Just-passed bill makes any ‘derogatory’ comments by foreign-funded NGOs on constitution, constitutional bodies a criminal offence; NGOs, legal experts decry

A provision in a just-passed bill contradicts people’s democratic rights, as this makes it an offence for foreign-funded NGOs to make “inimical” and “derogatory” remarks on the constitution and constitutional bodies, say legal experts and NGO activists. 

Strongly criticising the provision, they say it would pose a major threat to free speech and tarnish the country’s image globally.

The Jatiya Sangsad on Wednesday passed “The Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Bill 2016”, introducing the punitive provision.

If any foreign-funded NGO engages in anti-state activities and finances extremism and terror activities, those would be considered as offences under the provision, and the NGO and its officials concerned would be tried under the country’s existing laws.

The new provision empowers the NGO Affairs Bureau to cancel or withhold the registration of a foreign-funded NGO or ban its activities for committing the offence.

Talking to The Daily Star yesterday, NGO activists said they would sit in a day or two and decide on their next course of action.

Rights activist Khushi Kabir, also coordinator of Nijera Kori, said this is an ominous sign for the entire nation.

“In a democratic state, I have the right to raise questions about democratic institutions. I have the right to make a comment which may even be wrong.”

“My democratic rights will be curbed if I cannot comment on or criticise [the constitutional bodies],” she said.

“I think a dangerous precedent has been set which will hurt democracy in the long run,” said the rights activist.

Khushi Kabir said that if criticism of a constitutional institution is considered as a criminal offence, there would be no democracy for which they had fought the 1971 Liberation War.

She said they would sit in a day or two and decide what to do next.

Eminent jurist Shahdeen Malik said the provision conflicts with the fundamental right to freedom of expression.

“It also indicates intolerance to critical opinions. It is not conducive to democracy and democratic rights of the people,” he told The Daily Star.     

Supreme Court lawyer Jyotirmoy Barua, who works on human rights and freedom of speech, termed the provision completely irrelevant to this bill. “If the bill is challenged at court, I think it would be  cancelled.”

He said inclusion of the provision in the bill shows the government is “intolerant”, and that is why it is making this type of “oppressive law”.   

The lawyer also said the constitution has been amended 16 times and it would require further amendments in the future for the betterment of the people.

“If you cannot talk or criticise, how will amendments be brought to the constitution in the future,” he asked.

The bill should have focused on ensuring transparency of the use of foreign donations for NGOs and checking terror financing, added the lawyer.

Dr Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), said, “If making a comment becomes a criminal offence, this is a very bad example of law.”

“This is very risky for Bangladesh’s democracy and its future. It is also in conflict with the country’s constitution.

“We don’t know whether there is such restriction on freedom of speech anywhere in the world. It is frustrating,” said the TIB executive director. 

He said the Jatiya Sangsad passed the bill unanimously without involving them at the final stage of its preparation.

“The government had engaged us in preparing the contents of the bill. We had concerns over some provisions and the government assured us of addressing those. We expected that the government would engage us again before finalising it. But in the end, the government didn’t do so which is very disappointing.”

Describing the constitutional institutions as people’s organisations, he said how it would be possible to increase efficiency and transparency of these organisations if restrictions are imposed on making statements on those.

Badiul Alam Majumdar, secretary of Shushasoner Jonno Nagorik (Shujan), said the new law would tarnish Bangladesh’s image in the international arena and would bring no good to anyone.

“We communicated this to the government before the passage of the bill and urged it not to include the provision. But the important people in the government were rigid.”

“It was not expected. It [the bill] is not a positive thing for the nation,” said the official of the civil society platform working for good governance.

During the bill’s passage, Agriculture Minister Matia Chowdhury, who moved it in the House, said, “There was a time when we tolerated many things of NGOs. If they spend 25 percent [of foreign funds] and gobble up the rest, we can’t stay silent.”

The bill is aimed at empowering the NGO bureau to inspect, monitor and assess activities of NGOs.

The original bill placed in         parliament in September last year didn’t have the controversial provision.

But a parliament watch report by the TIB and its executive director’s remarks on the role of the main opposition in the House in October last year irked lawmakers, who demanded punitive action against the TIB.

In its report, the anti-graft watchdog pointed out a “low-level of participation” of MPs in lawmaking, question-answer sessions and discussions on important issues in the current parliament.

The TIB also called the Jatiya Party “so-called opposition” in parliament and said it was rather working as “B-team of the government”.

Replying to a query, TIB Executive Director Iftekharuzzaman at that time termed the main opposition’s role “puppet show.”

During the bill’s scrutiny, the parliamentary standing committee on the law ministry picked the issue and said it would propose inclusion of a punitive provision in the bill for making derogatory remarks on the constitution and constitutional bodies.

After the committee disclosed its proposal on May 18 this year, Shujan President M Hafiz Uddin Khan, said this would be a “black law”, formulation of which reflected the government’s “dictatorial” attitude.

“No organisation which works as watchdog on parliament and other constitutional bodies will be able to do its job in fear of action if the proposed law is passed in parliament keeping such provision,” he said.

“It is clear that the government’s aim is to gag those watchdog bodies so that they cannot criticise it,” added Hafiz Uddin, also former adviser to a caretaker government.