In February this year the authorities in Bangladesh took Shamsuzzoha Manik, a 73-year-old publisher, into custody for publishing a book titled “Islam Bitorko” (“Debate on Islam”). His arrest and the shutting down of his stall marked a sour moment in the nation’s largest book fair, Ekushey Boi Mela, held annually at Bangla Academy in honor of the International Mother Language Day. While the book, deemed to be offensive to Islam, has been taken out of circulation, seven months later the publisher remains behind bars.
Manik’s imprisonment adds to a series of recent attacks on freedom of expression in the country, which have included a number of killings perpetrated by extremist groups. There are laws that allow the government to ban or confiscate any publication that may be considered blasphemous. The law extends to any form of publication — in print or online — and led to the arrest of four bloggers in 2013 for “hurting religious sentiments” with their blog posts. Self and state-censorship coupled with lack of protection for writers at risk have meant free speech and freedom to publish are in dire straits.
Bangladesh is not unique in facing the threat of terrorism, which is now a global issue, but it is sadly the only country where writers and publishers are specifically on the hit lists of the killers.
Free speech in the country, however, is not new to scrutiny and undermining. In 1973, poet Daud Haider was taken into “protective custody” after one of his poems — critical of religious beliefs — brought him death threats. Two months later Haider was asked to leave the country and consequently became a stateless person in neighboring India, until he managed to leave for Germany where he resides to this day. During his exile, some of the great American writers, including Susan Sontag, Kurt Vonnegut and Sharon Olds, supported his case.