Voices for Interactive Choice and Empowerment (VOICE) is a research and advocacy organization working mainly on the issues of human rights, freedom of expression (FoE), right to information and communication, digital and privacy rights, data protection, as well as around the issues of climate change, food security, aid and development effectiveness, sustainable development goals (SDGs),etc, in Bangladesh. By building a broader constituency of alternative voices to the mainstream development discourse through research and public education, VOICE contributes to the development of Bangladesh.
VOICE’s mission is to build an equitable and just society drawing on the interactions, choices and power of indigenous cultures and resources.
VOICE strategically works through networking and partnership establishing a micro-macro linkage in order to generate increased support for policy influencing. It works with a team of activists on research and action and believes in promoting the capacity, knowledge and empowerment of people.
VOICE has the experience of conducting research and advocacy activities in collaboration with Privacy International-UK (funded by IDRC), Global Partner Associates-UK (funded by Foreign and Commonwealth Organization), Open Net Initiative (ONI)-Canada (funded by IDRC), Alternatives- Canada, Bank Information Centre- USA, EURODAD-Belgium, Association of Progressive Communication (APC), and Asia Pacific Research Network, Reality of Aid Network, Jubilee South Asia Pacific Movement on Debt and Development (APMDD), Global; Transparency Initiative (GTI) etc,. VOICE is also a member of Association of Progressive Communication (APC), Communication Rights in the Information Society (CRIS), World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), NGO Forum on ADB etc. It runs a project on human rights and livelihood project titled ‘Skill enhancement and livelihood security for the Rana plaza survivors’ funded by Beautiful Store Foundation (supported by KOICA).
VOICE is also member of a number of national networks in Bangladesh – such as founding member of Campaign for Good Governance (SUPRO), Governance Advocacy Forum, Governance Coalition, Citizen’s Campaign on Right to Information, Right to Information Forum (RTI Forum), Bangladesh Water Integrity Network (BAWIN) etc. It is also the secretariat of Right to Food Movement and convener of Aid Accountability Group, that closely works with Economic Relations Division, Ministry of Finance, GoB.
VOICE represents as a member of the Regulatory Authority on Community Radio, Ministry of Information, Government of Bangladesh and it is the member of Joint Task Team of Economic Relations Division (ERD), Ministry of Finance, GoB.
Since inception, issues surrounding human rights have remained at the forefront and as a cross-cutting theme in all of VOICE’s initiatives. As a principle, VOICE continues to observe International Human Rights Day and Press Freedom Day every year with or without donor funding since its beginning. VOICE’s experience in the field of civil and political rights is diverse.
In 2012 VOICE implemented a project on freedom of expression online with Global Partners Associates (UK) funded by Foreign and Commonwealth Organization (FCO) and in 2013, VOICE undertook a project titled “Strengthening Freedom of Expression Online” in collaboration with the international Web We Want Coalition. Under this project, VOICE reviewed the situation of freedom of expression in online platforms i.e. social media, blogs and news. This is the first ever non-government initiative in Bangladesh to research how online surveillance affects human rights.
From 2014 – 2016, VOICE implemented another project titled “SAFEGUARD: The Surveillance and Freedom – Global Understanding and Rights Development” with funding support from Privacy International. It was a collaborative research and advocacy project aimed to enhance respect for human rights and right to privacy in Bangladesh. This was the first time a non-government organization in Bangladesh delved into ‘privacy’ as human rights issue and explored the current situation of it in the country. Also VOICE worked in a collaborative project by NGOs on Press Freedom which was supported by UNESCO Country office, Dhaka from 2005-2007. And on Community Radio advocacy and campaign VOICE worked in partnership with NGOs and UNDP, UNESCO, UNICEF etc.
VOICE submitted report to the UN Special Rapporteur in 2015 outlining the human rights situation in Bangladesh. Also, VOICE translated and distributed the “Internet Rights Charter” into Bangla to popularize such emerging human rights issues that are largely unknown to people in Bangladesh.
In 2018, VOICE executed a research and advocacy project that performed a comprehensive and systematic review of the ICT Act and the Telecommunication Act of Bangladesh and their effect on human rights. Implemented with support from Association for Progressive Communication (APC), this research revealed the freedom of expression landscape in Bangladesh in great details and performed several policy advocacy and capacity building events.
Title of the project: Strengthening and Monitoring the Scenario of Freedom of Expression for Promoting Human Rights in Bangladesh.
Expressing one’s social, political and religious views in Bangladesh has become riskier than ever. A sweeping drift towards monitoring and striking down freedom of speech, particularly in digital space, is now unmistakably evident in Bangladesh. Journalists, bloggers and online activists are being categorically targeted by both extremist groups as well as the law enforcement agencies.
Since inception, the Bangladesh Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act was riddled with sweeping controversies and criticism. Enacted in 2006 and amended in 2013, the lCT act was full of gaping loopholes making it a perfect instrument to subvert online expression in Bangladesh. The ICT act was routinely used to suppress freedom of speech and harass writers, activists, and journalists, often for their comments on social media. According to the Cyber Tribunal in Dhaka, around 700 cases were filed under section 57 of the ICT act between 2013 – early 2017.
This ICT act later transformed into the Digital Security Act (DSA) of 2018 which is even broader than the law it replaced and violates the country’s international obligation to protect freedom of speech. Writers, bloggers, journalists, newspapers, TV channels, social-media-users of Bangladesh are directly affected by the adverse effects of the digital security act. The situation has created a condition wherein media and journalists live in constant fear of sanction of the Government for it can label anything they publish as unlawful under the DSA and thereby, subject to detention. This fear or mindset of deference compels news media to comply with the process of the practice of constitutionalism and pledging to ensure rule of law.
In 2107 year, violations of the right to freedom of expression in Bangladesh reached their highest point in five years, with 335 incidents, according figures released by international watchdog ARTICLE 19 in 2018. (May 2018, ARTICLE 19 report to mark World Press Freedom Day 2018).
Reporters without Borders ranked Bangladesh at 146th out of 180 countries in its index of press freedom. Online activists and human rights defenders have reduced writing in both print and online media, as well as reducing their expression or posts on social media on topics related to freedom of expression, women’s rights, labor rights, indigenous peoples’ rights, freedom of religion and secularism.
Furthermore, censorship of digital content and communication medium, including blocks on YouTube, Face book, Skype and blogging platforms, has become rampant. ‘Freedom of expression and speech’ and ‘freedom of press’, as enshrined under article 39 of the Bangladesh Constitution, are qualified rights. Hence, the Digital Security Act is in a path of conflict with the Constitution of Bangladesh. Similarly, Bangladesh is a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The DSA is also in collision with article 19 of the UDHR which guarantees freedom of speech from all forms of censorship.
The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, particularly, SDG-16 asserts: “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all level.” Bangladesh government is committed to achieve SDGs by 2030. However, freedom of expression is widely restricted that sharply indicates that Bangladesh is violating fundamental freedoms and is not complying its commitment on SDG 16.
The proposed project is relevant with the SDG-16 which clearly states, (SDG 16.10) to “ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.”
Under such conditions, the proposed project intends to create a participatory, multi-stakeholder dialogue mechanism and analyze the laws and policy regime, thereby, contribute to strengthening freedom of expression through campaign and advocacy as well as analyzing legal documents and analyzing the ground situation..
To address the deteriorating human rights conditions and violations including freedom of expression policy level advocacy in participation with the stakeholders will be a catalyst to improve the scenario. Multi-stakeholders dialogues and consultations, capacity building training for journalists and online activists reviewing Human Rights Council (HRC) Report on Freedom of Expression, digital security act etc, conducting media monitoring exercise and documentation of the FOE violation cases will provide an overall policy guideline as well as will be supportive to protect the rights of expression for the journalists of diversified medias. By engaging Journalists, Youth and CSOs though critical awareness campaign and advocacy and public engagement will be appropriate for fostering dialogues and reform to create enabling environment for freedom of expression…