WASHINGTON - On his two TV programs, host Nurul Islam Faruqi would regularly speak out against Islamist militancy and groups. But he was silenced on the night of Aug. 27 when he was brutally murdered inside his house in Dhaka. According to AFP, Mozaffor Bin Mohosin, a hardline Muslim preacher, was recently arrested for inciting the murder. Faruqi’s murder highlights the multifaceted threats journalists face in Bangladesh.
While there is a debate about whether Faruqi fits into the traditional definition of a journalist or not -- he was a leader of an Islamist group and a businessman as well -- the case illustrates the challenges facing journalists in Bangladesh. They are arrested and killed with impunity while blogs and newspapers are closed down with little supporting evidence.
“We’re watching the situation there with a lot of concern,” said Sumit Galhotra, a research associate with the Committee to Protect Journalists. The New York-based nonprofit organization which promotes press freedom, last year cited the country among those where targeted violence against journalists had increased.
Press Freedom has worsened over the past several years which analysts believe can primarily be explained by religious sensitivities and repressive media laws. Since 1996, 23 journalists have been killed in Bangladesh, according to CPJ, seven of them since 2012.
While Bangladesh is constitutionally a secular country, religion plays an important role in the country, where more than 90 percent of the population is Muslim. Analysts believe the government has come down hard on journalists in order to appease the country’s Islamist groups, some of which are politically active.
Yet online journalism is mushrooming. Bangladesh, a country of more than 160 million people, now has about 200,000 “active” bloggers, according to Freedom House, a Washington-based press freedom watchdog. Before 2005, there was no blogging platform in the local Bangla language.
A pioneer in the online media landscape has been somewhere in…blog, an online blogging platform in Bangla, which attracts 175,000 bloggers. Syeda Gulshan Ferdous Jana started the blog in 2005, to give Bangladeshi’s a chance to voice their concerns, after 500 low-intensity bombs exploded throughout the country whose responsibility was claimed by a militant group seeking to enforce Islamic law in the country.
But with the rapid growth in blogging has come serious challenges.
Worsening press freedom
The French-based organization Reporters Without Border (RSF) this year ranked Bangladesh 146 out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom -- even worse than countries mired in conflict such as Mali and Afghanistan. This was Bangladesh’s worst performance in the press freedom ranking in almost a decade.
In their annual reports over the past few years, RSF, which first published the press freedom ranking in 2002, has highlighted how Bangladeshi journalists have had to overcome security forces that stood by passively as journalists were attacked and “enemies of the media (that) enjoy impunity and are rarely brought to justice.”
Deeply Polarized Country
For Jana, from somewhere in…blog, even the slightest criticism of religion can cause problems for the press, and is the biggest challenge for press freedom.
“Right now, it is a challenge to talk about religion or put your different opinions on religion,” Jana said. “We call Bangladesh a secular country, but really there are people… who don’t dare to put their opinion against religion."
The polarizing role of religion was highlighted last year when protests erupted in the country against what was perceived as a lenient sentencing against Abdul Quader Mollah, a leader of the religious Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party, for war crimes during the partition with Pakistan in 1971.
The protests, known as the Shahbag movement, relied heavily on bloggers, which led to widespread anger against them and “inflamed a lot of tensions from the other side, the Islamists side,” said CPJ’s Galhotra.
The confrontation came to a head in February 2013 when a well-known blogger and one of the organizers of the Shahbag protests, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was killed and four other bloggers were arrested soon after, he said.
Rasel Parvez, one of the bloggers arrested, who is currently out on bail, believes that the blame lies with the government. He gave voice to an opinion in Bangladesh that the bloggers were targeted by the government in order to appease the Islamists.
“The threat is always there…all I ask is to give our government some sense,” Parvez pleaded during an interview with VOA when talking about his safety.
Jana, from somewhere in…blog, agrees when it comes to pressure from the government.
She was contacted by the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) to remove several blogs for being “anti-Islamic.” There was pressure from Islamist parties as well.
“I was (receiving) serious threats, death threats from the Jamaat-e-Islami,” she said.
To deal with these threats, Jana and her team started creating a transparency report, which lists every request they received to shut down a blog and who it was made by.
But the issue of religion is unlikely to be solved anytime soon.
For Bulbul Monjurul Ahsan, editor-in-chief and CEO of Boishakhi television, a local TV channel and vice chair of the Vienna-based International Press Institute, as admirable as the rise of bloggers has been, the issue of religion is much deeper and comes from the “very conservative, very religious, very segregated culture.”
“It’s a confrontation of culture… the confrontation is (still) there, the opposition from the religious fundamentalist groups is there,” he said.
Repressive and Outdated Laws
Another major threat to press freedom in the country has been repressive laws, analysts said.
Amendments made to one such law, the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, last year are raising concerns amongst journalists and analysts.
Even before the amendments, the law made it an offence if anyone “deliberately publishes,” amongst other material, anything “that may hurt religious belief(s)” on a website or other electronic media.
The amendments now allows law enforcement agencies to arrest a suspect without a warrant and have increased the maximum jail sentence from 10 to 14 years, something Jana felt would hurt the freedom of the press in the country.
“Laws have come up, including the ICT Act, that have been brought into effect really to curb criticism on these online spaces,” said Galhotra from CPJ.
Some members of the Bangladeshi press were also concerned about the Printing and Publication Act of 1973 being brought back, that would give district magistrates the power to close down newspapers if they are perceived as being anti-state or anti-religious, said Ahsan from the local TV channel.
While the government has publicly denied any such plans, even talks about bringing back the law highlights the issue of outdated laws in the country, he said.
“We need new laws…we have old laws which are not able to govern the media,” Ahsan said.