Freedom of Political Expression: An Integral Part of Academic Freedom and Rule of Law

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Unanimously adopted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1997, the definition of teacher-student rights and academic freedom emphasises four key points: the right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof, freedom to express their opinion freely about the institution or system in which they work, freedom from institutional censorship; and freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies.Additionally, the right to adequate and suitable employment and the right not to be a victim of torture, murder, enforced disappearance, or other cruel treatment are all recognised worldwide, regionally, and domestically.

There is an immense and multilayered threat to these four educational spheres in Bangladesh. Students and Faculty members have been accused of being victims of disappearances, killings, abductions, assaults, arrests, remands, and incarceration in recent years. Academics who have voiced dissenting opinions have been subject to retaliation, including withholding promotions and eliminating funding for research. Numerous government institutions around the country are making headlines for all the wrong reasons simultaneously, including the universities of Comilla, Dhaka, Rajshahi, Rangpur and Chittagong.

Strong, determined teacher-student campaigns and protests against administrative tyranny are taking place at several public and private schools, colleges and universities, and ruling party leaders and their supporters and followers within academia are intimidating, controlling student organisations and attempting to stifle free thinking. It has led to a decline in both law and order and the protection of fundamental freedoms like the right to life and a decent standard of living, as well as the freedom to speak one’s mind and seek justice and redress in an impartial court. The recent past and  current stances of the Chittagong University, demands and attitude of the Chittagong University Teachers’ Association (CUTA)  and a section of the Chhatra League of the Chittagong University unit against Md. Maidul Islam, an associate professor at Chittagong University, is a textbook example of infractions and violations of academic freedom in tertiary academic institutions in Bangladesh.

Maidul Islam, in a Facebook status dated July 7, 2018, lamented the poor meal and living standards of the university students in the university accommodation and questioned the role of the Prime Minister. A ruling party student organisation member accused him of defaming the Prime Minister. Subsequently, on July 23, 2018, an activist of the Bangladesh Chhatra League filed a case under the then enforceable (now repealed) Section 57(1) of the Information and Communication Technology Act 2006 (amended 2009 and 2013) for alleged defamation of the Prime Minister. In this matter, can the Chhatra League members and university management respond to a few queries from the public? How can a Chhatra League member, who was not a close friend nor a family, claim victim status in this instance if there has been defamation of the honourable Prime Minister? He did not have jurisdiction to bring this action, and he still does not, by the law.


How did the court assess the matter? Shouldn’t the court have ordered that the lawsuit be dismissed since it lacks a legal foundation, as AM Zulfiqar Hayat, a judge on the  Dhaka Cyber Tribunal, recently dismissed a case filed under the Digital Security Act (DSA) against the former mayor of Rajshahi City Corporation Mizanur Rahman? Which university policy allowed the temporary suspension of associate professor Maidul Islam while partial pay and benefits were withheld pending the outcome of the investigation and trial? How did the Chittagong University Administration suspend Maidul with partial pay without a written order to send him to jail from the court?

Despite the pending bail hearing in the High Court Division, which caused and motivated the police to apply for a  five-day remand on October 7 and October 8, 2018 , and following the police application, Maidul was taken on a three-day remand by the court of Chittagong Senior Judicial Magistrate Shahidullah Qaise? Why was Maidul released twenty days after the bail order  from the High Court Division? Despite the absence of a ban on foreign travel and attained stay order of the case proceedings from the High Court Division, why did the University authority deny his research leave application and his right to reunite with family members and pursue higher education and international standard research without giving any formal written letter with reasoning?

Academic Activist Maidul is now on a research leave from the University of Chittagong and working as a PhD researcher at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, USA. However, this year, on August 20, a ‘unanimous’ decision was made at an ‘emergency meeting of the Chittagong University Teachers’ Association (CUTA) that informed the administration of the university of the  ‘strong demand’ for legal action to be taken against academic Maidul by the Chittagong University Staff Efficiency and Order Code.  Where did the CUTA obtain the motivation for this emergency meeting, and what is the basis of this “strong demand” for one?

The accusation against Maidul is that he has made several posts on his Facebook page using the hashtag“StepDownHasina”, defaming the honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as he hurled various insults at the leader of the democratic government. According to Professor Abdul Haque, general secretary of the Chittagong University Teachers’ Association, there is a law prohibiting calling for the overthrow of the government, as stated in an  audio interview published in a daily newspaper. He said, “We also have productive talks as university professors. However, notwithstanding the university’s autonomy, no paid government employee has the right to call for the overthrow of the government or its leader. Step down, Hasina; he (Maidul Islam) said on Facebook that he cannot write like this since the government pays him. He has also violated Act 73”. Is there really any such law?

Teacher Maidul Islam did not call for the downfall but asked the honourable Prime Minister to resign using a popular hashtag. Thousands of people have similarly demanded #Onceagainsheikhhasina through social media, and thousands more have done so again. However, pressing for the prime minister’s resignation and calling for her overthrow differ in Bangladesh’s political landscape. Those who have requested the prime minister’s resignation or wish to be in power Sheikh Hasina again through social media will not be decided by their calls but by free, fair, transparent, and peaceful national elections. Both exercise their right to political speech, acknowledged in a democracy. If such a law exists, remember that it is undemocratic and illegal, goes against the spirit of the Constitution that Bangladesh’s People won through liberation war, and violates international human rights treaties. In a democracy, the prime minister’s resignation or reelection is not wrong; instead, it is a positive form of political expression with other protected fundamental rights and freedom.

On the other hand, the Vice-Chancellor of Chittagong University and a lifelong member of Bangla Academy, Shireen Akhtar, in an  audio interview with a journalist in a daily newspaper about teacher Maidul Islam, said, “…these people are evil, this man is a disgrace to the university, he is no more in the country, I even don’t want him to come back to the university and to Bangladesh. The administration will take strict action against him.” One thing is very clear from Vice Chancellor Shireen Akhtar’s statement that she is speaking out of revenge: Does she have any right to issue a character certificate to teacher Maidul or any other colleague? How can the vice chancellor claim that she does not want Maidul to return to the nation whether he comes or does not come to the country? What authority does she have to disparage Maidul’s citizenship rights? Does she want to deny Maidul his right to a higher education and an international scientific education to show her spitefulness, or does she like to send him back to jail? Will any administrative action against Maidul by her be open, fair, and responsible? Will the impartial court continue to exist?

By looking at statistics from the media and human rights reports, we find that an increasing number of teachers like Maidul and students are being threatened, sued, and attacked verbally and physically, online and offline, for holding political and dissenting opinions or engaging in contentious public spheres. Nearly all questions of political freedom and ownership in the classroom have now been replaced with “freedom of the classroom.”

At the same time, academic activist and researcher Maidul’s case also raised several questions: How can we comprehend the problematic nature of the administration’s political censorship? Or how can we understand how to put into effect an interventionist policy or new duties imposed by the academics against the academics in today’s reality of Bangladesh? How do we understand, in what contexts, censorship in Bangladeshi academia, or attacks on political expression or gender studies, and whose research or extra-textbook discourse constitutes a “threatening” form of political dissent? Why do some people related to education look forward to expelling dissenting scholars from the classroom, becoming interested in disrespecting teachers and showing a specific section of employees, faculty members, and students responsible for the authorities?

Without a doubt, it is time to stop unwanted political interference in the administration of academic institutions, ensure transparency in the recruitment of teachers and students, prevent corruption in the administration of educational institutions, and ensure the participation of teachers and students. Bangladesh should recognise academic freedom as an integral part of the fundamental right in the light of international human rights principles to end administrative tyranny inacademia; otherwise, the academic institutions will no longer be able to create knowledge and contribute to the betterment of the greater society.

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