The image of Bangladesh that emerged following the custodial death of writer Mushtaq Ahmed - who was put behind the bars under the controversial Digital Security Act on charge of "tarnishing" the country's image through some critical social media postings - is in stark contrast to the image drawn by the constitution of country, in Article 11.
Among all other fundamental principles of state policy, democracy and human rights are the two most vital pillars, as Article 11 unequivocally announces: "the Republic shall be a democracy in which fundamental human rights and freedoms and respect for the dignity and worth of the human person shall be guaranteed…"
In the preamble, the supreme law of the land also pledges that "it shall be a fundamental aim of the State to realise through the democratic process a socialist society, free from exploitation, a society in which the rule of law, fundamental human rights and freedom, equality and justice, political, economic and social, will be secured for all citizens."
Take note that "democratic process" has been regarded as the touchstone to achieve the goals announced in the preamble.
If the pledge and the fundamental principles cited above are properly practiced and followed by policymakers and the people assigned to enforce the laws to run the state, the image of Bangladesh would appear bright.
But the unfortunate death of Mushtaq in jail custody paints a different and unwarranted image of the State, drawing allegations of making repressive laws, gagging freedom of press and speech, detaining critics and denying them bail, showing tolerance to extra-judicial killings. All the elements were in action in a systematic manner leading Mushtaq to his death.
This image has not suddenly appeared before the people of Bangladesh after the custodial death of Mushtaq Ahmed.
On the global stage, our image does not appear bright when we are judged on practicing democracy, enforcement of laws, fighting corruption and protecting human rights.
Take first the democracy index, for example, prepared by the Economist Intelligence Unit.
On the latest index, Bangladesh has ranked 76th out of 165 countries, assessed by the EIU basing on five categories: electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties. The country is still classified as a "hybrid regime" category, which means that substantial irregularities often prevent elections from being free and fair.
Democratic deficiency affects freedom of speech and press, which are considered the lifeblood of a democracy.
Take freedom of press, which media people use to exercise free speech.
Ranked 151st in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Bangladesh is still the lowest among all South Asian countries. In fact, the country has slipped down one notch in the index from last year. Bangladesh has not improved in the press freedom ranking since 2016 according to the index that evaluates the situation for journalists each year in 180 countries and territories.
Bangladesh's rule of law performance is also not bright. On the rule of law index released in March last year by the US-based World Justice Project, Bangladesh's ranking has slipped to 115th from 112th a year ago.
The index ranks and compares 128 countries to shed light on "how the rule of law is experienced and perceived worldwide." It measures countries' rule of law performance across eight factors: Constraints on Government Powers, Absence of Corruption, Open Government, Fundamental Rights, Order and Security, Regulatory Enforcement, Civil Justice, and Criminal Justice.
According to the WJP Rule of Law Index 2020, among the six South Asian countries, Bangladesh ranked fourth as Nepal ranked 61st, Sri Lanka 66th and India 69th. The lowest position indicates Bangladesh's poor position in all eight factors.
The state of the rule of law affects the human rights situation. Foreign and Commonwealth Office Report on Human Rights & Democracy last July decried the poor human rights situation in Bangladesh. "Reports of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and attacks on journalists and others continued during the year ."
The result of poor performances on the global indices is: Bangladesh does not have strong brand value as a nation. Despite having outstanding economic growth, the country's ability to influence global players such as states, corporations, and communities has declined, according to the latest Global Soft Power Index 2021. Soft power is defined as the strength of a nation to bring others on its side "through attraction or persuasion rather than coercion".
Why does not the image of Bangladesh look bright in the global eyes? Who are the people responsible for building and undermining the country's image?
Let's see the definition of the State. The State includes Parliament, the government and statutory public authorities, according to the article 152 of the constitution.
Performance of the organs which form the State determines how its image will look. If they perform prudently and efficiently, the country's image will look bright. If they fail to deliver on their duties, the picture will be opposite.
People who are in parliament, in government and in other public authorities are responsible for making good laws, enforce them prudently without abusing them in their management of the State affairs. They must honour the pledge made in the preamble of the constitution that makes the 'democratic process' a centre of all activities aimed at achieving the goals.
A deviation from the pledge makes the State fail to guarantee fundamental human rights and freedoms and respect for the dignity and worth of the human person.
When the deviation takes place frequently, giving birth to a new normal, people like Mushtaq and many others either die or suffer, triggering public outcry about what is happening now.
No such outcry, no critical comments by citizens can be blamed for tarnishing the image of the State if its organs function properly. But when people in power cannot properly run the organs, such as the parliament, the government, the State suffers from image crisis. Many countries with fragile democracy are in this situation and their policymakers try to blame people for tarnishing the "image of the State" by making critical comments. It's just a tactic to either hide wrongdoings or shrug off failures.
Advanced countries such as Norway, Sweden and other European giants do not blame their citizens for tarnishing the country's image by making critical comments against the government or people in power. In the global eyes, they have a bright image and they perform well on all global indices such as democracy, rule of law and freedom of press.
Yet, all is not doomed. Fast economic growth is one of the bright sides of Bangladesh. But it should be kept in mind that a shining economic growth alone cannot brighten the country's image as the GDP alone cannot measure the wellbeing of people. Only guarantees of fundamental rights and freedoms bring qualitative changes in people's lives.
Shakhawat Liton is the Deputy Executive Editor of The Business Standard
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.