Is there any democracy without freedom of speech?

  1. Introduction

Freedom of speech within a country represents the inherent right of every individual to be at the liberty to express their thoughts without any fear of retribution, while the word “democracy” comes from a Greek word that directly translates to “the power of the people”. The United Nations states that, democracy exists where there is an environment in which human rights and fundamental freedoms are respected, and where people are free to express their will in choosing their decision-makers and also in holding them accountable. When these rights are taken away from the citizens of a country, it is as though power is directly snatched from their hands. Bangladesh is a country that is suffering from such a contradictory regime. Despite guaranteeing the right to this freedom in its constitution, the Bangladeshi authority published the Digital Security Act (DSA) 2018, which essentially prohibits any ordinary citizen from exercising the right to freedom of expression when directed negatively towards the government.  

Center of Governance Studies (CGS), a research institute based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, along with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) have taken the initiative to document the cases filed under the DSA 2018. They have several projects in process, all of which are centered around spreading awareness about international human rights regulations regarding freedom of speech and forcing nations to abide by them. Nonetheless, a policy change is in order to tackle human rights violations that the people of Bangladesh are being subjected to at the moment. 

In order to understand the breach of law and regime type, it is necessary to understand the differences in regime types. Countries around the world are often categorised as either democratic and non-democratic, yet underneath this formal definition, their regime types stay hidden. The popularly used term ‘hybrid regime’ does little justice to the layers in their governance. In many cases, the word “hybrid” means to be in the process of democratization (Levitsky & Way, 2002). While for some countries it may be the other way around, like in the case of Bangladesh where democracy seems to be backsliding (Riaz, 2019). The objective is then to point out the factors that showcase the characteristics that put them under a clear democratic region. 

2.1 Background

According to Levitsky and Way (2002), there are three paths through which a country may find competitive authoritarianism. One is when established authoritarian regimes have to decay under domestic and international pressure and settle on a corrupted form of democracy in order to keep up with old habits. The second path is after the collapse of an authoritarian regime after which the countries emerge with a new competitive authoritarian regime. Finally, the third pathway is the decay of a democratic regime, where political and economic crises led governments to undermine democratic institutions but not so much as to get rid of them altogether. This was the path believed to be taken by Bangladesh. 

Moreover, as a regime, a modern democracy exists when a country meets four criteria: (i) fair elections, (ii) equal voting rights, (iii) rightful authority to govern, and (iv) political and civil liberties, including freedom of speech, press and association (Levitsky & Way, 2002). Despite being documented as a democratic regime, when a country fails to meet these minimum standards of democracy, it is fair to say that the country no longer practices democracy. A type of hybrid regime in particular that is known to violate these principles is called a competitive authoritarian regime. Competitive authoritarian rulers often suppress the news media from publishing anything against them through restrictive press laws and harassment such as threats, manipulation of debts and taxes, and bribery, breaching the fundamental human right of free speech again (Levitsky & Way, 2002). 

The People’s Republic of Bangladesh, from the very beginning of its independence from Pakistan in 1972, has included the right of free speech in Article 39 of its constitution. Article 39 allows the people of Bangladesh to have freedom of speech as long as their thoughts and ideas do not cross over with the list of restrictions mentioned. The two statements in itself are contradictory (Centre for Governance Studies, 2021). Yet, they could stand for reasonable belief given the speech and advocacies of an individual were to impose direct threat to the nation’s well-being. However, in 2006, the government approved the Information & Communication Technology (ICT) Act, with the aim of preventing cyber crimes, as Section 57 mentions, “Punishment for publishing fake, obscene or defaming information in electronic form”. The section states that if any individual were to publish any fake or defamatory material (considered by the government) in an electronic form, they could be punished with imprisonment or by fine. Under Act 27 journalists and a few hundred bloggers and Facebook users were detained in 2017 (Ataulla & Yildirim, 2021, p. 78). Although they were given a court hearing, more often than not, the journalists were ordered to be arrested immediately. Later when the journalists demanded amendment of the said article, the government finalized the Digital Security Act (DSA) 2018, which was far more strict and merciless. Specifically, Acts 8, 21, 25, 28, 29, 31, 32 and 43, hold the law that any publication or transmission online that could hold offensive, false or defamatory content would result in a minimum of 3 years imprisonment, and a second violation would lead to another imprisonment of almost double the time (Azad, 2021). Although Article 39 of the Constitution limited free speech, Article 43 protected the correspondence of citizens. However, with DSA 2018, the police may now arrest anyone from the safety of their homes without a warrant, if found suspicious or guilty. 

2.2 Case Studies

One of the few recent cases that portrayed the contradiction in freedom of speech includes the well renowned photographer journalist, Shaidul Alam, who stood for an interview with the news channel Al Jazeera, and was taken in with the charge of “online speech for hurting the image of the state”, in 2018. The event happened during the student protest that took place in Dhaka where students took over the streets demanding the improvement of road safety regulations after two university going students tragically lost their lives in road accidents (Ataulla & Yildirim, 2021). Alam went on air to criticise the actions taken by the government against the protesters and its failure in handling the situation which resulted in him being taken from his home and thrown in jail for 107 days (Almond, n.d.). 

In another case, Mushtaq Ahmed, a writer and columnist, published an article scrutinising the lack of defensive gear for specialists’ doctors during the COVID-19 pandemic. This article resulted in his imprisonment in May 2020, under the DSA 2018, and eventually his death in February 2021 inside a high security prison (Ataulla & Yildirim, 2021). Mushtaq was denied bail six times in less than a year. 

In June 2020, a teenager studying in 9th grade was arrested for a Facebook post allegedly defaming Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The case was filed by a political leader under the DSA, after which the boy was sent to the Juvenile Correction Centre in Gazipur (“9th Grader Arrested in DSA Case, Accused of Defaming PM,” 2020). 

Shafiqul Islam Kajol, another leading Bangladeshi photojournalist and newspaper editor went missing in March 2020, after similar defamation charges were filed against him by a ruling party lawmaker. His son Monorom Polok spoke up at a press conference saying, “We don’t think my father went missing on his own. We suspect he may have been abducted” (Made for minds , n.d.). After 53 days of enforced disappearance, Kajol was found and jailed for 7 months before being released by bail, after being denied 7 times (Islam & Yousuf, 2021). 

Odhikar, a local human rights organisation, documented at least 34 incidents of such disappearances, 8 of whom were found dead, and others arrested or still missing. Many similar cases surfaced in the year of 2020, summing up to 1135 individuals captured alone, as reported by the police headquarters themself (Asaduzzaman, 2020). These numbers include many journalists, cartoonists, even minors of 15 years of age that decided to share their views on their Facebook page (“Bangladesh: Repeal Abusive Law Used in Crackdown on Critics,” 2020). Where the duty of a nation is to protect children from harm, a law such as the DSA is doing just the opposite. Amnesty International called on these matters and demanded Bangladesh to put an end to the wave of repression in the country, and the government must promptly amend the draconian DSA in compliance with international human rights law (Amnesty International, 2020).  

Looking at all the evidence presented, it is clear that the laws have been implemented to not only suppress cybercrimes but also the freedom of speech of the regular citizens as well as journalists. Concerned by the mountain of cases and the lack of proper evidence against the victims, AM Amin Uddin, the president of Supreme Court Bar Association stated, “An amendment has to be brought here. A provision has to be included creating an opportunity to take legal action against the plaintiff if the allegation is not proved, he suggested. Otherwise, people being accused in this case will suffer” (Asaduzzaman, 2020). If criticising results in people being charged with sedition, then it harms the essential element of democracy (Asif, 2015).

2.3 Global Standing

As of 2022, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) listed Bangladesh as 162nd out of 180 countries in the Press Free Index, which was a drop of 10 places from its previous position of 152nd in the previous year. Despite being democratic on paper and in words, Bangladesh is labelled by Freedom House Index as a ‘Partly Free’ nation, holding a score as low as 39. It is safe, therefore, to say that Bangladesh evidently lacks in full implementation of democracy and struggles with freedom of speech.      

Interestingly, the issue of lack of freedom of speech is not limited to Bangladesh, but globally. After the second World War, Japan transformed from an absolute monarchy to democracy with its constitution in 1947. Article 21 of the Constitution of Japan guarantees 

freedom of assembly and association as well as speech. Moreover, it ensures the secrecy of any means of communication. As a result, despite having a constitution only 25 years older than Bangladesh, Japan secured its place as the most free country in Asia as stated by the Freedom House Index, with a score of 96.

Among the neighbours of Bangladesh, India has addressed the right to freedom of speech in its Article 19 of the Constitution, which includes the right to express one’s views and opinions at any issue through any medium. However, similar to that of Bangladesh, the right is not absolute. It allows the Government to frame laws to impose reasonable restrictions in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India (Pradhan, n.d.). Hence, it clearly explains the country’s position at the bottom in the Freedom House Index with a similar ‘Partly Free’ label and a Press Free Index of 150th, only 12 places above Bangladesh. 

Therefore, with the evidence provided by the Freedom House Index and a country’s laws on free speech, the positive relationship between freedom of speech and democracy is undeniable. Thereafter we can conclude that, in order to be globally recognised as a free and democratic country, its laws on freedom of speech play a crucial role.

  1. Policy Recommendation

In order to accomplish true democracy in Bangladesh, and to save the lives and futures of its millions of citizens, a policy reformation is suggested and encouraged. Through abundant data of cases filed under the DSA 2018, it is evident that the act is causing more harm than good. Hence, the DSA 2018 must be modified to fit internationally recognised human rights regulations, like that of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To achieve this, the policy change could include the removal of the acts directly violating these rights – 8, 21, 25, 28, 29, 31, 32 and 43, of the DSA 2018. These acts must be taken down expeditiously. Moreover, a limitation to the DSA should be implemented that ensures that no minor under the age of 18 will be under the scope of the DSA 2018.

  1. Conclusion

This policy would ensure that no individual is arrested solely for expressing their fundamental human right. It would also allow the media to do their job rightfully, that is, to inform the public about everything happening inside the country, without fear of arrests or forced disappearances. Furthermore, making the DSA inapplicable to the minors would also take away the insecurity that many of the youths are now living with. The government has nothing to fear from discussions amongst the public, teenagers cracking humour and journalists publishing facts, if they truly claim to be a democracy – the government of the people. 

The freedom of speech within a country and its democracy are interconnected; one cannot exist without the other. Therefore, for Bangladesh to take a step towards the ideal form of democracy for its citizens, changes must be made, and the authority must first begin by ensuring the freedom of speech of citizens. 


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Arrested in Digital Security case, writer Mushtaq Ahmed dies in jail. (2021, February 25). Dhaka Tribune. 

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World Press Freedom Index: Bangladesh slips 10 notches. (2022, May 5). The Daily Star. 

9th grader arrested in DSA case, accused of defaming PM. (2020, June 22). Dhaka Tribune.