Bangladesh has often managed to avoid the worst of the religious violence that afflicts Pakistan, from which the South Asian country gained independence in 1971. Bangladesh’s community of online activists, however, is fighting a war on two fronts. On one side, extremists affiliated with terrorist groups harass and kill bloggers whom they view as promoting secularism. On the other, Bangladeshi officials, who have positioned themselves as the chief defenders of the bloggers under attack from militants, are nonetheless moving to repress a range of online dissidents.
Two developments in February highlighted the parallel threats faced by bloggers in Bangladesh. On February 16, a Bangladeshi court sentenced five members of the militant group Ansarullah Bangla Team to death for the 2015 murder of the Bangladeshi-American blogger Avijit Roy, whose wife, a fellow blogger, also suffered serious injuries in the assault. Less than two weeks later, a Bangladeshi writer whom police jailed for his posts to social media died in prison.
Bangladeshi police arrested the writer, Mushtaq Ahmed, last year after he took to Facebook to criticize his country’s efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19. The Digital Security Act, which Bangladesh put into effect in 2018, enables authorities to detain or fine individuals who impugn the country’s flag, founding father, national anthem, or war of independence or who threaten “the solidarity, financial activities, security, defense, religious values, or public discipline of the country.” Human rights groups have described the law as “criminalizing peaceful speech.”
While no information released so far suggests foul play in Ahmed’s death, this news will bring little comfort to Bangladeshi bloggers. In effect, they must rely on the same government that arrested 138 critics in 2020 to protect them from extremist groups. The Asian Human Rights Commission, which compiled the count of detentions, noted that “the detainees include journalists, teachers, students, cartoonists, writers, political activists, and ordinary citizens.”
Whereas Bangladeshi authorities have weaponized imprisonment to muzzle dissidents, militant outfits have turned to more violent methods to silence prominent secularist voices. In January 2013, assailants linked to Ansarullah Bangla attacked an outspoken atheist blogger. He survived – only for Bangladeshi police to jail him three months later under the charge of making “derogatory contents [sic] about Islam and Prophet Muhammad.” In 2015, Ansarullah Bangla claimed responsibility for the murders of another four secularist bloggers, including Roy.
Ansarullah Bangla appears to draw inspiration from al-Qaida, which has offshoots across Asia, but the relationship between the two groups remains a subject of debate among analysts.
The Islamic State (IS), a rival to al-Qaida, has made its own inroads in Bangladesh. The most disturbing indicator came in July 2016, when IS claimed responsibility for an attack that led to dozens of deaths in a bakery in Dhaka, the country’s capital, though Bangladeshi authorities instead blamed the local group Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen.
Only weeks before the militant assault on the Dhaka bakery, Bangladeshi officials launched a crackdown on extremists that included 11,000 arrests in a bid to prevent that very kind of attack. While the number of terrorist incidents has declined, Bangladeshi bloggers remain under siege. Last July, Bangladeshi authorities charged a secularist blogger with violating the Digital Security Act after he posted a video critical of the government. They failed to find and detain him, though, because he was already hiding from militants who had threatened to kill him.
Bangladeshi activists and journalists have had to navigate censorship in one form or another for decades, and bloggers have also come under threat in China, Myanmar, and other nearby countries. In a 2019 attack that has parallels with events in Bangladesh, an assailant killed the popular Pakistani blogger Saddar Malik Naeem. Naeem had argued that Sunni Muslims should coexist with Shia Muslims, whom al-Qaida and the Islamic State denigrate as apostates.
The leadership of Bangladesh, whose constitution commits its government to secularism, has strived to make clear that religious violence has no place in the South Asian country.
Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has earned a reputation as an unyielding opponent of extremism and terrorism. She also has direct experience with these issues, having survived a 2004 attack by a militant group. Her government has told the United Nations that she “maintains a zero tolerance approach to terrorism and violent extremism conducive to terrorism” and that her deputies “remain aware of the need to uphold relevant human rights standards.” Even so, Hasina’s officials still target the bloggers who have the most to fear from extremism.
On a wider scale, Hasina’s government has wrestled with how to address dissent and placate religious factions, struggling in particular when the two issues intersect. Last November, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Dhaka to protest remarks by French President Emmanuel Macron seen as Islamophobic. A leader in the ultraconservative Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh group even called on Bangladesh to end its diplomatic relationship with France.
Rather than confront this issue head on, Bangladeshi officials opted to wait until those protests subsided. The strategy seems to have succeeded, yet Bangladesh has so far declined to apply this softer approach to dissent to its engagement with critical bloggers. Even if Bangladeshi authorities’ moves against Ansarullah Bangla and other militant groups mitigate one threat to secularist bloggers, the risk of jail time for a provocative Facebook post or YouTube video always looms. Today, Bangladesh’s online activists have little room to maneuver.
In addition to emphasizing secularism, Bangladesh’s constitution promises freedom of expression “subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offence.” This caveat laid the groundwork for the Digital Security Act, one of the greatest obstacles for bloggers in Bangladesh.
As Bangladeshi bloggers try to evade attacks by extremist groups and avoid provoking the wrath of their government, the space for freedom of expression has shrunk. Bangladesh’s crackdown on Ansarullah Bangla and like-minded outfits only solves part of the problem.