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In Bangladesh, climate worsens for journalists

Activists demonstrate in Dhaka over the weekend, calling for bloggers to be given the death penalty. (Reuters/Andrew Biraj)

This past weekend, hundreds of thousands of Islamists took to the streets in Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, demanding death for bloggers whose work they see as blasphemous. The demonstrations highlight the deteriorating climate for journalists, both those whose work is the target of the protests and those who have tried to cover the events. Several journalists were assaulted while covering the day-long demonstrations, including reporter Nadia Sharmin of the private broadcaster Ekushey Television. She was assaulted by a group of 50 to 60 Islamists who threw her to the ground, beat her, and told her that reporting was an unfit profession for a woman, news reports said.

These most recent demonstrations led by the Islamist political party, Hefajat-e-Islam, are in response to online writers and activists who have been instrumental in amplifying support for the Shahbagh movement, which arose in early February when a senior Islamist was sentenced to life imprisonment by a war crimes tribunal in connection with mass killings dating back to the 1971 war for independence from Pakistan. Many Bangladeshis saw the sentence as problematic given that criminals in the country--consistently rated one of the most corrupt nations in the world --are often set free for political gain when a new party comes to power. The Shahbagh movement calls for the death penalty against all those standing trial for war crimes. The movement also became a rallying call against growing Islamic fundamentalism in a country that is 90 percent Muslim.

Threats to online journalists who have written about growing fundamentalism surfaced in January when the popular blogger Asif Mohiuddin, who describes himself as an atheist, was stabbed by religious extremists. Events took a deadly turn on February 15 when Ahmed Rajib Haider, another well-known blogger, was hacked to death outside his home by assailants wielding machetes, a case that CPJ is still investigating.

Islamists also took to the streets in response to the Shahbagh movement, leading to violent flare-ups across the country. Several journalists were injured while covering protests. A well-known journalist couple--Nayeemul Islam Khan and Nasima Khan Monti--had a series of bombs hurled at their car while driving home from a social event last month. Khan has been a frequent commentator on television talk shows, and his opinions might have offended one of the contending parties, news reports said. The day after the attack on the journalists' car, unidentified assailants threw three homemade explosives at the Chittagong Press Club, where local journalists had gathered to be briefed on a planned rally by members of the Shahbagh movement.

In a disturbing development, four bloggers were arrested last week on charges of insulting Islam through their Internet writings. The bloggers, who have written about Islamist fundamentalism in a critical way, face up to 10 years in jail under existing cyber laws. The arrests come amid a wider crackdown on the Internet in which the government has blocked about a dozen websites and blogs since last week. Authorities have also set up a panel, which included intelligence chiefs, to investigate material posted on social media sites that is perceived to be blasphemous. Last week, the country's telecommunications regulator ordered two sites to remove hundreds of posts by seven bloggers whose writings it said offended Muslims, reports said.

Many bloggers have stopped writing, and some have gone into hiding fearing for their life, according to a Dhaka-based blogger who did not want his name publicized due to security concerns. At least eight sites announced a blackout on the blogosphere in protest of the recent arrests and wider crackdown. One such site posted a notice that read: "Bangla Blogosphere begins blackout in protest against harassing and cracking down on bloggers."

With violence continuing and the government saying that more arrests are to come, the situation is bleak for Bangladeshi bloggers.

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Comments

Yeh, Bangladesh is a tough place for the honest and non-political journalists-bloggers!

Thank you Sumit Galhotra.

Down with fundamentalism.
They are trying to thwart the tribunal of war criminals.
The secular tenet of bangladesh cannot be spoilt.

very biased and one sided!!! what do you say about the recent arrest of newspaper editor, without charge, because he speaks against government?

it amazes me that somebody of your credentials can be so ignorant, or perhaps you are wifluly biased?

2-3 million people marching to dhaka,walking 40-50km, have a point to make- its not just a few bloggers!!!! there is a facist regime systematically wiping out all opposition but you fails to pick up on this. read amnesty internationa, asian human rights watch, british QC's representing the alleged "war criminals"

Dear Belal Chowdury, Please refer to CPJ's alert on the arrest of the editor you refer to, Mahmudur Rahman: http://www.cpj.org/2013/04/editor-of-pro-opposition-daily-arrested-in-banglad.php
Bill Sweeney/CPJ Editorial Director

Since we are talking about journalists, the arrest of Mahmudur Rahman should have been a part of this article. The topic about journalists is inclusive and Mahmudur Rahman is part of the scenario. And if you insist on labelling bloggers as journalists, perhaps you should have mentioned the arrest of blogger Aminul Mohaimen by plain clothes police and his sonarbangla blog which was shut down by the government. Freedom of speech should have no sides or quota attached.

About my earlier comment: I realize this article was written before the arrest of Mahmudur Rahman.

Further commenting on your article, I would like to state that you have not covered the arson of the newspaper office of Naya Diganta, nor the periodical arrests by police at Daily Sangram, nor the recent arrest of two journalists of natunbarta, nor the attacks on journalists by the Chatra League, the student wing of the ruling Awami League party, incidents which have been regularly and well reported in the national media.

This is completely one sided and biased report which is least expected from CPJ. Labeling the islamists as religious fundamentals is short-sighted analysis. That massive demonstration by islamists gathered more than 4 million people in dhaka whereas in shahbag you can hardly find more than 1000 people now. Besides if all bloggers could be a journalist, as you write so, I think that it is high time to redefine or clearly define who is a journalist.

This story is unfarely writen .It was Sahbag movement ( backed by govt with the intention of destraction of all opposition party's in the name of war crime tribunal ) who create unrest and hate for others troughout the country and some anti religion bloger were leading that. Thats how all blogers came in the day light.So some media published what this bloger's wrote about religion in there blog and millions of people took the street to protest the bloger as people were getting frustrated by there hate speach lately.One of the most popular newspaper AMAR DESH was speaking the trouth fearlessly .Now that editor MR MAHMUDUR RAHMAN is arrested and beaten, electric shocked .Everyone was living side by side and govt. creat sahbag movement and some govt.backed media support it blindly.Thats creat all unrest now .So when a story is published in a CPJ site it is highly expected to be farely written story and CPJ should speak up for all journalist not one sided .Thank you.