Opinion

Bangladesh: Where 'blogger' has become a word worthy of death

In the drive to squelch expression, the institutions of the state themselves are failing society as the societal consensus on the importance of free speech weakens.

Mahmud Rahman is a writer and translator from Bangladesh who lives in California. He is one of 23 persons  who are facing possible contempt of court charges from the International Crimes Tribunal 2 in Dhaka for having signed a statement expressing concern over the same tribunal’s contempt of court sentence on the journalist David Bergman for some of his blog posts.

When I think about the state of free speech in the land of my birth, my memories take me back to 1970-71 when I was a higher secondary student in Dhaka, a time of upheaval when East Pakistan was making its way towards independent Bangladesh. Officially we were still under martial law, Ayub’s decade-long dictatorship deposed in favour of Yahya’s rule that came with the promise of elections. Political parties could organise, detainees were set free, the press could publish with fewer restrictions, and people began to launch new magazines and newspapers.

Spring of freedom

Every stripe of opinion found expression in print. Pushing aside the go-slow conservatism of existing newspapers, new ones emerged. Bengali nationalism, socialism, communism of various hues – all found expression in print. The main Islamist party’s paper acquired a modern press. Books were not that widespread, but you could easily get your hands on Russell and English socialists, and Marx, Engels, Lenin, or Mao. I remember engaging in a mix of agnostic, atheist, socialist, and liberal discussions.

There is something in that sort of  "spring" that beckons the young to amplify their voice. Two friends and I wanted to publish a magazine. We came up with a name – The Rebel – and of course, a logo. We split the writing among us. I can’t remember much other than we were inclined towards independence for East Bengal. Our perspective was no doubt seditious but we couched our language with a bit of caution. Did we even know that British-era laws required that publications be registered? In that climate, we felt the state wasn’t looking all that carefully.

That spring of freedom came crashing down with the onslaught of the Pakistani military. Overnight, newspapers were suppressed, with several having their offices burned down. Journalists were killed or brought in line. Many fled. Print shops destroyed books or magazines that had been in embryo. Our magazine never made it into ink.

It was a time of silence backed up with mass murder. Dissent retreated into other forms:  underground publications, verbal channels, or through the broadcasts of the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra. I recall walking the streets of Dhaka and wondering, upon passing military checkpoints, could the soldiers tell that you hated them? Could they read your treasonous thoughts?

Nine months later, Bangladesh won freedom. We would shortly ratify a constitution assuring citizens of freedom of speech and expression. Once again, despite the devastation, there was a spring of freedom. New publications emerged. That space too would not be stable, falling victim to a one-party state declared by the ruling Awami League, and later, through much blood and terror, the era of military dictatorships lasting over 15 years.

Each tyranny imposed new restrictions, but they also had at their disposal the old standbys: censorship and publications regulation laws inherited from the British, and from the Pakistani legacy, enhanced state control of radio, TV, and newspapers, bolstered by intervention from the intelligence agencies.

Every so often though, some type of spring has returned in Bangladesh, pressed on by upheavals against tyranny. The end of the Ershad dictatorship saw an outpouring of new magazines and newspapers. As soon as some were banned, others took their place. From 1991, elected civilian regimes followed but these also periodically placed restrictions on expression. And if the state lagged behind, thugs connected to ruling parties, Maoist remnants, or militants of political Islam would complete the circle. Taslima Nasrin was driven out in exile, blades were brought out to assault writers like Humayun Azad and Shamsur Rahman, and journalists were injured or killed for not bowing down.

Social media

Late in 2006, I returned to Dhaka for an extended stay to work on a novel. A year earlier when I was still in California, I had begun an irregular blog. Soon after my arrival, a military regime came to power, though this one had its khaki masked by a cabinet of suit and sari wearing civilians. With a state of emergency in place, censorship was re-imposed, politicians were thrown in jail, and during a brief rebellion, students and professors were tortured and imprisoned.

In the summer of 2007, Bangladesh had its own ‘cartoon crisis’ as Islamists were outraged by a mild cartoon that mocked a certain kind of believer.  Alpin, the cartoon magazine associated with the daily Prothom Alo, was shut down, the newspaper editor went on his knees before the imam of the main mosque in Dhaka, and the cartoonist, a young man by the name of Arifur Rahman, was tossed into jail. Soon afterwards the government banned the Eid supplement of Shaptahik 2000 for carrying a personal essay by Daud Haider who had been exiled in the mid-70s for writing that offended Islamic zealots.

I remember writing a few blog posts commenting on these issues. I remember going over my words carefully, weighing the implications of every sentence. The climate forced extreme caution. One did not know who might come knocking: the police or Islamists. Thankfully no one did.

The military made a mess of things and soon bowed out. Politicians were freed, newspapers again found their voice, and a new election was held. Talk shows erupted. New blogging platforms emerged, and hundreds of people wrote posts. Then came an eruption of people joining social media: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube.

Stifling dissent

There are more people in Bangladesh today expressing themselves publicly, whether it be with blogs, newspaper articles, or posts and comments on social media. What used to be simply talked about has now found their way into print and video. Those inclined to policing mentalities – and our society is rampant with this – are horrified. Isn’t this Anarchy and License? But the reality is that no one can control anything.

For example, Islamic preachers have long sermonised against Jews, Hindus, atheists, and women. Despite the law saying you cannot offend religious sensibilities, the authorities have not  cared about minority sensibilities. You can find these rants now on YouTube.

Atheists too have found a platform in a society that tends to be hostile to unbelievers. Some among them provide reasoned arguments if they are inclined to argue and educate, others rant or mock. Some voices counsel that this might not be the wisest of strategies in this society, but in the current era of technologically raised voices, who’s to decide anything? Youthful bloggers, incensed by Islamist-instigated crimes, whether in Bangladesh or worldwide, are often inclined to use sharp words. And sometimes be offensive.

There are plenty of offensive words coming from all directions. But only the Islamists respond with murder.

To them, "blogger" has become a word worthy of death. In 2013, Rajib Haider was murdered in the streets, other bloggers assaulted, and news emerged of a hit list. In the last few months, Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman were hacked to death in the streets of Dhaka. On social media, fundamentalists openly applaud such murders. Others who are not willing to openly support freelance murder believe the state should carry out executions: Islamist forces demand the death penalty for blasphemy.

Ultimately, though, it is the state that has to ensure a free environment. But instead of setting an example, unfortunately it is the state itself that’s taking significant steps to curb freedom of expression.

There is a new instrument in its hands: Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, 2006. Using this law, the government has imposed bans on YouTube, ordered blogging platforms to remove posts, and jailed people for Facebook posts, such as some that insulted the Prime Minister. The law is written broadly, people can be arrested without warrant, and it’s a non-bailable offense.

In other instances, TV channels have been pressured, talk shows on TV have been warned not to bring in certain guests, and a climate of self-censorship has descended among writers and journalists. People are afraid.

Once you encourage such an atmosphere, everyone wants to get in on the act and impose new kinds of censorship.

Courts have brought contempt of court charges against journalists, bloggers, and even mere signatories to a petition. And recently the police issued an order that any TV play or movie that portrayed police will have to get permission.

What’s next? Orders against portrayals in stories and novels? In my fiction I have portrayed police. Should I worry? Never had I dreamed that imaginative depictions would require permission.

Free speech

In today’s tech-enabled world, how much silencing is realistic? Unless you cut off the internet or have resources to control it like China, what can Bangladesh do? True, the state is investing a lot of money on hi-tech surveillance, but surely they cannot imprison everyone. People can still find their ways to platforms outside the control of the state. You might ban a physical book, or force the publisher to take it back. But what’s to prevent the text from becoming available online? How many sites can be blocked? Then people will find ways to email attachments. Word will inevitably spread.

There is another worrying concern. During times of unified opposition to military regimes, Bangladeshis have rallied around a consensus that recognizes the importance of free speech. In other times, such as now, when politics is fractured along major and minor divides, this consensus weakens considerably. When the ruling party bans opposition papers or suppresses opposition editors or journalists, their supporters applaud, justify, or go silent. Should the opposition come to power, they would act similarly and it is their supporters who would support their decrees. Meanwhile, Islamist forces demand blasphemy laws to silence certain kinds of people, and secular nationalists believe religion-based politics can be defeated with bans.

Murderers must be brought to justice and more killings thwarted, but extremism is the far end of the spectrum. So much more needs to be done than mere law enforcement. In the drive to squelch expression, the institutions of the state themselves are failing society. It is unclear how this will change until a new ‘spring’ emerges again. Under the pressures of today, voices in favor of justice, tolerance, fairness, and truth must refuse to be stilled. Restrictive laws and legacies inherited from the past – colonial, Pakistani, our own home-grown tyrannies – need to be challenged.

The country must not allow itself to be cowed into silence.

***

Also See: Statement by Concerned South Asian Journalists on David Bergman Case

This was first published in Kafila

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.