- Human rights group Odhikar is the target of a broad campaign to prevent them from exposing human rights violations in Bangladesh
- Pro-government media are engaged in a smear campaign against Odhikar, accusing them of involvement in “murky activities” and “conspiracy against the country”
- State agencies have used bureaucratic red tape to prevent Odhikar from receiving funding and renewing their registration with the state for past four years
- These actions highlight a systematic pattern of discrediting activists and organisations critical of the government
- Global civil rights alliance, CIVICUS, has called on Bangladesh, as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, to stop these campaigns ahead of December elections
A chilling smear campaign by government-aligned media in Bangladesh against a local human rights group is the latest in an ongoing drive to prevent efforts to expose human rights violations in the country.
Global civil rights group, CIVICUS, says the campaign targeting human rights organisation Odhikar highlights the repressive environment for civil society in Bangladesh.
Odhikar was founded in 1994 and is a member of the International Federation for Human Rights.
In the latest spate of incidents, the Election Commission of Bangladesh abruptly cancelled the Odhikar’s registration as an election observer on November 2018, saying that the state-run NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB) had notified them that the organisation’s registration had expired.
Three days later, the daily Janakantha newspaper published an article accusing Odhikar of being involved in various “anti-state and anti-government activities”, engaged in “conspiracy against the country”. It claimed the group was “tarnishing the country’s image by providing wrong information to the international community regarding elections and the human rights situation” in Bangladesh.
The reporter also alleged that intelligence agencies recommended that the activities of Odhikar be shut down for violating NGO regulations, unlawfully taking funds from donor agencies and suspicious bank accounts. Odhikar has denied the accusations and called them completely false and fabricated.
Since then, other media reports have surfaced calling for Odhikar’s activities to be stopped, alleging anti-state actions among them, a report by private TV channel, Channel 1 on November 16, accusing the organisation of embezzling funds.
“This damaging smear campaign to discredit the work of an organization committed to upholding human rights is extremely alarming for civil society and civic freedoms in Bangladesh,” said Josef Benedict, Civic Space Researcher at CIVICUS.
“These actions are unjustifiable intimidation tactics and highlight a pattern of demonising human rights defenders who are critical of the government,” Benedict said.
Since 2014, the NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB), state agency, has deliberately subjected Odhikar to bureaucratic delays to deprive the organisation of financial resources, while also withholding the renewal of its mandatory registration. Odhikar has previously been publicly threatened by the police for carrying out “subversive” activities” after documenting a spate of extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh in 2013. Activists working with Odhikar have come under surveillance, been targeted and arbitrarily detained for their activities.
““Bangladesh must start acting like a member of the UN Human Rights Council and take immediate steps to put an end to all forms of harassment against Odhikar and its staff,” said Benedict.
“The government must also ensure that human rights defenders are able to carry out their legitimate activities without any hindrance and fear of reprisals.”
Bangladeshis are scheduled to go to the polls in late December to vote in national elections. Ahead of elections, scores of activists and government critics have been detained following peaceful protests with some facing criminal defamation charges. The authorities have also launched intensive and intrusive surveillance and monitoring of social media and have attempted to weaken opposition parties by arresting their members and dispersing their gatherings.
CIVICUS has called on the government to also respect the right to freedom of association, which it committed to in its recent review at the Human Rights Council and confirm Odhikar’s registration with the NGO Affairs Bureau immediately as well as reinstate the organisations registration for election observation.
Bangladesh was added to a global watchlist of countries which have seen an alarming escalation in threats to civil society. The CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe, rates civic space – the space for civil society – in Bangladesh as ‘repressed’
For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:
Josef Benedict, Civic Space Researcher, CIVICUS