Addressing 200 publishers from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, IPA Director of Communications and Freedom to Publish, Ben Steward, stressed that the Bangladeshi authorities should focus on bringing the terrorists to justice, rather than criticising the secular output of publishers, writers and intellectuals who have been targeted.
In his speech, Steward said: ‘What we’re seeing is clearly a deliberate, organized attempt to spread terror and silence dissenters. The government should be unequivocal about that, and urgently reassess its approach to demonstrate that rule of law is paramount.’
Ben Steward explained that the IPA recently joined forces with 15 NGOs, including PEN Bangladesh, PEN International, and Reporters Without Borders, to urge the United Nations to do more about the country’s freedom of expression and freedom to publish performance.
‘The UN Human Rights Council — of which Bangladesh is a member — is currently meeting in Geneva for its 32nd sitting, which includes discussion of a statement that we have jointly submitted. That text asks the Human Rights Council to press to press the government of Bangladesh to take urgent, concrete steps to address the worsening conditions that are strangling freedom of expression in this country,’ he said.
He also urged Dhaka to revise its proposed Draft Education Act 2016, which recommends that publishing of unapproved ‘note and guide books’ be made a criminal offence punishable by up to six months in jail, or a 200,000 taka fine, or even both.
Steward said: ‘While the law’s intended purpose is to increase classroom efficiency, it actually risks doing the very opposite, and wreaking havoc — not only on the publishing sector, but on the education system, employment and the future of the Bangladeshi economy. The IPA firmly believes that education is a strategic resource, and that a healthy educational publishing industry is a vital asset to any democratic society, and an essential element of a competitive knowledge-based economy.’
The unprecedented Publishing in a Free World seminar was jointly organized by the National Book Centre of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and IPA member, the Academic and Creative Publishers Association of Bangladesh (ACPAB), at the Pan Pacific Sonargaon Hotel, in the Bangladeshi capital, on 23 – 24 June 2016.
Opening the conference, ACPAB President Osman Gani paid tribute to murdered secular publisher Faisal Abedin Deepan, who was hacked to death in October 2015, on the same day that Ahmedur ‘Tutul’ Chowdhury was also attacked by machete-wielding Islamist extremists.
Striking a defiant tone, he said: ‘Freethinking people are being murdered one after the other in the country. But publishers are the least daunted by this. We shall not bow our heads to these aggressively criminal forces.’
During his speech, the IPA’s Ben Steward read out a message from Tutul, saying: ‘If Jagriti Faisal Abedin Deepan were alive today, he would play an important role in this conference. But because he published free-thinking books, Islamist fundamentalists killed him. I urge all my publisher friends to continue to publish the works of free thinkers. I believe this is the best reply to the fundamentalists. By increasing the number of people that free-thinking books can reach, we’ll be able to weaken fundamentalism in Bangladesh.’
Tutul’s message also called for the immediate release of fellow Bangladeshi writer and publisher, Shamsuzzoha Manik, who has been held since 15 February on charges under Bangladesh’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, which criminalizes criticism of religion. He faces up to 14 years in prison.