Bangladesh’s free-speech problem

By Chhetria Patrakar

26 June 2015

On the face of intolerance and hostile laws bloggers in the country are still unsafe.
Blogger Washiqur Rahman's Facebook profile with the words #iamwithavijit after the murder of Avijit Roy. Photo: Facebook / Washiqur Rahman

Washiqur Rahman updated his Facebook profile with the words ‘#iamwithavijit’ after the murder of blogger Avijit Roy. Ramhan himself was killed less than two months after this.
Photo: Facebook / Washiqur Rahman

A month after the murder of blogger Ananta Bijoy Das, the third such incident this year, Bangladesh’s Law Minister Anisul Huq was quoted by Dhaka Tribune saying the killers of bloggers would be brought to justice and that the bloggers should express themselves without fear. But the government is far from walking the talk. The murder of three bloggers in as many months raised questions about the government’s commitment to freedom of expression in a country ranked 146 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index for 2015.

The onslaught on bloggers can be traced back to February 2013 when Ahmed Rajib Haider, whose writings were considered instrumental in garnering support and solidarity for the Shahbagh protests, was murdered. Following Haider’s murder, hardline Islamists in Bangladesh started protests accusing bloggers of blasphemy and demanding their execution. The Sheikh Hasina government reacted by blocking several websites and blogs and arrested atheist bloggers under the controversial Information & Communication Technology (ICT) Act.

The three bloggers slain since February this year Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman and Ananta Bijoy Das happen to have been named on the list that was submitted to Bangladesh’s interior ministry in 2013 by extremist Islamic groups urging the government to take action against them for alleged derogatory writings on Islam.

With little action taken by the government, bloggers continue to feel unsafe. In an interview to Al Jazeera last month, blogger Ananya Azad said the police were not doing anything despite being aware of the death threats he received on Facebook. Law is not on their side either. The ICT Act gives wide scope to the government to crack down on any form of dissent. According to the Section 57 of the Act, it is an offence to publish or transmit online any material which deteriorates law and order, prejudices the image of the state, hurts religious belief, or instigates against any person or organisation, which can be interpreted in multiple ways in order to curb the voice of dissent. Bloggers Asif Mohiuddin, Subrata Adhikari Shuvo, Mashiur Rahman Biplob and Rasel Parvez were arrested in 2013 after the Shahbag protests and are on trial for hurting religious sentiments.

The 2013 amendment to the Act has further jeopardised free expression by increasing the minimum and maximum prison sentences to seven and 14 years respectively, making offences under the Act non-bailable and empowering the police to make arrests without warrants.

Though Minister Huq said the ICT Act would be amended and modernised, no details were charted out. He also said the government would enact a new law to prevent cyber crime which, he claimed, would ensure freedom of speech and expression. However, it is not clear how a law dealing with online crimes will prevent physical attacks on the bloggers.

~With research and input by editorial intern Tejeshwi Nath Bhattarai.

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