FoRB on the Frontlines: An atmosphere of self-censorship

In the run-up to Human Rights Day on 10 December and the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders on 9 December, CSW has been speaking with HRDs across South Asia to find out what it means to be a FoRB defender in the region.

Julfikar is a human rights defender working in Bangladesh:

“When friends, well-wishers and colleagues frequently advise me to restrict my movement and leave my country for safety elsewhere, it becomes an indescribable mental pressure. I have been facing this reality for many years now, but it has intensified over the last one year as Bangladesh heads to the national election on December 30.

I have spent 28 years as a professional journalist. During this period, I have witnessed horrific political, religious violence, and brutal terror attacks in the name of Islam. I have investigated and covered many of those traumatic events and closely observed others. There are many more to investigate, but the situation is gradually becoming more difficult for people like me. 

In my career, I have exposed violations of human rights, religious persecution, atrocities, intimidation, war crimes of 1971 and criminal activities, abuse of law, corruption, hate campaign, propaganda and fake news on the social media with ill motives.

Reporting and writing about these complex issues make life risky, as this type of work somehow challenges the powerful and influential people and make them angry.

Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority country. Islamists have been campaigning for decades to transform Bangladesh into a homogeneous Muslim nation. As a result, religious minorities, who account for about 10 percent of the population, and also liberal Muslims, who support secular values, freethinking, open mind, and a coexistence of every citizen irrespective of their religious beliefs, faith, ethnic identity and political support, are coming under mounting threat.

When the second phase of terror attacks started in Bangladesh in 2013, it appeared more focused on silencing the voices of progressive and secular individuals. It intimidated not only the Hindu, Buddhist and Christian minority communities but also Muslims belonging to sects other than the Sunni majority. 

In 2015, Shia Muslims came under attack for the first time. The Ahmadiyya Muslim community, traditional targets of fundamentalists, encountered fresh attacks. Some other little known religious communities and a few university professors, publishers, writers and bloggers had also been targeted. Foreign nationals were killed in Bangladesh. That was the first such incident in a country where people are generally hospitable, friendly and accommodative towards foreign nationals.

The ideological scuffle between Islamic extremists and secular bloggers or writers that had been going on for years escalated to physical attacks and killings in 2013 and the trend has continued. More than 50 liberal writers, freethinkers, professors, LGBT rights defenders, foreigners and religious minority people were killed between 2013 and 2016. Most of the murders showed an unfamiliar pattern as the killers accomplished most of their missions by slashing the necks of the targets with machete.     

More than 50 liberal writers, freethinkers, professors, LGBT rights defenders, foreigners and religious minority people were killed between 2013 and 2016.

It is now evident that Islamic extremists have systematically targeted, followed and enlisted young bloggers, writers, teachers and journalists for premeditated hit-lists. Some of such lists appeared on Facebook and blogs, long before the actual attacks took place.

Against this backdrop, I have been warned by my friends, well-wishers and many colleagues to limit my movement for the sake of my safety. As the war criminals of 1971 and their political groups and also Islamist radicals have friends in democratic politics, they enjoy power when their partners and friends run our country.

Bangladesh’s 11th parliamentary election is scheduled for 30 December 2018. Patrons of Islamist militants, terrorists and hate campaigners are again in the election race. Some of them have threatened me in the past as I exposed their activities.

Naturally there is fear among my friends that if these individuals come to power it would be really difficult for me to live in the country safely.

So my well-wishers have piled pressure on me to ensure a safe escape from Bangladesh in the last year as the election draws near.  Advice is never in short supply: do not move alone on the road, do not go walking or cycling, do not visit any place regularly at the same time and do not use the same route every day.

Threats by phone have almost disappeared in recent years, thanks to biometric registrations of mobile SIM cards, but social media, especially Facebook, is a place where people can easily create fake accounts and harass me psychologically. They can follow me there. So it is very dangerous to use Facebook and other social media networks to express and share my thoughts with friends.

It is very dangerous to use Facebook and other social media networks to express and share my thoughts with friends.

At the same time, the government has also introduced a new law titled the ‘Digital Security Act.’ This law has replaced another previous ‘Information Communication Technology Act’ which had a controversial section 57, under which many journalists were harassed, intimidated and put to jail.

The controversial section 57 law has disappeared this year, but the new law has emerged as a bigger threat to journalists and people who often raise voices against human rights violations. The government insists that the new law was not intended to harass journalists or anyone, but in reality the law has created an atmosphere of self-censorship.

There are many people in our society that want to target journalists and the people who campaign against their wrongdoings and human rights violations. This law has created scope for the ill-motivated people to harass their rivals or people they don’t like, and created an avenue for the abuse of power.”

Read our previous interviews with HRDs from IndiaNepal and Pakistan.