In Bangladesh and a few other places, your opinion may not only unwelcome but also punishable by law.
On August 5, the Bangladeshi government arrested Shahidul Alam, an award-winning photographer and a contributor at Fair Observer. Alam was charged under the International Communication and Technology Act, designed to prevent and punish actions that “deteriorate” law and order, “prejudice the image of the state or person,” or “hurt religious beliefs.”
According to the police, Alam’s crime appears to be expressing his “opinion” in interviews with the media, including Al Jazeera, which the authorities are apparently calling propaganda. Police official Moshiur Rahman summed up the nature of the allegations: “He has been brought to our office early this morning [Monday]. We are interrogating him for giving false information to different media and for provocative comments. And he could not give proper answers. He admitted that these are his personal opinion.”
The problem with having an opinion
Al Jazeera lists what many believe are the incriminating “opinions” for which Alam had no “proper answers.” Alam had commented on the ongoing protests in Bangladesh over road safety that, according to NDTV, have “left more than 100 injured as police fired tear gas and rubber bullets, and mobs attacked demonstrators, photographers and even the US ambassador’s car.” According to Al Jazeera, Alam offered the opinion that the “demonstrators were driven by ‘larger’ factors than road safety alone and highlighted ‘the looting of the banks, the gaggling of the media, the extrajudicial killings, disappearings, bribery and corruption.’”
Another of Alam’s unfounded personal opinions was his statement that, “Today [Sunday] the police specifically asked for help from armed goons to combat unarmed students demanding safe roads.” He added, “The government has miscalculated. It thought that fear and repression would be enough but you cannot tame an entire nation in this manner.”
The Bangladeshi government claims that Alam’s comments were “provocative,” which in itself is a dangerous term to use because it is meant to suggest “provoking disorder,” which is obviously negative. But provocative can also refer to provoking thought or laughter, usually considered innocent activities, at least in cultures where independent thought is encouraged or at the very least tolerated.
A problem of civilization
Our entire civilization seems to be dealing with the two separate questions concerning public expression. The first has become a leitmotiv in the media and for the media: What is real news? What is fake news? And what is opinion? Is it real, fake or something in between? The second question is more subtle: What forms of expression and what messages are allowed to communicate?
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) August 6, 2018
The West has officially enshrined freedom of opinion and the expression of opinion as a basic inalienable right. Even so, in the past, not only has opinion been repressed in many Western democracies, but in times of stress so have certain words that connote “provocative” ideas. This is true even in the United States, where the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of expression.
During World War I, sauerkraut was renamed “liberty cabbage,” just as George W. Bush, after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, insisted on renaming French fries “freedom fries,” not because France was the enemy (it wasn’t) but because French President Jacques Chirac chose to opt out of the “coalition of the willing.” At the same time, Bush affirmed that either “you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
More seriously, the reign of political correctness has led to social rather than legal punishment of some expressions of opinion. The most recent victims in the news have been American TV actor Roseanne Barr and Disney director James Gunn. A word in a tweet now has the potential to end some people’s careers. Their punishment is social and private. It comes from the people and from employers who follow the ratings, not from the government.
Then there is the case of American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was ostracized by the entire class of team owners not for his words but his silent gesture, which US President Donald Trump “provocatively” condemned.
The obvious difference with Bangladesh’s initiative is that in one case it’s the government and in the others a vague, democratic form of social pressure, though Trump’s attack on Kaepernick seemed to blur that line. At the same time, it’s worth noting that South Carolina has just passed a law equating criticism of Israel in schools and colleges with anti-Semitism, which actually goes well beyond Bangladesh’s actions by incriminating the expression of opinion of another nation altogether.
The Labour Party in the UK is undergoing a similar drama largely attributable to individuals — but not the party itself — who expressed their feelings about the politics and influence of Israel, which in some cases did take on what could be interpreted as an anti-Semitic tone. Now, the Labour Party has been taken to task for not endorsing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, which contains ambiguous and, from a historical point of view, highly debatable propositions.
In the coming days, we will learn more about Shahidul Alam’s fate and the Bangladeshi government’s handling of a crisis that has continued to degenerate, with or without his expression of opinion.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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