26 September 2022 is a historic day for Bangladesh, especially for the persons who are blind, visually impaired, or otherwise print disabled. On this day Ambassador Mustafizur Rahman, who is the permanent representative of Bangladesh to the United Nations Office in Geneva, deposited Bangladesh's instruments of ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty to World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) director general Daren Tang.
The news of accession brought a flood of joy among the visually impaired community as well as for the people who work with them. However, not surprisingly, this event failed to draw the attention of the mainstream media of the country, except a few newspapers providing some negligible coverage.
The indifference of our country's mainstream media houses towards people with disabilities is not new. Those of us working to promote disability rights in the country are used to being overlooked often.
Anyway, let me tell you about the Marrakesh agreement. There might be some questions in your minds- what is this thing? Who would benefit from ratifying it? What are the next steps for the implementation at the country level?
Marrakesh is the fourth largest city and historically a very old heritage city in the northwest African country of Morocco. As for the spelling, both Marrakesh and Marrakech (in French) are used, although the latter is more common.
On 27 June 2013, WIPO administered Marrakesh Treaty in this Moroccan city and it was enacted on 30 September 2016. The agreement was signed under the auspices of WIPO, for use by its member states.
Although it is called Marrakesh Treaty in short, the full name of the agreement is Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled, which is the latest addition to the body of international copyright treaties administered by WIPO.
This treaty makes the production and international transfer of specially-adapted books for people with blindness or visual impairments easier. It does so by establishing a set of limitations and exceptions to traditional copyright law of its contracting member nations.
These exceptions allow those with print disabilities to access printed works in accessible formats such as Braille and digital audio files. It also establishes rules for the exchange of such accessible format copies across borders.
It has a clear humanitarian and social development dimension, and its main goal is to create a set of mandatory limitations and exceptions for the benefit of the blind, visually impaired and otherwise print disabled (VIPs).
Millions of books, magazines, newspapers are published worldwide every year and almost all these publications are protected by copyright. That is, these publications cannot be photocopied or scanned and sold by anyone without the permission of the writer or the one who has the copyright.
These acts are punishable offences under the Copyright Act 2000 in Bangladesh. Violation of these can result in a fine of Tk 2 lakh and imprisonment for four years.
But we also must remember that there are about 300 million visually impaired people worldwide (according to the World Blind Union). Not all of them know how to read but those who know, they read usually through the braille system.
But due to the lack of braille publishing houses, books are not printed in Braille and even if someone wants to publish a braille version, s/he might be caught under the copyright law. On the other hand, original publishers don't really target the visually impaired community while publishing books or printed materials.
These create a large void for the visually impaired community for they cannot access the brilliant works of world literature. This void is coined as 'book famine'.
This global yet often unnoticed famine is alarming in its scope and impact. Many of the estimated 300 million print disabled persons around the world, especially those living in developing countries, lack adequate access to printed materials in accessible formats even though the technology to create such works has long existed and continues to evolve rapidly.
Unable to read newspapers, enjoy books, or research on the Internet, these individuals cannot participate in mainstream society. The result is a violation of numerous internationally recognised human rights, including, most notably, the rights protected by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).
According to the latest National Blindness Survey of Bangladesh 2020, an estimated 1.43 million people are living with mild to severe visual impairment in Bangladesh, and 19 in every 100 adults aged 30 years or older suffers from any degree of visual impairment.
The Marrakesh Treaty was negotiated against the backdrop of this famine - a worldwide paucity of printed works and cultural materials in accessible formats for them.
Ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty by Bangladesh will now allow the educated visually impaired persons to read books and literature written by renowned national and international writers.
Those books can now be converted to Braille version and visually impaired people who are computer literate can read the publications using accessible software on the computer, tablets or mobile phones, if they are converted to electronic form.
Audio books can be produced so that when they want, they can read and listen to the books themselves without depending on others. And, most importantly, this conversion or storage of books will no longer be against the country's copyright law.
Although the Marrakesh Agreement provides for the creation of textual versions of the original publication, these created versions may not be used arbitrarily. These conversions will also be systematic, and they will be accessible only to visually impaired people. These terms are also part of this Agreement.
Ratifying the Marrakesh Treaty Bangladesh becomes a State Party to this Agreement. This Agreement shall enter into force in Bangladesh on 26 December 2022, three months after the submission of the letter of ratification to the WIPO Headquarters as per the terms of the Agreement.
The first step of accession is to sign, which means that the member state recognises the treaty or instrument as a necessary matter, but it does not declare an obligation to comply.
The next step is ratification meaning that member states are accepting the treaty or document in full and committing to full implementation in their country. Once ratified, the member state is then called a State Party to this agreement or document.
Most countries take some time to sign first and ratify later. Some countries sign and ratify at the same time and again some ratify the treaty directly instead of signing it. This last process is called accession.
In the case of the Marrakesh Agreement, Bangladesh did not wait for signing, but directly ratified, i.e. accession.
The accession to Marrakesh Treaty is a monumental step for Bangladesh toward full and equal opportunity, but it is only a step. Now we must work on its implementation.
We must put our full and concerted effort into urging the government of Bangladesh to implement the treaty, and to do so without delay.
Visually impaired children and adults in the country have waited long; Justice cannot wait! The immediate step now should be amending and revising the Copyright Act 2000.
And producing more accessible books is another important step for Bangladesh in ending what many call the 'book famine.'
Ayon Debnath is a development practitioner currently working with Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind-Sightsavers, a UK-based international development organization.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.