to express ourselves and establish our mark in the world as the most civilised, rational and articulated living beings. We speak with words and even with various physical, portrayal and vivid expressions.

With the exchange of opinions we have made our world more developed and have learnt to exchange information. Laws have been invented to moderate our words when we express our views to other individuals and to the public at large. We even choose, elect and hire others to explain issues on our behalf. The freedom of choice to decipher information and the right to know them are our integral rights as social beings who are always hungry for knowledge. Information can enrich our clearer understandings, learning and formation of wisdom. It is the habit of the wise to remain equipped with opposing views and not to jump to conclusions over any apple of discord.

Freedom of Speech is a notion declared to be a right of all humans in Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 (Please refer to Preamble). It is recognised in our constitution. Constitution of the People's Republic of Bangladesh ensured freedom of speech and expression in Article 39 (1, 2).

Some reasonable restrictions found in this Article are as follows-
(a) Against the interest of security of the state
(b) Against the friendly relation with foreign states
(c) Violation of public order
(d) Violation of decency or morality
(e) Anything related to contempt of court
(f) Defamation or incitement to any offence

Hence, the freedom of speech is regulated by the peripherals of law for the greater benefit of the public as a whole. But it does not mean, freedom of speech cannot be exercised in categorical constructive manner, so that a friendly neighbour cannot be advised in case of serious errors in his judgements where his wrongs are affecting us through constructive dialogues with the help of think tanks. This Article of the constitution will be welcomed to deter unacceptable and blatant rebuking of anyone or of any other country or nation without the required level of well-founded facts and evidences.

Many wished to thwart our post-war rights to various issues against the Pakistan Government in the excuse of keeping friendly ties. I do not think a constructive and realistic dialogue with Pakistan with regard to repatriation of stranded Pakistanis, war-damages and other delicate issues at the national level within the very regulations of International Laws of discussions would have jeopardised our rebuilt relationship with Pakistan. Issues are there which include cross border civilian casualties between Bangladesh and India and the Rohinga and fishing issues with Myanmar. A more constructive discussion at the government level with the advice not only from the Advisors in the government but also from the think tanks of the nations would help alleviate the cold-feelings amongst the neighbours and will definitely help rebuild the relationships in the region. European Union has come a long way from the Hundred-Year War (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hundred_Years'_War) to rebuild a friendly zone keeping their individual entities in tact at the same time. We have to get rid of our 'not possible for us' attitude to move at a faster pace in the world order.

We have seen the abuse of freedom of speech in many examples around the world and we have supported and protested against the issues with and without really researching into the very publications with an open mind. Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses was the expression of a man who had pre-conceived ideas about Islam. But the best response the Muslims gave to that book was not that in the mass-violent protests in the streets but through the publication of the book Holy Verses from India with a scholarly acumen.

There will be people in the society, who will not agree with the simplest of logics and with the most sacred and there will always be people who will be out there to criticise and rebuke any issue but the best way to challenge any abuse of intellect is with intellect as well, because a suppressed unjust may raise curiosity as to its contents to be true rather than allowing it to face the intellectual challenges from the other side which may destroy the intellectual pillars of the unfounded works.

It is true that in most of the research works around the world, there will usually be a mark of its regional influence and an example of that is Whittaker's Book of World Facts (www.whitakersworld.com/default.asp) as the writer sets to write a book on important world facts and mentions a list of leading writers/ philosophers/ poets of all time but fails to mention Omar Khaiyam, Jalal-ad-Din Rumi and even fails to mention the impact the Islamic culture and science had between 750 CE and 1250 CE. Although the writer tried to justify his writing as not being comprehensive, yet this failure would mislead the readers unless mentioned at the forefront of the book that it was written from a Western perspective (even that is hard to justify) and hence, after several comprehensive communication between the publishers and librarians, I have now set myself to challenge the circulation of the book with a Public Interest Case as the public has the right to know the truth in an unambiguous manner as to facts of proven history. Mere shouting in the streets and agitating the public to show disgust would not serve the purpose.

The governments around the world formulates laws which are used to discipline the public and it is expected for the law-makers to keep the interests of the common people in mind and to reflect the public findings in their reading of Bills. We hardly find any examples of opposing viewers to hold healthy debates accessible to public, as they are not really equipped with the art of dialogues in many cases and embark on argumentative fiascos. If a law is being made which primarily affects the women of the country, I wonder why women of the opposing views do not hold dialogues accessible to the public so that we can make up our minds. There has to be a lack of knowledge about the opposing views and ideologies in this matter to keep the feuding sides apart. Holy Qur'an instructs us to call the opposing parties to dialogues (Sura Bakara on Burhan) and we are also aware that our beloved Prophet (PBUH) was in several cases in dialogue with his opposers. If we are concerned that government is engaged in any activity not in favour Islam, it is the failure of our clergymen to have not taught the true Islamic philosophy to the common people as the government was elected democratically. If the government is undemocratic and there is no right to freedom of speech, it will be the duly of the scholars to demand their rights to free speech. It is the time for intellectual battle and we have been taught over and over again that Holy Qur'an is the book for the Wise and we seek I'lm (wisdom) from Allah.

In Europe, there are several laws confirming the freedom of speech and the most mentionable one is the European Convention of Human Rights 1950 where Articles 9 and 10 deal with freedom of rights to thought, conscience and religion and freedom of expression. All these rights are interconnected. But even these rights have been curtailed and influenced by government media at times. We are aware that during and soon after the Second World War, many of the fundamental rights of UK citizens were curtailed by the British government and even now the Terrorism Act 2006 has set very stringent rules which to some experts curtail the freedom of expression of opinion by experts in the field. We have seen the media in the world exerting massive influence in forming our opinions for the media's particular leaning to a particular school of thought have always played as a salient teacher in influencing the public in their opinions.

Our country has much applaudable legislation but these legislations need updating. On the other hand mere updating of Acts and laws will not serve the purpose as the common people usually do not fight legal battles against established institutions and suffer. The updating of the Press Council Act or the amendment of regulations of the Bangladesh Bank for the commercial banks will not suffice unless we create an easier accessibility for the common people. In the developed countries, we do not expect a member of the public to go to courts for unresolved administrative error of judgement, as there are Ombudsmen and almost all the public service and consumer related businesses are subject to disciplinary bodies. For example, the OTELO (www.otelo.org.uk) for telephone related complaints, Independent Police Complaints Commission (www.ipcc.gov.uk) for complaints against the police, the Financial Ombudsmen Service (www.financial-ombudsman.org.uk) for complaints against banks and other financial institutions and the Press Complaints Commission (www.pcc.org.uk/) to take up complaints against unfounded press comments are there in UK. These institutions are independent and resolve many complaints. Lawyers and experts in the relevant fields staff these bodies, ensuring high customer care and accountability.

We, the Bangladeshis have always longed for freedom in all respects and we do expect our leaders, lawyers, journalists, teaching professionals, historians and religious leaders to respect our hard-earned freedom and deliver the truth to us keeping their commitment to the public as guides to the future and to keep our heads high at any cost and in any given circumstances.

The writer is Human Rights Advocate and CEO, Law Offices of Islam and Associates.


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