The Freedom Chat Transcripts: Bangladeshi Writer Anisur Rahman
In Bangladesh, secularist bloggers are under attack. This year alone, four bloggers have been murdered by Islamic fundamentalists. Many of these attacks took place on crowded streets or in the bloggers’ homes. Although arrests have been made, the government continues to blame bloggers for the attacks. Recently, the Bangladeshi Prime Minister said, “attacking others religious beliefs” would “not be tolerated,” comments that were directed at the online secularist community. In light of these comments and others from the country’s police force, bloggers continue to feel unsafe in Bangladesh. Although freedom of expression is protected under Bangladesh’s constitution, it is not enforced. Many fear that the Bangladeshi government will begin persecuting these threatened bloggers.
Sampsonia Way talked to Anisur Rahman about the state of media freedom in Bangladesh and the government’s accountability in the attacks on the bloggers. In 2007, Anisur was one of Bangladesh’s young emerging poets, the youngest member of the National Poetry Council of Bangladesh. He was also an active dissident and a journalist, reporting on human rights issues — such as the impunity of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) in the killing of ethnic minority leader Cholesh Richil – for a number of newspapers. But during Bangladesh’s political crisis, which lasted from 2007-2008, Bangladesh’s constitution was banned and there was no freedom of expression in the country. Anisur left Bangladesh in 2008 and achieved permanent residency in Sweden. He received support from the Swedish Writers’ Union, Swedish PEN and ICORN. This transcript has been edited for length.
How do you explain state of free expression in Bangladesh? Do the attacks on bloggers represent a decline in freedom of expression?
In 1991 Bangladesh became democratic, but it did not function that well. There was polarization between the nationalist, Islamist right center and the secular left center coalition that is still in power today, under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina Wajed. After Hasina formed this government at the beginning of 2009, after the December election in 2008, the highest court in Bangladesh instructed that socialism, secularism, and democracy must be established in order to regain the original constitution of Bangladesh. They started to implement those instructions from the court. All the major government parties and religious groups protested because they wanted to have an Islamic country with Islam as the state language. So the government made the constitution very contradictory. The country is secular, but at the same time, Islam is the state religion.
Today, press freedom is guaranteed by law. At the same time, one can be harassed by a particular group and nobody will be arrested. The point is, if democracy does not function properly, then the constitution’s guaranteed freedom of expression will not function. The first stage of democracy should function properly, and at the same time, its offices should be free from corruption. If corruption exists, then if you have a guarantee for freedom of expression by law, it will not be a safeguard for you if the offices are not free from corruption. I find the corruption is the number one problem in Bangladesh, before freedom of expression.
Politics is not in the hands of politicians today. Politics are controlled by businessmen and military. On Sunday night, one of the important secular journalists, Probir Sikder, was ousted from his office in Dhaka. His important family members were killed during the invasion of Bangladesh, and his family is recognized as one of the important secular families from the Hindu community minority group. He was arrested because he had posted on Facebook about three persons: one who is the minister now, another was an international arms dealer and war criminal who raped and killed people, and the third was a war criminal who got a death sentence for his role in during the liberation of Bangladesh, raping and killing people. Sikder pointed out three persons on his Facebook status, and he was feeling insecure and he went to the police to file a general report. But the police did not take his complaints seriously. One of the three people, on behalf of the minister, filed a case against this prominent journalist for posting that, and now he is arrested. And police got him three days to torture him.
The main leader of the ruling party condemned this incident and the information minister is also concerned. It does not mean Sikder is free from harassment.
The law guarantees freedom of expression, but when it’s put into practice you don’t have security or safety.
Were you surprised when you heard about the hit list and attacks on secular bloggers?
I was not surprised, because these are not new in Bangladesh. Humayun Azad was one of the pioneer dissidents in Bangladesh. He was attacked in 2004 on his way home from the Book Fair, and later on he died. Those who attacked him were not under threat. So, it is not a new thing, but I was surprised that after the groups made the list and published it, the authorities did not take any drastic action or initiate an investigation into who made this list and why they made it, who gave them this authority to make a list, and why they did not identify the people behind it. That made me surprised: the silence of the authority.
Has religious fundamentalism become more popular since you left Bangladesh in 2007?
I don’t think that religious fundamentalism has increased, but the conspiracy surrounding this religious fundamentalism, and also the investment in this fundamentalism has increased.
I don’t think that religious fundamentalism has any public support in Bangladesh. When there are elections, religious fundamentalists don’t do well. In the last parliamentary elections in 2008, the fundamentalist party had only three parliament seats out of the 300. It is an indication there is no explicit fundamentalism, but in the bureaucracy there are also fundamentalists, and fundamentalists have networks in the military. Many Islamists and some of the leaders admire or have sympathy for the Islamic fundamentalists. That is one problem, and I’ve found it’s a new problem.
If fundamentalism is unpopular with the public, why do you think the authorities were so slow to take action, especially in the case of the bloggers?
This is a problem with the police and bureaucracy. When the government is changed, this is the political shape of the government. At the same time, there is also the structure of the government. Bureaucracy does not change. I am hopeful it will adjust the formation of the administration, because the government has recently appointed a new minister Syed Ashraful Islam, who identifies as a very secular leader, and he is also free from corruption. He’s one of the good government leaders, and he got a new ministry called the Public Administration of the Bangladesh Government. I think it is a sign that the government wants to reform this administration in a positive direction.
But, at the same time, I think that the government does not want to make the bloggers a big issue, and that’s why they try to push it down. In Bangladesh, there are 1,200 newspapers and 30 television channels. Out of this, the 84 bloggers on the hit list is not a big deal for them, but this event got huge international attention. So, that is why the government is trying not to make this a big spectacle.
But, it is a fundamental right to have that security and right to practice your beliefs. If the government is afraid of something, they can make the terms of hate speech clear. When it becomes hate speech, then the government should say, “One should not ever be allowed to talk against religion or hate others,” and in that case, they should make it clear what is libel and where is the boundary. Also, when they say, “One should not talk against religion,” it doesn’t mean Islam; there should also be protection of the other religious people, and we should also consider that atheism is also a belief. But it is not clear what the government is saying.
Why do you think the bloggers are the ones being attacked? Are bloggers regarded as important cultural commentators in Bangladesh?
The bloggers are addressing issues that are not possible to be talked about in the mainstream media. In a blog, you can publish something right or wrong, or you can write something edited or unedited, so there are some fundamental issues concerning religion which is not discussed in the mainstream media. At the same time, the fundamentalists are very invested and they follow to see who is writing what, and which blogs are popular. I think that is why they made this list. To give a signal and say, “Don’t cross this line.”
What are your thoughts on the recently proposed media policies to restrict content that’s critical of the government?
I don’t know why the government needed to introduce these unexpected laws. There’s also a demand from journalists and the media community to withdraw these laws or to change it. I think the government can do it if they can make clear what is hate speech and what is not, then they don’t need to have a separate law for the online media. I think it would be better to change it.
What do you feel needs to happen to create better, safer conditions for dissenting voices in Bangladesh?
I think democracy should function as it is, and they need to have zero tolerance for corruption. In Bangladesh, the number one issue is corruption. If they can control corruption, then all other things will automatically be improved.
Fundamentalism and the emergence of extremism is the second problem. If you guarantee freedom of expression and you have a law against extremism, but the administration and politics is corrupt, that law will not function. So, the number one issue is the country should be free of corruption, and the second issue is then how they can control religious extremism and ensure freedom of expression, which is a good thing for democracy.