What can be written and what can't

There are two reasons why I like Ananta Jalil. One, he is a self-made man. Two, he did not resort to any underhand means to establish himself. I have also heard of his philanthropy. I am not concerned about the merits or demerits of his acting or the degree of his social awareness.

Recently a certain statement of his created quite a furor. While talking about the reasons behind rape, he mentioned the manner in which women dress. This statement is wrong and unacceptable. This is evident in the despicable incidents of Subarnachar in Noakhali, MC College in Sylhet and also in Begumganj.

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Some of the criticism against his statement was justified. But I was rather taken aback at the shocking manner some people reacted. I wondered why these people were not so vocal against the actual criminals who are supporters, protectors and benefactors of the rapists. Why do they curb their criticism when it comes to these persons?

Actually most of us know the answer. The majority of the people in this country protest only when they feel it is safe. If they castigate Ananta Jalil to no end, there is no fear of facing any cases or assaults. But the patrons, protectors and benefactors of the rapists and other criminals (like bank looters and other corrupt persons) are extremely powerful. Standing up against them will only create problems. It is easier to display one's 'higher moral values' and 'progressive' mindset, by lashing out at Ananta Jalil, or against Shahed and GK Shamim after their arrest. I think this attitude works within many. We have changed from a nation of tigers to one of cats.

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I am not exonerating myself! There was a time when I sat to write my column for the newspapers, I would write whatever I had in mind, no holds barred. And whatever I wrote would be published. And now when I sit down to write, an exhaustive battle rages within me. I think whether this will instigate cases against me, whether that will be misinterpreted, and all the possible problems that may crop up. It is disheartening. I falter in my writing when I think, what's the point in writing if it can't be printed?

I think I am not the only one facing this predicament. After all, the persons whose writings I would eagerly devour around six or seven years ago, now write lacklustre watered-down columns. It is not just our freedom of expression, but our thought processes that are being restricted too, by various means.

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I think of the things what I can write and what I can't. The list of what I can't write is long. Yet these topics are important. Let me give the list in a somewhat veiled manner.

Up till 2013, one could write in the newspapers even against the most powerful Awami League leaders. I have written such articles that I cannot even imagine of doing now

A couple of days ago the home ministry issued a notice stating that false, misleading and provocative statements from home and abroad were being posted in the social media about the government, members of parliament, army officers, police officers and members of the law enforcement. It was said that action would be taken in keeping with the prevailing laws against those making such statements.

Measures should certainly be taken against anyone spreading false propaganda. But a neutral inquiry is required about how far these statements are false and how far these are true. If we are to write about this in details, there will be need for a certain amount of analysis, but I know this can't be done.

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We get further warnings from the government about writing or speaking. For example, a warning was issued during the anti-rape movement -- why was the movement demanding that the government step down?

Earlier, during the quota reforms movement and the safe roads movement, warnings were issued against a 'conspiracy' to instigate the fall of the government.

l want to write in context of the country's constitution and political movement, raising questions as to why a legitimate movement can't be launched against the government (or why the resignation of the government can't be demanded). But I know I will have to do that in a very subtle manner.

The list of what can't be written or said is inordinately long. Some cannot even be mentioned, such is the environment that prevails in the country. A month or so ago, Dr Shahdeen Malik, while speaking at a discussion, said that it has become impossible in this country to even mention the names of certain people. He was not lying.

If the government wants to bring a halt to rumours and fake news, it must allow the established media to function freely

Such a situation did not prevail in the country before 2014. From even 30 years before that I have been reading newspapers regularly. I do not remember anyone during the rule of any government, being so carefully skirted around in such a manner. Up till 2013, one could write in the newspapers even against the most powerful Awami League leaders. I have written such articles that I cannot even imagine of doing now.

There is nothing new to discuss about just how important is the free flow of information and free thinking. This is not important just for democracy, good governance and human rights. This also plays an important role in preventing rumours and false propaganda.

If an environment prevails for writing and speaking freely, people lose their interest in rumours and false propaganda. But if information and credible media is gagged, people turn to non-accountable sources such as Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube. These sources provide genuine news alongside news that is fake and dangerous too.

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And these sources are so open that these reach anyone, whether they want it or not. For example, an unknown person can post sensational or frightening news on WhatsApp or Messenger. The government cannot do anything about this other than shutting it down completely. No one will do this, other than countries like China or North Korea because then it would be impossible to save face among the international community.

So if the government wants to bring a halt to rumours and fake news, it must allow the established media to function freely. It must move away from wielding the law to control newspapers, radio and television. It must abstain from resorting to harassment. If it pushes the people away from the established media towards the uncontrolled social media, it may be dangerous for the government.

If the government realises all this, people won't have to be like timid cats. They will raise questions no matter how powerful the criminals may be. They will give their opinions freely, no matter how prickly the topic may be.

But is that what the government actually wants?

Asif Nazrul is a professor of law at Dhaka University. This column appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten here for the English version by Ayesha Kabir.