Athletic Federation puts freedom of speech under microscope

2021-10-13, 5:04pm Op-Ed

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Sir Frank Peters.1 _sirfrankpeters@gmail.com_

Sir Frank Peters

Mohammad Ismail Hossain of Bangladesh Navy became the fastest man and gold-medal winner in the 100-metre sprint titles of the 44th National Athletics Championship held in January this year with the timing of 10.50 seconds.

But he has had the brakes applied to his success by the Bangladesh Athletics Federation and banned for a year.

Significantly, this will prevent him from participating in all official national and international events.

What good the ban will achieve is a mystery.  A year in the life of any athlete is long time... ask any Olympian.

While Ismail’s running achievements have been rapturously applauded by the BAF, his running-off at the mouth hasn’t been so welcomed.

According to BAF General Secretary Adv. Abdur Rakib Montu, the reason for his ban is because Ismail made controversial statements to the media regarding the selection process during the last Olympics.

But is the ban justified? Since when has the freedom of speech been kicked out of Bangladesh sports, or, indeed, sports in general worldwide?

Since when have sporting organizations muzzled its members and prevented them from upholding their constitutional right to speak as they so wish?   It’s common knowledge constructive criticism is healthy and often contributes to vast improvements, whether in sports, politics or wherever.

Constructive criticism ignored only hurts those who are so arrogant and wrapped-up in their own imagined self-importance that they cannot see their wrongs or what changes that need to be made.

Voltaire to the rescue

Like everyone else athletes like Mohammad Ismail Hossain are entitled to their opinion. The judgment he formed at the time may not necessarily be wholesome and based on fact or knowledge, but it’s still his opinion (ignorant or otherwise) and he’s entitled to express it.

There is a quotation that’s been floating about for donkey’s years attributed to Voltaire that says: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Voltaire also said: “If you want to know who controls you, look at who you are not allowed to criticize”.

An opinion in itself could be a heap of garbage or at the other end of the scale, a brilliant observation worth heeding, but at the time it’s said, it is merely an opinion... an expression of thought by an individual (as is this writing).

Freedom of speech and the right to freedom of expression is an integral part of the Bangladesh Constitution. It applies to ideas of all kinds including those that may be deeply offensive, but freedom of speech is not without responsibilities. Governments, for example, have an obligation to prohibit hate speech and incitement.

I’m of the opinion (no pun intended) nobody who speaks within the law should be punished for expressing his or her opinions, however much it goes against the grain. The punishment imposed upon Mohammad Ismail Hossain seems particularly harsh. Not only could it affect his future performances, alienate his sponsors, but also lessen the joy of his fans and the glory to the nation his successes bring.

August body

If the BAF needs to put its house in order, they should be thanking Ismail and welcoming his observations and openness. If not, they should be thanking him anyway in gratitude for his interest in the organization. There would be no need whatsoever for the BAF if not for the likes of Ismail.

Surely an august body like the BAF cannot be so thin-skinned that it cannot consider criticism, justified or not? Where would our politicians be if they took everything to heart? If nobody spoke out against what they think or believe to be wrong, what kind of society would this be? Even the government has an opposition to help keep it on the straight and narrow.

Even if the BAF investigated Ismail’s accusations and proved him totally wrong there is still no justification for the punishment given to him. It should be remembered that it’s only his opinion and he was exercising his right under the Bangladesh Constitution to state it.

I request the BAF, therefore, to demonstrate, in the noble ethos of sportsmanship, to overturn this ban immediately before it has time to take root and cause serious harm.

Of course, this is only my opinion. I’m interested to see how his sporting colleagues and the nation in general will respond, in this social media world of ours.

Sir Frank Peters is a former newspaper and magazine publisher and editor, an award- winning writer, a humanitarian, a royal goodwill ambassador and a long-time friend of Bangladesh