Hate speech and murder silences freedom of expression in Bangladesh

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has joined Bangladesh journalist networks, the Bangladesh Manobodhikar Sambadhik Forum (BMSF) and the Bangladesh Nari Sambadhik Kendra (BNSK) in expressing serious concern over the worsening safety situation for journalists and bloggers in Bangladesh. In the light of three murders in as many months in the country, the IFJ urges the government to take immediate and active steps to punish those involved in killing and to tackle the high levels of hate speech in the media and online space that is creating a dangerous working environment for media workers and bloggers across the country.

The IFJ, the BMSF and the BNSK also strongly condemn recent death threats to bloggers including Ananya Azad and Imran H Sarkar and called on the government to ensure threatened bloggers are offered adequate protections.

Avijit Roy, a high-profile US-Bangladeshi blogger and author, was murdered in a machete attack in Dhaka on February 26. Washiqur Rahman was the second blogger killed in Dhaka on March 30, after being attacked by three armed men on his way to work. In the latest murder, blogger Ananta Bijoy Das was also killed on his way to work on May 12 in the north-eastern city of Sylhet.

Following the most recent slaying, another blogger Ananya Azad received a Facebook message threatening: “You would be the next person. So be careful.” Azad quit his job as a newspaper columnist following Rahman’s murder in March and also ceased writing his blogs. Since then, he has continued writing his opinions in Facebook communities. Azad is the son of writer Humayun Azad, who survived a murder attempt on his life in February 27, 2004, allegedly for hiswritings criticising religious fundamentalism.

The names of Ananya Azad, along with Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman and Ananta Bijoy Das and another blogger Ahmed Rajiv Haider (murdered in December 2013) are among 84 ‘secular bloggers’ named in a document circulated as ‘anti-Islam’ by a South Asian arm of Al-Queda, Hefazat-e-Islam. The group presented the list to Bangladesh’s interior ministry in 2013 asking for the writers to be punished. The IFJ has been told the list has since made its way into wide circulation and can easily be found on the internet.

The recent decent in freedom of expression in Bangladesh had its origins in the so-called Shahbag Protests of 2013, when thousands of people joined in protests demanding capital punishment for war criminals and the banning of institutions formed by or supporting those accused of war crimes during Bangladesh’s independence war in 1971. Citizen journalists and bloggers are understood to have played a significant role in the public protests and subsequently became the targets of Hefazat-e-Islam, which ran a hate campaign against the protest initiators as anti-Islam.

Although Bangladesh is officially a secular country, more than 90 percent of its population is Muslim and Islamist leaders have long pushed for Islam to play a more prominent part in public affairs.

The IFJ understands after the murder of Haider in December 2013, a number of bloggers fled the country.

On May 21, 2015, the Hefazat-e-Islam threatened to kill 10 eminent Bangladeshis including blogger Imran H Sarkar terming them as atheist and anti-Islam. Copies of the letter were mailed to home addresses with a warning reading: “Must you will prepare for dead.”

On May 26 the Bangladeshi government banned another Islamic extremist group, Ansarullah Bangla Team, under the country’s anti-terrorism law. This move was seen as the first step by the government to take action against the growing threat against freedom of expression in the country.

The IFJ Asia Pacific said: “The IFJ is seriously concerned for the safety and security of Bangladesh’s media workers, in particular the blogging community. The fact that the government was presented with a list of individuals by a religious group and now a number of these individuals have been killed seriously calls into question the State’s duties and obligations to protect its citizens. This list is now in wide circulation, ultimately creating a climate of fear across the country.”

The IFJ urges the Bangladesh government to take immediate and active steps to provide adequate security to media workers and bloggers to ensure their safety and take action to end the threats and intimidations against the media community.

“This escalation of hate speech has effectively served to silence freedom of expression in Bangladesh. As long as the government turns away from its obligations and allows this toxic climate to continue, the fundamental foundation of a free and democratic society can never be achieved.”

The IFJ urges Bangladeshi media workers and bloggers to take all necessary safety precautions in their daily life and to adhere to professional ethics in their reporting and commentary.

The IFJ calls for immediate and robust action by the Bangladeshi government to end the attacks on freedom of expression in the country.

Article 19 released Freedom of Expression in Bangladesh 2014 earlier this year, highlighting the challenges for freedom of expression.  

If you have experienced threats to your safety or are concerned for your well-being please contact Ujjwal Acharya (ifjsouthasia@gmail.com) and see the IFJ Safety website for more information here.

For further information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific on +61 2 9333 0950 

The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 131 countries

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