Former vice-chancellors and prominent teachers of Dhaka University have condemned the university authorities threatening legal action against criticism of the university or its VC on social media, or publication of cartoons on the university by any newspaper.
This is a stand against the freedom of speech and media, they observe. It also goes against the spirit of the university, they say.
The DU authorities on Thursday sent a press note to the media after they were criticised in a news report for their performance during Covid-19 and the incumbent VC was ridiculed on social media for "unnecessary" remarks.
In its press note, the university said, "Dhaka University shows respect to creative criticism. But it knows the path of the legal action, if the criticism is intentional and against rules and values."
The university took the initiative after a leading English language daily had published a cartoon and news with "inappropriate information", it said.
Apart from the former VCs and prominent teachers, a large number of people including DU alumni have harshly criticised the DU authorities' stance on social media.
The Business Standard spoke to a large number of teachers – both current and former – on both sides of the political divide at the university.
Interestingly, only former teachers opted to comment on the issue. Those belonging to the Awami League leaning blue panel refrained from commenting and those seen as the BNP-Jamaat leaning white panel vented their dismay.
Many of those who refused to comment are well-known figures and are vocal for freedom of expression and write opinions in newspapers often with joint names.
Former vice-chancellors Professor Anwarullah Chowdhury and Professor AAMS Arefin Siddique, former teacher of history Professor Syed Anwar Husain, former teacher of English Professor Syed Manzoorul Islamm, law Professor Asif Nazrul and international relations Professor Mohammad Tanzimuddin Khan spoke to The Business Standard on Friday.
Professor Anwarullah Chowdhury told TBS that the university authorities must be more tolerant and must create scope for freedom of speech and also freedom of thinking.
"I believe in freedom of thinking and freedom of media. The media ran a lot of reports against me when I was the vice-chancellor, but I never protested them. This is the beauty of democracy and a civilised society.
"Media sometimes publish reports with misinformation. But the truth must come to light. So, tolerance is the beauty of a democratic society," he said.
"The university plays an important role in establishing freedom of speech, democratic society and freedom of mass media. It should not create obstacles to any kind of freedom. It can definitely express itself if it does agree with any criticism, but it (the expression) must be in the right way," Professor Anwarullah Chowdhury added.
Echoing Professor Anwarullah, Professor AAMS Arefin Siddique said, "A university is a place of free thinking. Everyone has the right to criticise. The university can protest if anyone displays misinformation, but it should be in the right manner."
Mentioning that he protested a report published by a daily in his 8 years and 7 months of vice-chancellorship at the university, Arefin Siddique said the university cannot hinder freedom of speech and the media in the 21st century. "I believe it will help ensure freedom of speech and media in future," he added.
Professor Syed Anwar Husain termed the matter "undesirable". The recent activities are against the spirit of Dhaka University, he said.
Professor Syed Manzoorul Islam said the act of a university is to produce and disseminate knowledge. No university can issue such a notice that appears as a hindrance to freedom of speech and the media.
"Criticism through cartoons is common practice in every culturally enriched society. The developed world practises it. The university must tolerate such criticism with an open mind.
"But, at the same time, no derogatory speech or writing on social media can be helpful. No one should write about others' personal life that can defame them," he said.
Professor Asif Nazrul said the notice issued by the Dhaka University does not go with its spirit and dignity. "The university's VC is not a king or pope," he maintained.
"It is unbelievable that a university could issue a public notice protesting the publication of a cartoon. It is also unexpected. The VC can protest individually, but why did he involve the university with the controversial matter," he added.
Professor Mohammad Tanzimuddin Khan said, "The university starts its activities with a question. Research cannot be done without questions. Sometimes it is a way of criticism. So, the university teaches the criticism and must tolerate it.
"Dhaka University or its bosses are not gods. The university is run with the tax collected from the people. So, criticism is a must to bring the bosses under accountability."
He said, "The notice issued on Thursday is a hindrance to freedom of speech and an attempt to show the bosses as gods.
"Criticism is mandatory to enrich its image in the global arena. It is high time we identified the weaknesses as the university is not doing well in the world ranking."
Reaction on social media
Ali Riaz, a Bangladeshi American political scientist, writer and distinguished Professor at Illinois State University, posted a comment on his Facebook profile, saying, "How the university teaches tolerance and rights to speech, if the university and its VC cannot tolerate a cartoon?
"A public university that is run by the tax of people, cannot threaten the citizens and I did not hear it even in the era of the Pakistan regime.
"The university is worried about its image. It is not the job of the university. The act of any university is to produce knowledge independently, distribution of knowledge, knowledge practice and ensure freedom of speech to all. The image will be enriched if the university thinks about the matter. And it will not need to issue any public notices."
Dhaka University Ex-students Association, an online platform with about 10 lakh members, shared several news published by different newspapers and the members castigated the DU's move to issue public notice.
Alumni Mostafa Kamal Molla wrote, "He [the VC] seems to be working as the Viceroy under the British Crown!"
Tarek Amin mocked, "It is a good decision. Now the university's ranking will be high."