Thursday, April 11, 2013

In Bangladesh, climate worsens for journalists

SUMIT GALHOTRA

This past weekend, hundreds of thousands of Islamists took to the streets in Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, demanding death for bloggers whose work they see as blasphemous. The demonstrations highlight the deteriorating climate for journalists, both those whose work is the target of the protests and those who have tried to cover the events. Several journalists were assaulted while covering the day-long demonstrations, including reporter Nadia Sharmin of the private broadcaster Ekushey Television. She was assaulted by a group of 50 to 60 Islamists who threw her to the ground, beat her, and told her that reporting was an unfit profession for a woman, news reports said.

These most recent demonstrations led by the Islamist political party, Hefajat-e-Islam, are in response to online writers and activists who have been instrumental in amplifying support for the Shahbagh movement, which arose in early February when a senior Islamist was sentenced to life imprisonment by a war crimes tribunal in connection with mass killings dating back to the 1971 war for independence from Pakistan. Many Bangladeshis saw the sentence as problematic given that criminals in the country--consistently rated one of the most corrupt nations in the world --are often set free for political gain when a new party comes to power. The Shahbagh movement calls for the death penalty against all those standing trial for war crimes. The movement also became a rallying call against growing Islamic fundamentalism in a country that is 90 percent Muslim.

Threats to online journalists who have written about growing fundamentalism surfaced in January when the popular blogger Asif Mohiuddin, who describes himself as an atheist, was stabbed by religious extremists. Events took a deadly turn on February 15 when Ahmed Rajib Haider, another well-known blogger, was hacked to death outside his home by assailants wielding machetes, a case that CPJ is still investigating.

Islamists also took to the streets in response to the Shahbagh movement, leading to violent flare-ups across the country. Several journalists were injured while covering protests. A well-known journalist couple--Nayeemul Islam Khan and Nasima Khan Monti--had a series of bombs hurled at their car while driving home from a social event last month. Khan has been a frequent commentator on television talk shows, and his opinions might have offended one of the contending parties, news reports said. The day after the attack on the journalists' car, unidentified assailants threw three homemade explosives at the Chittagong Press Club, where local journalists had gathered to be briefed on a planned rally by members of the Shahbagh movement.

In a disturbing development, four bloggers were arrested last week on charges of insulting Islam through their Internet writings. The bloggers, who have written about Islamist fundamentalism in a critical way, face up to 10 years in jail under existing cyber laws. The arrests come amid a wider crackdown on the Internet in which the government has blocked about a dozen websites and blogs since last week. Authorities have also set up a panel, which included intelligence chiefs, to investigate material posted on social media sites that is perceived to be blasphemous. Last week, the country's telecommunications regulator ordered two sites to remove hundreds of posts by seven bloggers whose writings it said offended Muslims, reports said.

Many bloggers have stopped writing, and some have gone into hiding fearing for their life, according to a Dhaka-based blogger who did not want his name publicized due to security concerns. At least eight sites announced a blackout on the blogosphere in protest of the recent arrests and wider crackdown. One such site posted a notice that read: "Bangla Blogosphere begins blackout in protest against harassing and cracking down on bloggers."

With violence continuing and the government saying that more arrests are to come, the situation is bleak for Bangladeshi bloggers.

First published in CPJ Blog, Press Freedom News and Views, April 8, 2013

Sumit Galhotra is CPJ’s first Steiger Fellow. He has worked for CNN International, Amnesty International USA, and Human Rights Watch, and has reported from London, India, and Israel and the Occupied Territories. He specializes in human rights and South Asia