Bangladesh has usually managed to keep away from the worst of the non secular violence that afflicts Pakistan, from which the South Asian nation gained independence in 1971. Bangladesh’s group of on-line activists, nonetheless, is combating a warfare on two fronts. On one facet, extremists affiliated with terrorist teams harass and kill bloggers whom they view as selling secularism. On the opposite, Bangladeshi officers, who’ve positioned themselves because the chief defenders of the bloggers underneath assault from militants, are nonetheless transferring to repress a variety of on-line dissidents.
Two developments in February highlighted the parallel threats confronted by bloggers in Bangladesh. On February 16, a Bangladeshi courtroom sentenced 5 members of the militant group Ansarullah Bangla Staff to loss of life for the 2015 homicide of the Bangladeshi-American blogger Avijit Roy, whose spouse, a fellow blogger, additionally suffered critical accidents within the assault. Lower than two weeks later, a Bangladeshi author whom police jailed for his posts to social media died in jail.
Bangladeshi police arrested the author, Mushtaq Ahmed, final yr after he took to Fb to criticize his nation’s efforts to cease the unfold of COVID-19. The Digital Safety Act, which Bangladesh implement in 2018, allows authorities to detain or effective people who impugn the nation’s flag, founding father, nationwide anthem, or warfare of independence or who threaten “the solidarity, monetary actions, safety, protection, non secular values, or public self-discipline of the nation.” Human rights teams have described the legislation as “criminalizing peaceable speech.”
Whereas no data launched to date suggests foul play in Ahmed’s loss of life, this information will convey little consolation to Bangladeshi bloggers. In impact, they have to depend on the identical authorities that arrested 138 critics in 2020 to guard them from extremist teams. The Asian Human Rights Fee, which compiled the rely of detentions, famous that “the detainees embrace journalists, academics, college students, cartoonists, writers, political activists, and odd residents.”
Whereas Bangladeshi authorities have weaponized imprisonment to muzzle dissidents, militant outfits have turned to extra violent strategies to silence distinguished secularist voices. In January 2013, assailants linked to Ansarullah Bangla attacked an outspoken atheist blogger. He survived – just for Bangladeshi police to jail him three months later underneath the cost of creating “derogatory contents [sic] about Islam and Prophet Muhammad.” In 2015, Ansarullah Bangla claimed duty for the murders of one other 4 secularist bloggers, together with Roy.
Ansarullah Bangla seems to attract inspiration from al-Qaida, which has offshoots throughout Asia, however the relationship between the 2 teams stays a topic of debate amongst analysts.
The Islamic State (IS), a rival to al-Qaida, has made its personal inroads in Bangladesh. Essentially the most disturbing indicator got here in July 2016, when IS claimed duty for an assault that led to dozens of deaths in a bakery in Dhaka, the nation’s capital, although Bangladeshi authorities as a substitute blamed the native group Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen.
Solely weeks earlier than the militant assault on the Dhaka bakery, Bangladeshi officers launched a crackdown on extremists that included 11,000 arrests in a bid to forestall that very sort of assault. Whereas the variety of terrorist incidents has declined, Bangladeshi bloggers stay underneath siege. Final July, Bangladeshi authorities charged a secularist blogger with violating the Digital Safety Act after he posted a video essential of the federal government. They failed to seek out and detain him, although, as a result of he was already hiding from militants who had threatened to kill him.
Bangladeshi activists and journalists have needed to navigate censorship in a single kind or one other for many years, and bloggers have additionally come underneath menace in China, Myanmar, and different close by nations. In a 2019 assault that has parallels with occasions in Bangladesh, an assailant killed the favored Pakistani blogger Saddar Malik Naeem. Naeem had argued that Sunni Muslims ought to coexist with Shia Muslims, whom al-Qaida and the Islamic State denigrate as apostates.
The management of Bangladesh, whose structure commits its authorities to secularism, has strived to clarify that non secular violence has no place within the South Asian nation.
Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has earned a repute as an unyielding opponent of extremism and terrorism. She additionally has direct expertise with these points, having survived a 2004 assault by a militant group. Her authorities has advised the United Nations that she “maintains a zero tolerance method to terrorism and violent extremism conducive to terrorism” and that her deputies “stay conscious of the necessity to uphold related human rights requirements.” Even so, Hasina’s officers nonetheless goal the bloggers who’ve essentially the most to worry from extremism.
On a wider scale, Hasina’s authorities has wrestled with methods to tackle dissent and placate non secular factions, struggling specifically when the 2 points intersect. Final November, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of Dhaka to protest remarks by French President Emmanuel Macron seen as Islamophobic. A pacesetter within the ultraconservative Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh group even known as on Bangladesh to finish its diplomatic relationship with France.
Fairly than confront this problem head on, Bangladeshi officers opted to attend till these protests subsided. The technique appears to have succeeded, but Bangladesh has to date declined to use this softer method to dissent to its engagement with essential bloggers. Even when Bangladeshi authorities’ strikes towards Ansarullah Bangla and different militant teams mitigate one menace to secularist bloggers, the chance of jail time for a provocative Fb publish or YouTube video at all times looms. As we speak, Bangladesh’s on-line activists have little room to maneuver.
Along with emphasizing secularism, Bangladesh’s structure guarantees freedom of expression “topic to any cheap restrictions imposed by legislation within the pursuits of the safety of the State, pleasant relations with overseas states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of courtroom, defamation, or incitement to an offence.” This caveat laid the groundwork for the Digital Safety Act, one of many biggest obstacles for bloggers in Bangladesh.
As Bangladeshi bloggers attempt to evade assaults by extremist teams and keep away from upsetting the wrath of their authorities, the area for freedom of expression has shrunk. Bangladesh’s crackdown on Ansarullah Bangla and like-minded outfits solely solves a part of the issue.