Bangladeshi blogger Washiqur Rahman, 27, was brutally killed in the capital of city of Dhaka on Monday. Police say Rahman, who wrote against religious fundamentalism, was hacked to death by three machete-wielding assailants outside his home. This is not the first time a blogger has been killed, allegedly over his beliefs, in the city. Last month assailants killed 42-year-old Avijit Roy, a blogger who also criticized religion.
So far, two suspects have been arrested over Rahman’s death. The Associated Press reports that one, 20-year-old Jikrullah, cited religion as his motive, saying “I stabbed him because he humiliated my prophet.” Roy, too, was apparently targeted by religious fanatics. The Wall Street Journal reported that a group called “Ansar Bangla-7” claimed responsibility for Roy’s death.
Freedom of the Bangladeshi press has has been alarmingly suppressed over recent years. Bangladesh ranked 146th in a list of 180 countries evaluated by non-profit group Reporters Without Borders in its 2015 World Press Freedom Index. And in a recent blog post published on the website of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), CPJ Asia Program Research Associate Sumit Galhotra explains how the country’s tense political landscape has served to shutter certain news outlets:
Over the past two years CPJ has documented how [Sheikh] Hasina's government has, in effect, silenced the opposition press. In April 2013, Mahmudur Rahman, a pro-opposition editor of the privately owned daily Amar Desh, was arrested on charges of publishing false and derogatory information that incited religious tension, as well as charges of sedition, and unlawful publication… In May 2013, police took control of the studios of Diganta TV and Islamic TV, forcing the channels to shut down for allegedly airing misleading information. Both channels, which are pro-opposition in their coverage, remain off air.
In a phone interview, Galhotra said that though distinct from mainstream journalists, bloggers occupy an important position in the country’s media. “Bangladesh has a pretty rich blogosphere, and rich history of debate and discussion. It’s certainly another place for people to express their beliefs and have discussions and debates outside of the mainstream media.”
Bloggers' prominent position has also put them at risk of extremist attack since 2013, when Ahmed Rajib Haider was killed (another blogger, another machete attack) for the instrumental role he played in publicizing that year's massive Shahbag protests.
The Shahbag demonstrations (named after a Dhaka intersection) brought hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis to the streets, demanding the death penalty for Islamist leaders they say committed war crimes during the country’s war of independence in 1971. Many of those accused of war crimes are Islamist leaders, who earned support from extremist groups like Hefajat-e-Islam Bangladesh which called for the execution of bloggers in 2013. “There’s a tension between bloggers calling for accountability, and the Islamists backing some of those who were accused.” On top of this, some fear Bangladesh is seeing a rise in Islamic fundamentalism.
That leaves bloggers exposed to extremist violence, and without government protection. In 2013, officials arrested four bloggers for speaking out against religion. And bloggers are treated harshly by the government for speaking out against ruling politicians, as well. Says Galhotra: “Anytime that a blogger writes something that maligns the ruling party, they are putting themselves at risk from the state.”
Monday’s disturbing incident prompted a renewed round of criticism against the Bangladeshi government for failing to protect the bloggers. The non-profit group Reporters Without Borders said in a statement:
We condemn the government’s failure to protect bloggers, especially those who cover or comment on religion, fundamental freedoms and extremism of all kinds, and we again urge the prime minister to combat this growing violence or else all non-religious thinkers will flee and strict self-censorship will dominate all public debate in Bangladesh.
Galhotra echoed Reporters Without Borders’ call for Bangladesh to take more serious action against attacks. “Until the government seriously commits itself to ensuring accountability, chances are we’ll continue to see these kinds of attacks in the future.”
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.