As we approach National Banned Books Week, I think about my friend Hassan Bility, a prominent Liberian journalist and human rights activist. I first learned of Hassan through Amnesty International’s Banned Books Week Action. Hassan was one of the featured cases that I took action on by writing a letter to the government in Liberia denouncing the torture that Hassan suffered as a result of the Liberian government trying to silence his reporting on a civil war that left more than 250,000 dead, thousands mutilated, and 1.3 million people displaced from their homes. While serving as editor in chief of the Analyst Newspaper
under the regime of Charles Taylor, Hassan was arrested and brutally tortured on Taylor’s orders because of his critical, independent journalism.
With global exposure brought on by Amnesty International’s Banned Books Week Action, Hassan was eventually released with the assistance of the U.S. Embassy in Liberia and resettled in the greater Boston area with his wife and young son. At the time, I was living in Boston and had just started my career as a community organizer for Amnesty International. Hassan sought support from Amnesty’s research as he continued to write and report on the war in Liberia from afar and would often come to our office and share his research with our Advocacy Department. He would also travel with me to speak to schools and at community forums to share his experiences and help people to better understand what was happening in Liberia during this horrific conflict and make people aware that free speech and expression are under threat. Hassan would provide a first-hand account about the dangers journalists often face in their lives due to their independent reporting.
Banned Books Week was founded in 1982 by prominent First Amendment and library activist Judith Krug. Krug said that the Association of American Publishers contacted her with ideas to bring banned books “to the attention of the American public” after a “slew of books” had been banned that year. Krug relayed the information to the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee and “six weeks later we celebrated the first Banned Books Week.”
Every September since 1990, Amnesty International has worked with partners during Banned Books Week to draw attention to writers, editors, librarians, publishers, and readers who suffer human rights violations by government and opposition groups because of their work.
The slate of cases put forward by Amnesty International in 2021 hail from various corners of the world: Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Russia, Iran, Hong Kong, Central America, and Bangladesh. This year they feature an unpublished fiction writer, a poet, several journalists, and a cartoonist who face an array of sanctions for their work. Some face years in prison, most have already been detained, all encounter some sort of state-sponsored intimidation or harassment. Like other years of late, the slate of cases includes those persecuted for their printed publications as well as those facing penalty for what they post online, particularly on social media.
Banned Books Week was founded in 1982 by prominent First Amendment and library activist Judith Krug.
The online environment continues to be an increasingly dangerous place for those who dissent from the government. To be sure, in countries around the world and here in the United States, authorities are grappling with how to deal with “fake news” and various forms of disinformation as it proliferates on social media. I suspect that is what was on the minds of many lawmakers in Bangladesh as they crafted the draconian Digital Securities Act (DSA) and embedded within it overly broad language and extensive pre-trial detention powers.
Unfortunately, these provisions — which may seem innocuous at first — are out of step with international human rights standards. They have been used to target or harass those expressing dissenting opinions and have resulted in cases filed against approximately 2,000 people and nearly 1,000 arrests, often for people posting information on social media that is critical of the government. According to Amnesty International, under the DSA, at least 433 individuals had been imprisoned as of July 11, 2021; at least 185 were held for allegedly publishing offensive and false information online.
Imagine being a 15-year-old high school student forced to spend 16 days in a juvenile correction facility because you share a controversial post “to get likes” on Facebook. Mohammad Emon shared such a post in Bangladesh and was arrested and detained in June 2020; formal criminal charges were filed against him in July 2021.
Imagine being a prominent Bangladeshi cartoonist forced to spend 10 months in pre-trial
detention for “satirizing on Facebook powerful people and the Bangladeshi government’s response to [the] COVID-19 pandemic." After spending 10 months in detention, Ahmed Kabir Kishore faces a 10-year prison sentence as a result of charges including publishing “false information” and “propaganda” which could “deteriorate law and order” by “supporting or organizing crime." Kishore is still facing charges despite being released on bail in March 2021 one week after fellow accused writer, Mushtaq Ahmed, died in custody. Kishore was presented the Robert Russell Courage in Cartooning Award by Cartoonist Rights International Network in October 2020. Many of his controversial images remain available online
. Emon and Kishore are two of 10 cases described in the July 2021 Amnesty International report, No Space for Dissent: Bangladeshi’s Crackdown on Freedom of Expression Online
detention, coupled with laws addressing online speech or terrorism prevention, is one method used by authoritarian governments use to quell expression.
Imagine being 25-year-old poet and teacher Ahnaf Jazeem, arrested and detained for more than a year — without being charged with a crime and without access to his family for five months — in connection with a published collection of his poems (Navarasam
) and “other unsubstantiated claims of exposing his students to ‘extremist’ content and ideology.”
Under the Sri Lankan Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) it is permissible to hold individuals without any charges or trial for up to 18 months. According to Amnesty International and several other international and Sri Lankan human rights organizations, “the PTA has been used against Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious minority communities, with a disproportionate number of Tamils and Muslims in detention under the Act." The same statement notes that one year into his detention, the authorities have yet to bring forth any evidence that substantiates their allegations against Ahnaf Jazeem.
You can visit the Amnesty International Banned Books Week website
to take action in support of Jazeem, Kishore, and others while registering your support for the repeal or amendment of the Digital Security Act, and calling for the release of those accused or detained solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression.
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Cynthia Gabriel Walsh
is the director of Human Rights Education, AIUSA.