The online secular community in Bangladesh says it feels directly threatened by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s recent warning that bloggers in the country would not be allowed to “hurt” the religious sentiments of others.
“We will not tolerate it if you attack other’s religious belief," the prime minister recently said while exchanging greetings with Hindu leaders.
Bloggers, many of whom call themselves atheist, have long faced death threats from Islamists and some have been murdered. Now they are scared of being targeted by the government as well.
“The prime minister is indirectly asking the free thinkers to leave the country," said Ibrahim Khalil, a blogger who lives in hiding due to repeated death threats. "[Her] second message is, if they do not leave the country, they would be killed by militants or become victims of police torture.
"I guess very soon the bloggers will start facing persecution by police in Bangladesh,” the Dhaka-based Khalil added. “The government has failed to stop the killings of the bloggers, but it has now joined the militants in an attempt to take away the citizens' rights to the freedom of expression."
Government warns bloggers
Although Bangladeshi secular bloggers went into hiding in 2013, after Islamists called for their public execution for “anti-Islam” writings, five bloggers and five secular activists who supported them were later hacked to death.
Soon after police said last month that the investigation in the cases of killings was progressing well with the arrest of more than a dozen suspects, the national police chief and the home minister warned bloggers could face imprisonment for posting material deemed offensive.
Then, last week, the warning of legal action against the bloggers came from the prime minister herself.
Many believe Hasina’s warning signals that some of the bloggers could soon be detained under Section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, 2006 and face jail terms up to 14 years and fines up to $128,000 for “publishing false images and information” and “disrupting the law and order situation of the country.”
Activists fear misuse of law
Social activist and Dhaka University professor Mahbubul Mokaddem Akash said it was clear that security agencies in Bangladesh were monitoring the activities of some bloggers.
“We worry that soon Section 57 of the ICT Act, which is complicated and vaguely worded, will now be misused against some bloggers," Akash said in comments to VOA. "They have to define what hurting of religious sentiment exactly means if they call this an illegal act and they want to sue someone for this. It's a very difficult task.
“Who will decide whether a piece of writing is aimed at maligning someone or, it is part of a historical discourse?" he added. "Who will judge if someone writing is being within his right to freedom of thought or is attacking others with some false accusations unfairly?”
To decide on such a case related to Section 57 of the Act, one has to be in an intellectual war, he warns.
“The Act will be blatantly misused against a blogger if a related case is taken care of by a police officer who happens to support fundamentalism," he said.
Several bloggers, who did not want to be identified because they feared retribution from the government, told VOA that Bangladesh was no longer safe for them and they have to leave the country immediately to keep up their blogging activities.
Warning receives criticism
Hasina’s latest warning of legal action triggered criticism globally.
Rather than threatening them for simply expressing their ideas, Hasina should be ordering police to protect bloggers, who have the right to speak their minds about religion and belief, said Meenakshi Ganguly, the Mumbai-based South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“It’s clear that Sheikh Hasina has presided over an era of rights abuses and intolerance in Bangladesh. The shocking rights crimes like these killing of bloggers is just one part of an overall worsening picture,” Ganguly told VOA. “When are Bangladesh’s donors going to stand up and say ‘enough is enough’ and demand that this government get serious about protecting human rights?”
Michael De Dora of the Center for Inquiry, a U.S. organization that fosters secular society and humanist values, described the situation regarding bloggers as a crisis.
“The crisis — the emergency — is that violent extremists are using this ‘offense’ as an excuse to brutally murder those who dare to exercise their fundamental right to freedom of expression," De Dora told VOA. "These militants already terrorize and kill with impunity, and Sheikh Hasina's admonitions of secularist writers only serve to embolden the killers.
“Religious ideas do not need the government of Bangladesh to protect them, but its people do. Badly,” he said.