The Bloggers of Bangladesh: Interview with Sam Jahan

26 Aug, 2015

In a span of one year, Bangladesh has witnessed heinous murder of four bloggers. Ahmed Rajib Haider was the first target in 2013 and he was hacked to death. Islamist militants have taken the credit for the killing.

In February of 2015, Bangladeshi-American activist, writer and blogger Avijit Roy was also murdered in similar condition as Haider. In March, blogger Md Oyasiqur Rahman Babu known for writing notes opposing religious beliefs, superstitions and radical Islamists on his facebook profile was attacked while on his way to a local travel agent and was declare dead on arrival at the hospital. In May, Ananta Bijoy Das, a well-known blogger who regularly wrote for Mukto-Mona was killed by an armed group near his home in Sylhet.

NGO worker and blogger Niloy Neel nee Niloy Chattopadhyay is the most recent victim in this string of murder. He was killed on August 8 and is the fourth victim in 2015 alone.

Religious extremists have taken credit for these murderers and have circulated blogger ‘hitlists’.

In light of these events, the IFJ Asia-Pacific SAMSN Hub decided to have an in-depth e-interview with Sam Jahan, a young journalist in Bangladesh about what could be the cause of these attacks, what actions are being taken, the importance of free speech and what the world audience can do to help.


1. Online journalism and activism is still a new and emerging trend in South Asia. These string of attacks in Bangladesh have put a spotlight on the power of the digital wave and the repercussions have so far been critical. Why do you suppose the response has been so ugly?

Religion practicing in Bangladesh, whether it be Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism, has always drawn bold lines in general people’s minds. People in this South Asian delta were ruled by Buddhist and Hindu kings. Then came the Muslim preachers and monarchs. Eventually Christianity was spread by English and Dutch settlers.

Virtually, the education of secularism and atheism were never taught to the people of this region where the Western world (i.e.: Europe) learned it through many crusades for centuries. Therefore, it remained as “dark”, “prohibited” and “underground” in South Asian countries like Bangladesh until cyber world took over the space of media.

Rarely any atheist write-ups were publicly published as book publishers and newspapers were reluctant to print those fearing the strict blasphemy law and rage of general people. Secular and atheist writers used to write and discuss inside small clans. General people usually were unaware of their presence.

With the burst of internet and social media in the last decade in the country, groups of freethinkers found an opportunity to publish their thoughts as articles, blogs and features easily without the help of “scared” publishers. They found a strong, effective and moderation-free platform.

Predictably, the general people of Bangladesh were divided into two groups, one was supporting the freethinkers and the others were against them. The second group is much larger than the first.

The first fatal attack on any online activists was seen in 2013 when atheist blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider was brutally hacked to death by alleged Islamist militants.

Following that gruesome murder, another four secular online writers were killed since the beginning of this year. According to the groups who admitted responsibilities of the murders — the “infidels” tried to “disgrace” their religion Islam. The groups somehow found it as their “holy duty” to kill those who mock the “religion of peace” and its prophet and therefore executed them “unerringly”.

On both sides of the coins, maturity of using cyber media in the Muslim-majority nation is questioned. The freethinking writers probably are not aware of the quality and maturity of understanding of their readers. Simultaneously, readers in general do not have the ability to dissect the inner meaning of such writings or digest the contempt against their religion.

Comparing to the resources and minerals it has, Bangladesh is an over-crowded nation. Competition is very high among its people. Their tolerance level is always in the red zone. Lack of education is another big hindrance to the way forward. They, in general, like to hold onto their faith for prosperity. Whether they practice or not, Bangladeshis usually become very sceptical when the topic of discussion is the religion. They don’t hesitate to become religious bigots if anything goes against it. Rather than refuting in a debate, many of them would simply go for a hand-to-hand fight.

So it is very much visible what would happen when a satire or an anti-religious write-up would grab their attention! Therefore, it becomes very hard in such regions like Bangladesh to accept online journalism and activism as tools of modern day communication. These tools kept getting abused, by all groups – anti-religious, religious, fanatics, general public and even by political parties – to reach “ominous” and “chaotic” goals.


2. What can you tell us about the public opinion regarding these targeted killing of the bloggers?

I decided to talk to several people from different parts of the society about their opinions on blogger killing. Here are the verbatim quotes:

Imran H Sarker, the top organiser of Bangladesh Online Activists’ Network (BOAN), said: “These killings are not any isolated incidents. These are planned killings by outfits of international terrorists. They found threats among the progressive thinkers (bloggers) who successfully showed their power of uprising.”

“Social media and internet meant to make us more tolerant and democratic. But due to lack of proper education and intolerance, our people have found these as tools of hatred and impatience,” Sarker added.

Mr Shamim Ashraf, web content editor of The Daily Star Online said: “When it is call of the day to provide security to the bloggers and free thinkers who might come under attack for expressing their opinions, the IGP’s statement asking bloggers not to cross the line would rather give wrong signal to the perpetrators. They might find a reason to justify their narrative for attacking the bloggers and free thinkers.”

Fariduddin Masuod, a top Muslim cleric of Bangladesh, said: “I wonder whether these killers actually know what Islam is! Islam is the religion of peace, it never talks about violence. These people are simply misguided and misinterpreted the holy Quran.”

Masuod, Imam of the biggest Eid prayer of the Muslim-majority nation, also critisised the “atheist” bloggers saying: “You can extend your hand till it hits someone’s nose. Believing in no god is one’s choice, but criticising others’ is not at all correct.”

A professor of Journalism of a renowned Bangladeshi university in condition of anonymity said: “All these are happening simply because of our intolerant tendencies towards others in the society. Political motivation in some cases played huge role too.”

Tanveer Raihan, 44, an independent thinker and a school-friend of slain Bangladeshi-born US citizen atheist writer Avijit Roy, said: “My friend (Roy) was just a victim of collateral damage. If politics is not involved in these murders, it would stop at the beginning. It is simply a mind diversion game.”

“Blogging could be about anything. But if we notice closely, it has become a trendy “bully” to call someone a “blogger”. As if, s/he is an outcast of the society.

Raihan also lambasted the “wannabe atheists” saying: “By bullying Islam one cannot become an ‘atheist’. Nobody needs to prove another religion as sham to get the title to his/her name.”

A 48-year-old top government official, in condition of anonymity, said: “This killings are utter lunacy! Nobody has the right to take away someone’s life by any mean. Though it’s true, many online writers (bloggers) sometimes write in such a way that would boil your blood if you are a practicing man.”

Masnoon Rahman, a young entrepreneur, said: “It doesn’t matter to me. You are responsible for your work anyways. But such killings are not at all supported. It spread fear among general people and businessmen like us.”

Golam Shahriar, a young-generation poet, said: “A political immorality is ongoing centring the term “Blogger”. I think some self-centred intellectuals and journalists are behind the commence of such killings. These people criticised some acts of the government in the worst way possible and eventually sold their doctrines in the name of religion. Religious fanaticism is nothing but a myth!”

Fakhrul Islam, 65, a retired banker, said: “Anything of too much is always bad. Why does one have to write targeting a specific religion when s/he knows there are people who might do harm to them? Similarly, Allah (God) does not give anybody the right to prosecute anyone without true justice. Even our prophet was very kind to the disbelievers in his time.”

Nasrin Akhter is a 31-year-old housewife, mother of three. She thinks: “These writers (bloggers) are simply anti-Islam and anti-prophet. Walking against the norms of a country is not easy, but somehow, some people (militants) are taking it very, very seriously!”

Mohammad Rajib, a 22-year-old rickshaw-puller who studied till grade 8, said: “Bangladeshi people don’t like anyone saying bad things about their religion. However, killing is a bigger crime.”


3. With blogging being a ‘new age’ media, what has been the reaction and discussions within newsrooms and journalists about the death of the bloggers?

At the beginning, blogging was taken very positively in most of the Bangladeshi newsrooms as it was the new door to “citizen journalism”. Many online news portals and even a few newspapers started to publish regular blogs. Prominent Bangladeshi blogger Arif Jebtik, who also writes regular blogs for hugely circulated daily Prothom Alo, was very optimistic about it in the beginning. But he was shocked when the first attack came on atheist blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider in 2013. Jebtik however didn’t stop writing.

“We (Jebtik and his fellow bloggers) are not going to stop writing fearing such heinous acts,” he said.

Many of the top journalists think there are many silent supporters of such killings as write-ups of many bloggers may hurt religious sentiments of general people. These veterans blame general people’s depth of understanding for such repeated crimes rather than blaming either groups of the killers or the victims.

Famous cartoonist Sharier Khan, who is also the deputy editor of English newspaper The Daily Star, said: “Silent supporters of such activities are increasing in number. Islamic scholars are not fighting with their words with the blasphemous interpretation of holy Quran by Islamic militants (who are claiming responsibilities for blogger killings).”

Shaheen Mollah, a crime reporter, said: “Many journalists are now in fear. Because they have tendencies to write online blogs besides their daily basis reporting. After the series of blogger killings, journalists are in an appalling state.”

By attending a 15-people gathering of online journalists from different media, several points came out as “hot-topics of discussion”.

According to the discussion of this group of young and progressive journalists, such acts of muzzling an emerging trend that might become a threat to a steady body which is being benefited for years utilising people’s prejudices is not at all new.

“Blogging has become synonymous to atheism in Bangladesh,” said Anindya Ayon, an online journalist and social media moderator of a renowned daily’s online page.

The group thinks radicalism is the biggest threat as democracy and freedom of speech is being constrained through it.


4. Many news outlets are carrying the story about how the Bangladesh in police are in fact telling blogger “not to cross the limit” or write anything that hurts religious sentiments. Why do you think the police have taken it upon themselves to regulate freedom of speech?

Law enforcers in Bangladesh are nothing but just another tool of the administration. Blogger Haider was killed in 2013, during an uprising of general people demanding justice of a convicted war criminal of the country, who was also a leader of the country’s one of the influential political parties. A militant group admitted the responsibilities of the killing. Police arrested a few in connection of the murder.

Before the prosecution of the alleged attackers, which already took two years to proceed anyway, another four progressive bloggers were killed since February this year.

After the latest killing of atheist blogger Niloy Neel, the Inspector General of the national police told bloggers “Not to cross the limit” and received huge sarcasm from different activist groups. He asked both the alleged killers and the atheist bloggers to reach to the law enforcers with their complaints.

Days after the police boss’s comment, a veteran journalist was arrested for putting a Facebook status, where he named a minister, a very-disputed business tycoon and another convicted war criminal as his life was at stake, because police didn’t accept his complaints against the trio.

Initially police said, journalist Probir Sikdar was arrested for violating article 57 of Bangladesh, the internet act, which said one might be arrested for defaming someone on the cyber space.

But later the home minister of the country said Sikdar was picked up as he didn’t go to police but wrote a Facebook status. Such conflicting explanations sparked massive condemnation among media people.

Sharier Khan said: “As police is unable to handle spread of militancy, this is simply a promotion of defensive strategy. The militants have already published the ‘hit-list’ of progressive bloggers. What if they don’t write anymore? They’d be slain anyway, wouldn’t they? This seems like 1971 (Time of Bangladesh’s war of independence) all over again.”


5. Can you tell us what actions are being taken to protect the bloggers and maintain their safety as reports have suggested that there are other bloggers on the hit list?

The bloggers community in Bangladesh complained about the reluctance of the government and law enforcing agencies of providing security to the progressive writers.

“They haven’t done anything noteworthy to ensure security to the bloggers who were threatened by hit-lists of the alleged killers,” said Bangladesh Online Activists’ Network (BOAN) spokesman Imran H Sarker.

“In fact, speeches by the police chief and the home minister sounded as if they were obliquely supporting the killings. We have seen no such actions that might comfort us a little,” he added.

The progressive community of the online writers also think when the state questioned about “transgression” of their write-ups, they (the bloggers) hardly can keep trust on the government for ensuring their safety. A senior spokesperson of the national police in condition of anonymity said: “We have clear instruction to run our operation for providing security to everyone.”

According to the police official the bloggers are probably “scared” to lodge complaints to police fearing the blasphemy law which was enacted in 1862 by the British.

“Most of these bloggers, who write contents containing religious mockery, are probably scared of that law. Also they write under pseudo-names. If they don’t step forward to acquire security, how can we help them?” he added.

“I request them (bloggers) to come to the law enforcers to ensure the safety of their lives.” the senior policeman said.

Different unions of journalists also did not show any specific concerns about the blogger killings except condemning such “extrajudicial acts”.

“Usually, bloggers are not members of any journalists’ unions unless they are journalists by profession. We are concerned and also we condemn such culture of impunity of killing,” Monjurul Ahsan, president of a journalists’ union in Bangladesh, said.

“We condemn such killings but no official statements on blogger killings were published on behalf of our organisation,” another journalist leader Fardaus Mobarok said.

It is very surprising as both law enforcers and media organisations are apparently not much keen to take the killings “very seriously”.


6. These attacks are also an assault to ones freedom of speech/expression. How much will these murders affect the future of journalism and/or digital media in Bangladesh?

The number of media houses who have detailed knowledge of blogging being a new-age media is questioned in the South Asian nation. However, among the few who understand the importance of blogging are profusely tensed about the situation.

Many are scared of the price for freedom of expression in the country. “The future of journalism is already gravely affected by the sequence of blogger killings,” Shamim Ashraf, content editor of a renowned English daily’s online section, said.

“Many writers went into hidings or simply went abroad. Why they had to flee? These are absolutely alarming situation for freedom of speech!” Ashraf added.


7. In advocating free speech, bloggers in Bangladesh have paid for it with their life while many continue to live in fear. What can the media communities/unions and activists of Bangladesh and the world do to help (and ensure their safety)?

The very first thing the Bangladeshi media should do is to realise the importance of free speech; why it is an important tool to a democratic nation, how does it play its role to convey and uphold people’s demands and rights etc.

When asked both the media and activists’ groups replied similarly – once the people’s voices are heard, the government will be compelled to put more effort to stop such acts of terror of extrajudicial killings.

“The media communities can only mount pressure on the government to provide security to the bloggers while also punishing the killers as soon as possible,” Ashraf said.

“The global community irrespective of race, creed, religion, political bias should be aware by raising their voices against such heinous crimes thus should mount pressure on the Bangladeshi government,” activist leader Sarker said.

I, personally, think, education system in this Muslim-majority nation should be monitored more closely. Whether the new generation is learning any harmful and improper knowledge. When the nation will be taught in the rightest way, the nation will find a tolerant, patient and comprehensive environment of both reading and writing. Then and only then we can hope such criminal activities would stay in the black inner pages of history.


Sam Jahan is a young journalist working for Agence France-Presse (AFP) as the only reporter in its Bangladesh bureau. He previously worked for Bangladesh’s most prominent English newspaper The Daily Star as an Online, Multimedia & Social Media Journalist. You can follow Sam on Twitter @samjahanAFP.

Photo of Sam Jahan provided by himself.

Featured image Photo credit: Munir Uz Zaman AFP during a candlelight vigil following the death of Niloy Neel in August.

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