John Ralston Saul, President of PEN International, condemns the sentencing of British journalist David Bergman on 2 December 2014
Today the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal found the journalist David Bergman in contempt of court because he examined the statistics of people killed during the 1971 war. There is an official number of three million. But there are many other projections. No one, including Mr Bergman, suggests that a difference in the number of war dead lessens the reality that war crimes were committed.
Mr. Bergman lives in Bangladesh and is a known friend of the country. With the film War Crimes File he was one of those who revealed the extent to which the 1971 war involved crimes against humanity.
There can be no justification for punishing David Bergman, who has simply engaged in the professional work of journalism and of public debate. No one can be in contempt of court or have committed a crime because he has examined numbers. Such a ruling brings personal hardships to him and his family. But it also damages the reputation of Bangladesh as a progressive democracy.
I have just returned from Bangladesh, where I spoke with a wide variety of writers, journalists, activists and newspaper publishers. I also met with the Prime Minister and other officials. Among writers and publishers there is a growing concern that freedom of expression in Bangladesh is slipping into a difficult period.
There are an increasing number of physical attacks on journalists in which security forces are felt to be involved. There is an Information and Communications Technology Act which makes it a crime to say anything online which ‘harms the image of the nation’ or merely criticises other ‘friendly’ countries.
Bangladesh has struggled since its war of independence with political instability. Part of this struggle has centred on establishing a national narrative which unites the population – a population with a variety of languages and religions, even if Bangla and Islam account for the vast majority. However, you cannot impose a national narrative by narrowly freezing historic interpretations, including statistics. And you certainly cannot impose a fixed narrative by punishing those who are part of a process of developing a public discussion within or about the country.
Bangladesh is a country with a strong and positive culture; an impressive country facing up to major challenges. This ruling can only undermine its standing and its progress.