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Volume 453: debated on Tuesday 28 November 2006

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what assessment her Department has made of the protections afforded to freedom of speech in Bangladesh; and if she will make a statement. (103186)

Although the press in Bangladesh is relatively free, there are areas of concern. These include issues of regulatory control and political influence over the business environment in which Bangladesh's media operates. A free and independent media requires governments to provide a fair and transparent regulatory environment and an equitable distribution of opportunities available to and accessible by all sectors of society.

That journalists have been killed because of their work, and that attacks on journalists took place during a cricket Test Match in April and at a convention at Kushtia in May, is symptomatic of the climate of intimidation and violence against journalists which continues. Media professionals should be able to work freely without fear of intimidation, violence or imprisonment. Despite this, the newspaper industry has we understand, continued to grow with at least 700 daily or weekly publications serving a population of 140 million. Add to this the expanding and continually evolving electronic media, and it suggests a noticeable increase in public access to information from a wide range of independent sources.

The UK lobbies for freedom of expression throughout the world and as part of our commitment we support a wide range of projects that aim to protect and encourage the development of a free media. Freedom of expression is an essential prerequisite for many of the values and human rights, which we and international partners strive to maintain and promote. All governments have a duty to eliminate barriers to freedom of expression and to create an environment where free speech and a free media can thrive. In this respect during his visit to Dhaka on 22-23 November, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade (Mr. McCartney), stressed to political leaders and to the press, the importance of open dialogue and issue-based campaigning, to the exclusion of violence.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what representations she has made to the government of Bangladesh on that country's human rights record. (103187)

During his visit to Bangladesh on 22-23 November, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Trade, Investment and Foreign Affairs made clear our concern for and commitment to support human rights in Bangladesh during discussions with leaders of the main political parties—as well as with human rights activists. He also highlighted human rights issues in a widely reported speech to an audience of politicians, businessmen, and civil society representatives—and also at a press conference. He specifically raised human security in the context of the current political violence and also the ongoing concern about extra-judicial killings. He urged a greater commitment to human rights work with particular attention to vulnerable and marginalised groups.

We give human rights related work in Bangladesh high priority. Our high commission in Dhaka is actively engaged in promoting human rights in Bangladesh. The high commission raised human rights issues on a regular basis with the previous government of Bangladesh, which ended its term in October. It will do so with the next government as well.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what representations she has made to the government of Bangladesh about the case of Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury. (103252)

The Government have made no representations to the previous government or the current caretaker government of Bangladesh about this case, which we understand is the subject of an ongoing trial on charges of blasphemy, sedition and treason. We understand that Mr. Choudhury appeared in court in Dhaka on 13 November and that the trial has been adjourned until January 2007, at which time the prosecution is due to begin calling witnesses.