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World Press on Freedom of Expression, Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn and Right to Protest: New Age Islam's Selection, 15 December 2020

By New Age Islam Edit Desk

15 December 2020

• Intolerance and a Repressive Legal Regime: A Twin Threat To Freedom Of Expression

By Sultan Mohammed Zakaria

• The Great Conjunction of Jupiter And Saturn

By Quamrul Haider

• How the British Government Is Trying To Crush Our Right to Protest

By Gracie Mae Bradley

• Just How Dangerous Was Donald Trump?

By Michelle Goldberg

• For Liberals, Brexit Is A Hard Lesson In The Politics Of Resentment

By Nesrine Malik


 Intolerance and a Repressive Legal Regime: A Twin Threat To Freedom Of Expression

By Sultan Mohammed Zakaria

December 10, 2020

On October 6, Robiul Islam Khandokar, 35, a district correspondent of the national daily Sangbad in Rajbari, wrote a Facebook status appealing to the prime minister: "Honourable Prime Minister[,] an utterly deranged person is trying to cause unrest in the peaceful Rajbari." (My translation)

Robiul was apparently trying to alert the prime minister to the unlawful activities of someone in the district. He, however, forgot to place a comma after the title of the country's leader. Little did he know that this oversight would be construed as an attack on the prime minister herself. As soon as he was alerted to the typographical error, Robiul corrected his Facebook post. But it was too late. On October 9, a member of the student wing of the ruling Awami League filed a defamation case against Rabiul under the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA), accusing him of "defaming the prime minister". He was arrested the next day. This Kafkaesque sequence of events has become depressingly familiar in Bangladesh where even the perception of a slight is enough to invite official retribution.

Like Robiul, hundreds of people—journalists, academics, activists—have been charged and detained under the Digital Security Act simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression online. Many of these cases have been filed by members of the ruling party, or people acting on their behalf. According to the government's own Cyber Crime Tribunal data, more than 800 cases were filed under the DSA between January and October in 2020. Nearly 1,000 people were charged. More than 350 people were detained.

The DSA is not the only tool used to silence critical voices. It is often accompanied by others in an arsenal of repression that includes threats, harassment, intimidation, physical attacks and even enforced disappearances. According to Ain o Salish Kendra, a local human rights group, at least 219 journalists have been targeted this year by state agencies or individuals acting on behalf of the government.

On March 10, the editor of the daily Pokkhokal, Shafiqul Islam Kajol, was forcibly disappeared from the capital Dhaka, a day after a ruling party lawmaker filed a case against him under the DSA for his Facebook post. Kajol was later "found" by police under mysterious circumstances along the Bangladesh-India border—53 days after he was last seen in Dhaka—only to face an unlawful detention since then. In April, the acting editor of, Mohiuddin Sarker, and editor-in-chief of, Toufique Imrose Khalidi, were charged under the DSA for publishing reports on alleged embezzlement of relief materials meant for poor people affected by the Covid-19 lockdown. In May, a news editor of daily Grameen Darpan, Ramzan Ali Pramanik, staff reporter Shanta Banik, and publisher and editor of the online news portal Narsingdi Pratidin, Khandaker Shahin, were arrested for reporting on a custodial death at the Ghorashal police station. In June, the editor of the Bangla national newspaper Inqilab, AMM Bahauddin, was charged for publishing a story about an advisor to the prime minister.

Even children have not been spared. On June 19, a 14-year-old boy from Mymensingh district, who is in his ninth grade at school, criticised the government's decision of increasing Value Added Tax on mobile phone calls alleging that the extra revenue earned would fill the prime minister's coffers. The next day, he was detained under a DSA charge by police for "defaming the prime minister" in his Facebook post.

Bangladesh's academy was once regarded as a relatively safe space for airing of critical views. But this year, several academics have also been targeted and prosecuted for exercising their right to freedom of expression. In June, two professors at Rajshahi University and Begum Rokeya University were sacked for their Facebook posts about a deceased ruling party MP. In September, the Dhaka University authorities terminated BNP-linked professor Hasan Morshed Khan for publishing an opinion piece in a national newspaper allegedly distorting history. In the same month, the National University authorities suspended AKM Wahiduzzaman, an assistant professor, for posting on Facebook "offensive" and "indecent" remarks about the prime minister.

The DSA is a successor to the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, widely criticised by human rights groups for its draconian Section 57, which was abused to file more than 1,271 charges between 2013 and 2018. But instead of remedying the repressive elements of the ICT Act, the DSA is arguably more abusive in character. The law was passed in 2018 in the face of strong opposition from journalists, civil society organisations, and human rights defenders. At the time, there were serious warnings of how an already restricted space for dissent online could be further squeezed to the point of near-suffocation. These warnings seem prescient now.

Some sections of the law that raised serious concerns were too vague and too broad to be able to define a crime, and also provided for disproportionately harsh punishments. For instance, Section 17 of the DSA can punish anyone for 10 years' imprisonment for "making any kind of propaganda or campaign against liberation war, spirit of liberation war, father of the nation, national anthem or national flag." The actions that would specifically constitute a violation under this provision were not at all defined. Besides, the terms are dangerously vague and overly broad, and the suggested punishments are not only disproportionate, but they also punish acts that shouldn't be considered a crime in the first place.

Provisions such as this create a situation where any political position deemed to be contrary to the regime narrative could land an individual in prison for 10 years. Similarly, Sections 25(b) (publications "damaging the image or reputation of the country"), 28 (publications "hurting religious values and sentiments"), 29 ("publications of defamatory information"), 31 ("publications deteriorating law and order"), and 32 ("breaching the secrecy of the government")—all criminalise legitimate forms of expression and suffer from the same vague and broad definitional issues, giving law enforcement authorities too much leverage to determine what act(s) would constitute a crime.

What the country has now is a legal regime under which the government's intolerance for criticism means that anyone even publishing the faintest whispers of dissent can be severely punished. Instead of a system where people can express themselves to promote the accountability of those in power, the reverse applies. A climate of fear now pervades society, with people filled with a sense of foreboding for what may happen if they dare to speak out, or even forget to place a comma correctly.

The right to freedom of expression is essential to all societies, and crucial to advance human rights. It is how people can claim their other human rights, speaking up for their rights and that of others—whether that's education, food, or healthcare. It is also the right on the basis of which societies thrive, testing old ideas and generating new ones. Without the right to freedom of expression, which is protected in Bangladesh's constitution and in its international commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Bangladesh stands to lose in a global knowledge-based economy.

We must remember that when people fear to express themselves freely, when journalists are afraid to write or report on what they see, without fear of reprisals, it only corrodes and undermines the accountability and transparency pillars of the state. Such an outcome may prove ultimately self-defeating for any government that wants to serve the public good. Only an open, deliberative, and discursive political culture resting on the respect of the right to freedom of expression can arrest such a drift. As the noted American Justice Louis Brandeis once said, "Sunshine is the best disinfectant."


Sultan Mohammed Zakaria is South Asia Researcher for Amnesty International.


The Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn

By Quamrul Haider

December 15, 2020

On December 21, the first day of winter this year, the two gaseous giants in the solar system—Jupiter and Saturn—will put up a spectacular display in the evening sky. They will be so close that they will appear, from our perspective, to overlap completely, creating a rare "double planet" effect. However, while they may appear to the naked eye extremely close, within 0.1 degree of each other, in reality, they are separated by more than 400 million miles. To visualise this distance, a 0.1 degree separation is about the thickness of a dime held at arm's length. This celestial synchronisation, also referred to as the "Christmas Star," has not occurred in nearly 800 years. Last time they were so close together was on March 4, 1226.

The spectacle is a curious effect of their orbits around the Sun. Since Jupiter takes 11.9 years to circle the Sun and Saturn 29.5 years, the faster moving Jupiter catches up with the slower moving Saturn and overtakes it roughly every 20 years. Astronomers call the moment of overtaking "Great Conjunction."

At conjunction, separation between two objects in the sky as viewed from Earth is a minimum. Moreover, at great conjunction, Earth, Jupiter and Saturn align themselves along a straight line so as to make the two Jovian planets appear very close together. Great conjunctions are rare though because more often than not, Earth is not aligned along a straight line with Saturn and Jupiter when they are at conjunction. The duo will then appear to be separated by a few degrees.

Furthermore, the event can happen while the Sun is up blocking the conjunction from view. Indeed, during the last great conjunction on May 31, 2000, the planets never came anywhere as close together as they will this month. Besides, we could not see the overlap because the alignment occurred too close to the Sun and thus was lost in the glare of the twilight. The same was true the time before, in December of 1980.

This time around, after sunset on Monday, December 21, which is also the winter solstice, Jupiter and Saturn will appear to the unaided eye as a single bright object low in the southwestern sky. This dazzling display of two celestial objects kissing each other on the longest night of the year can be seen from everywhere in the world. It will become visible in Bangladesh soon after sunset but only for a short time. The conjoined planets will sink below the western horizon about an hour later. Also, the further north viewers are, the less time they will have to catch a glimpse of this astronomical event.

How can we spot the planets with naked eye? In the weeks leading up to the great conjunction, Saturn will be to the upper left of Jupiter, slowly dancing toward Jupiter. On clear nights, unlike stars which twinkle, Jupiter and Saturn will hold consistent brightness, making it easier to spot them amidst the myriad of objects in the stellar zoo. Although Saturn will be slightly dimmer and smaller in size, yet it will be just as bright as the brightest stars, with a recognisable golden glow. An amateur telescope or a high-power binocular will show the planets in more detail, including the Galilean moons of Jupiter—Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

We do not have to wait until December 21 to view this dazzling conjunction. They are already a pretty pair in the sky, and will remain so through the entirety of December. Nevertheless, after December 21, Jupiter will start moving eastward, separating from Saturn. Additionally, during early evening hours, the planetary pair will appear lower in the sky, albeit appearing near each other for about a month, giving sky watchers plenty of time to witness the amazing alignment throughout the holiday season.

If you miss the spectacle this year, you should not expect to see it in 2040 or 2060. The next great conjunction, with a separation of about 0.2 degree, will occur on March 15, 2080. After that, it will be 2417 and 2477.

Finally, dating back to Kepler's time in the 17th century, some astronomers hypothesised that the Star of Bethlehem that guided the Three Magi—also known as the "three wise men"—to Christ's birthplace was a conjunction like the one we will witness on December 21. It could be but involving different planets.


Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.


How the British Government Is Trying To Crush Our Right To Protest

By Gracie Mae Bradley

14 Dec 2020

Not content with ambitions to limit judicial review, “update” (that is: weaken) the Human Rights Act, and pass laws that would insulate various agents of the state from accountability for human rights violations, the government is now, according to press reports last week, planning to introduce a new law that will limit our right to protest.

For a government that claims to be concerned about free speech and “cancel culture”, cracking down on protest isn’t a great look. Without the text of the proposals, we don’t know for certain how far it will go. Reports suggest it will limit the physical locations, such as near parliament or newspaper distribution plants, in which protest is allowed to take place; and that it will seek to ensure protesters aren’t “blocking democratic functions from happening”. This is a not hugely subtle sleight of hand that ignores something very important: protesting is integral to democracy.

Protest is a fundamental right, protected in domestic and international law, which the government and public authorities have a duty to facilitate. It is an essential tool for expressing dissent against those in power, and one of the ways that we join forces with one another to effect social, political and economic change. The plans are very likely to undermine our ability to collectively express dissent, which has been more crucial than ever this pandemic year.

Let’s be clear: Liberty has always supported proportionate action to protect public health, and much of our work recently has focused on ensuring that the people most likely to be hit hard by the pandemic are prioritised in the government’s response. At the same time, the magnitude of the limitations on our freedom implemented by politicians this year cannot be overstated.

In 2020 each of us has faced criminalisation for leaving the house without a “reasonable excuse”. Police have used surveillance drones to shame people walking in national parks. And countless people have been wrongly criminalised under the rushed and draconian Coronavirus Act, which also contains powers to force people to quarantine, close our borders, and even postpone some elections. And in all of this, parliament has been sidelined, with some lockdown laws, which have regulated aspects of our daily lives to a minute degree, coming into force at the stroke of a minister’s pen, with parliament given an opportunity to vote only weeks later.

It isn’t just the government response to the pandemic that has given people cause to protest this year. This summer saw a global uprising against the killing of George Floyd by American police, and more broadly in support of black people’s rights to live flourishing lives. In the UK, against a backdrop of disproportionate police use of force and powers such as stop and search, the deaths of black frontline workers such as Belly Mujinga, and longstanding racism in the criminal punishment system, people mobilised in 260 towns and cities up and down the country, rallying to insist that black lives matter.

Across the board, the response from the government and police has raised cause for serious concern. Scores of people have been arrested for taking to the streets to protest against lockdown restrictions. Protest organisers who have done their best to comply with pandemic restrictions, such as carrying out a risk assessment, have been cowed into not going ahead. And during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the summer, the home secretary, Priti Patel, claimed that these protests were illegal, and many demonstrators were subject to aggressive police tactics such as kettling. A report by Netpol found that the policing of the Black Lives Matter protests was symptomatic of institutional racism. These attacks on the right to protest are not unique to the pandemic: in 2019, the Metropolitan police unlawfully used an injunction to ban protest during the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations.

Leaving heavy-handed pandemic provisions and unlawful actions to one side, the UK’s legal environment is already heavily weighted in favour of the authorities when it comes to protest. Police have extremely wide-ranging powers to control or ban protests, and to arrest those who stray from conditions the police impose. These latest proposals tip that balance even further towards the authorities.

Being able to challenge the government and other public bodies is the lifeblood of our democracy, and in a year that has seen spectacular curbs on our liberties, it’s more important than ever. Threatening the right to protest is just another way this government is trying to limit our ability to stand up to power, alongside weakening our human rights framework and the ability of the courts to hold it to account. We could be disheartened, but instead we should look to the many powerful protest movements that have persisted nonetheless – from school climate strikers, to opponents of the exam “mutant algorithm”, to people fighting for racial equality. It’s up to all of us to protect our hard-won freedoms: 2021 is going to be hard enough for the government – it should drop this protest bill before it sees the light of day.


Gracie Mae Bradley is the interim director of Liberty


Just How Dangerous Was Donald Trump?

By Michelle Goldberg

Dec. 14, 2020

Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, there’s been an argument on the left over the sort of threat he poses.

The American left’s most famous figures — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, Noam Chomsky — saw Trump as an authoritarian who could, if re-elected, destroy American democracy for good. But another strain of left opinion viewed Trump’s fascistic gestures as almost purely performative, and believed his clumsiness in marshaling state power made him less dangerous than, say, George W. Bush.

A leading proponent of this position is the political theorist Corey Robin, author of an essential book about right-wing thought, “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin.” In an interview with the left-wing publication Jewish Currents, he argued, “Compared to the Republican presidencies of Nixon, Reagan and George W. Bush, Trump’s was significantly less transformational, and its legacy is far less assured.”

The day when the Electoral College meets to ratify Joe Biden’s victory seems an appropriate one to revisit this debate. Trump tried, in his sloppy, chaotic way, to overturn the election, and much of his party, including the majority of Republicans in the House, and many state attorneys general, lined up behind him. Yet he failed, and it’s unlikely that he will follow calls from supporters, like his former national security Adviser Michael Flynn, to declare martial law.

So what matters more, the president’s desire to overthrow American democracy, or his inability to follow through? Just how fascist was Trump?

Part of the answer depends on whether you’re evaluating Trump’s ideology or his ability to carry it out. It seems obvious enough that the spirit of Trumpism is fascistic, at least according to classic definitions of the term. In “The Nature of Fascism,” Roger Griffin described fascism’s “mobilizing vision” as “the national community rising phoenix-like after a period of encroaching decadence which all but destroyed it.” Translate this into the American vernacular and it sounds a lot like MAGA.

Fascism is obsessed with fears of victimization, humiliation and a decline, and a concomitant cult of strength. Fascists, wrote Robert O. Paxton in “The Anatomy of Fascism,” see “the need for authority by natural chiefs (always male), culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny.” They believe in “the superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason.” This aptly describes Trump’s movement.

Yet Trump was only intermittently able to translate his movement into a government. The national security state was more often his antagonist than his tool. There were Justice Department investigations of the president’s political enemies, but they mostly came to nothing. The military was deployed against protesters, but only once.

Trump celebrated what may be the extrajudicial killing of Michael Reinoehl, an antifa activist wanted in a fatal shooting, but such killings weren’t the norm. He put children in cages, but was pressured to let them out. And in the end, he lost an election and will have to leave.

The damage he’s done, however, may be irreversible. On Twitter, Robin argued, correctly, that George W. Bush, far more than Trump, changed the shape of government, leaving behind the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security. Most of Trump’s legacy, by contrast, is destruction — of even the pretense that the law should apply equally to ruler and ruled, of large parts of the Civil Service, of America’s standing in the world. (If mainstream liberals are more deeply horrified by Trump than some leftists, it could be because they maintain greater romantic attachments to the institutions he’s defiled.)

Most consequentially, Trump has eviscerated in America any common conception of reality. Other presidents sneered at the truth; a senior Bush official, widely believed to be Karl Rove, famously derided the “reality-based community” to the journalist Ron Suskind.

But Trump’s ability to envelop his followers in a cocoon of lies is unparalleled. The Bush administration deceived the country to go to war in Iraq. It did not insist, after the invasion, that weapons of mass destruction had been found when they obviously were not. That’s why the country was able to reach a consensus that the war was a disaster.

No such consensus will be possible about Trump — not about his abuses of power, his calamitous response to the coronavirus, or his electoral defeat. He leaves behind a nation deranged.

The postmodern blood libel of QAnon will have adherents in Congress. Kyle Rittenhouse, a young man charged with killing Black Lives Matter protesters, is a right-wing folk hero. The Republican Party has become more hostile to democracy than ever. Both the Trump and Bush presidencies concluded with America a smoking ruin. Only Trump has ensured that nearly half the country doesn’t see it.

In May, Samuel Moyn predicted, in The New York Review of Books, that if Biden won, fears about American fascism would dissipate. Complacent in their restoration, he wrote, those who warned of fascism “will cordon off the interlude, as if it was ‘an accident in the factory,’ as Germans after World War II described their 12-year mistake.”

As American electors gathered — with the police offering armed guards and Michigan’s capitol closed by “credible threats of violence” — Moyn’s words, meant cynically, seem too optimistic. Trump failed to capture America, but he may have irrevocably broken it.


For Liberals, Brexit Is A Hard Lesson In The Politics Of Resentment

By Nesrine Malik

 14 Dec 2020

There is a law of physics that also applies to politics: energy cannot be created or destroyed. It can only be changed from one form to another.

The story of Brexit is a story of energy conversion – the work of political engineers who mined a generation of scattered grievances and forged them into a single demand, to leave the European Union. Nobody did this more successfully than Nigel Farage, who transformed an untapped reservoir of xenophobic suspicion into a political force by making the EU synonymous with “immigrants”.

In the days before the referendum – around the time Farage unveiled his infamous “breaking point” billboard, and a far-right terrorist murdered the Labour MP Jo Cox, there was a vivid sense that this atmospheric energy, present in the air for so many years, had finally taken a new form. For decades, anti-immigrant feeling had been left to grow, unchecked and unchallenged; now it was coupled with a political resentment against an amorphous governing elite, and in a single moment changed the future of the country for ever.

This week, as remainers once again contemplate our defeat, we may reflect on those days after Cox’s murder – when it felt like there might be a pause for thought, a public recognition of the dark place we were heading. But there was no such moment: the campaigns barely paused, and the entire circus of bile and lies barrelled onwards with a redoubled haste. I remember feeling at the time that there was a steely national insistence that we must refuse to draw the obvious conclusions from the case of a murderer who spent years collecting anti-immigrant propaganda and filing it away neatly in his house in folders.

If you think that was a grotesque failure to stop and confront how this happened, then the years since will provide no solace either. Many people who had lived in the UK for years, or indeed all their lives, reported their first experiences of racist abuse in public. I was one of that number. In 2018, a plot to assassinate another Labour MP, Rosie Cooper, was uncovered. These attitudes did not develop overnight, or even over the span of the EU referendum. Even the pain and frustration caused by austerity are of relatively recent vintage. According to research by Lucy Hu of the University of Pennsylvania: “Exclusively economic arguments proved to be a facade for private racist attitudes of many leave voters.”

The longer, more corrosive history is that of a right that exploited immigration for cynical ends, and a Labour party that made its own cynical compact with this sentiment, using it, when needed, to show its own “toughness” against the devious migrant. It was always a myth that New Labour was fundamentally a pro-immigration project; immigrants were welcome as a feature of a pro-globalisation view. High-skilled migrants, who came in on a points-based system, were the most desirable; asylum seekers, after some initial promises, were quickly ditched.

Much of the “hostile environment” infrastructure of immigration controls that exists today is the legacy of Labour’s last government. The tier system that sorts immigrants according to their value to the UK, the high barriers to gaining citizenship and the conversion of employers into border guards were all policies established by Labour in 2006.

But it was the way that politicians talked about immigration, or rather didn’t talk, that allowed this resentment to congeal, ready to be shaped into an explosive. The years before the financial crisis saw increased asylum applications from conflict zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. And between a governing party eager not to look like it was too soft on claimants and a rightwing media that tapped into the rich vein of scaremongering about migrants, the tone was fixed. The presence of immigrants was now a matter of “legitimate concern”; there was a need to look out for “the indigenous population”, in the words of Labour’s immigration minister Phil Woolas. By the time Gordon Brown was on the ropes trying to save his premiership, it was “British jobs for British workers”, the progenitor of Ed Miliband’s dismal “controls on immigration” crockery.

All that energy had to go somewhere. In politics, everything is connected: liberals cannot pick and choose when they care about immigrants. Britain went into the Brexit referendum hobbled by a financial crisis and a decade of austerity, many of its communities badly damaged by deindustrialisation. There were no quick answers to any of this, and so the pain was shifted on to an immediate, intimate enemy, easily purged: the immigrant, and all the immigrant represented, be it the enabling EU, the elected elite, the lawyers or the judges.

Perhaps we could not have predicted how and when this would happen – but we allowed it to happen. Liberals across parties who are horrified by the consequences of Brexit must realise that they were defeated by an epic national scapegoating project – one whose power needed to have been checked long before. That is how to understand Brexit: not an irrational rightwing populism, not a derangement of post-truth politics, but the predictable outcome of a concerted political and media campaign that capitalised on a colossal failure of our economic model.

Just as I did in the days after the murder of Jo Cox, I have searched for signs of this epiphany since the Brexit vote. I have looked for it among Conservatives, naively bewildered by the thuggishness that has captured their party. I have looked for it in Labour under Corbyn and Labour under Starmer. And I have looked for it, in the past few days, in the belated mea culpas of those enraged that all the calamities of a Brexit blunder may finally be upon us. I have not found it. Which means that all that we love will be wrecked, again and again, by an energy that shifts the blame for our national failures from our leaders on to anyone who is not “indigenous”. If you think that energy is gone because our borders are closing and we have taken back control, think again. It is simply changing form.


Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist



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