Freedom of speech and expression and the rights of Sexual minorities in Bangladesh
25 January 2019
Global Human Rights Defence (GHRD) interacted with Tanvir Alim, a Human Rights Defender (HRD) from Boys of Bangladesh (BoB) to discuss the legal and political developments in Bangladesh and its effect on the rights of sexual minorities. BoB is an unregistered organization which works for the rights of sexual minorities in Bangladesh.
Freedom of speech and expression
Freedom of speech and expression is being trampled upon in Bangladesh, particularly in light of Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act 2006. Under Section 57, intentionally posting false, provocative, indecent or sensitive information on websites or any electronic platforms that is defamatory, and can disrupt the country’s law and order situation, or hurt religious sentiments, is a punishable offence. The criminal act is punishable with a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment and a fine of 1 crore Taka. 
Therefore, any person updating a status on social media, writing a blog, or running a news portal therefore could be in violation of this section. Section 57 also allows a third party to file a case against a person in violation of it, meaning in essence anyone may file a case against a Facebook page or blog if they feel like the content has even a remote possibility of hurting or upsetting religious sentiments. The is routinely used to suppress freedom of speech and harass writers, activists, and journalists – often for their comments on social media.
This law violates the right to freedom of speech and expression of individuals. Moreover, it particularly inhibits the rights of sexual minorities in Bangladesh, as it takes away an important forum for individuals to discuss about issues regarding sexual orientation and sexual identity. As a result, the LGBTI community struggled to tip toe a very thin line between expressing their views on sexual orientation on the internet, and potentially committing a crime. Thus, Bangladesh is in dire need of legislative change.
Acceptance of sexual minorities in Bangladesh
The gay and trans community in Bangladesh is under constant pressure. “Visibility can be life-threatening,” BoB warned in 2015. In 2016, Xulhaz Mannan and Tonoy Mahbub, LGBTI activists were found hacked to death in Dhaka, Bangladesh. They were both openly queer activists, who were closely involved in promoting right of sexual minorities in the country. Their murders epitomise the issues Bangladesh continue to face where the rights of sexual minorities are concerned.
There is rising intolerance and discrimination against sexual minorities. Even subtle displays of activism can attract unwanted attention. Being visible is a risk: authorities continue to fail to support freedom of expression and the police have proved to be indifferent to the killings of progressive public figures such as Mannan and Mahbub.
However, within this dangerous environment, queer activists in Bangladesh have developed creative strategies to raise awareness, educate the public and carve out safe spaces for expression and diversity. Boys of Bangladesh (BoB), the country’s largest gay rights group, introduced to their seminars and workshops the first comic strip with a lesbian character. ‘Dhee’ acts as a creative way to encourage a conversation in the country about gender and sexuality. Tanvir Alim has also set up an online fundraiser campaign for the rights of sexual minorities in Bangladesh.
Winds of change in third term of the Sheik Hasina government?
The Bangladesh government has brazenly opposed any reforms towards promoting the rights of sexual minorities. At the United Nations review procedure, the Bangladesh government rejected the call to protect LGBTI community, stating “sexual orientation is not an issue in Bangladesh”. Meanwhile, Bangladesh retains Section 377 of its penal code that criminalises same-sex conduct, or “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”, the same remnant of British colonial law that India struck down last year.
The National Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh has documented physical and sexual assaults on LGBTI community by the police. Moreover, governmental initiatives to improve opportunities for hijras (a community of transgender women) through official third gender recognition have been derailed in practice.
The Bangladesh LGBTI community is striving to improve the lives of minorities by working towards greater acceptance and promoting diversity within the society. GHRD calls upon the Bangladesh authorities and the international community to come together to ensure the basic rights of sexual minorities which are often taken for granted in the Global North.
 Section 57, Information and Technology Act 2006.G