Internet Censorship Spilling Over Into Real Life Censorship

The stabbing of Asif Mohiuddin, a blogger whose office is in Bangladesh in the Uttara district, has highlighted a continuing real-life drama which consists of years of the blurring of censorship in a virtual space and censorship in the real world.  Mohiuddin, whose Bengali-language blog is rated as one of the most highly visited blogs in Bangladesh, was attacked on Monday 14th January by three unidentified male assailants who stabbed him several times in the neck and back as he left his office in the late evening.  He sought treatment at a local hospital thanks to the aid of passersby, where according to a duty doctor he was bleeding profusely from five wounds in his neck and back.

Haridas Saha, a surgeon at Dhaka Medical College Hospital, told the Hindustan Times that Mohiuddin required more than three hours of surgery and had incurred six deep cuts, including two significant wounds to the shoulder.  Saha drew the conclusion that the wounds showed intent to kill on the attackers’ part, and that Mohiuddin was improving but not yet considered to be out of danger.  The surgeon also mentioned that Mohiuddin’s friends who were with him at the time of the attack were claiming that Islamic fundamentalists were responsible.

Mohiuddin is a self-styled ‘militant atheist’, and has frequently used his blog as a platform to criticize religion as well as to share news stories and write commentaries defending freedom of speech and human rights.  The Hindustan Times cites the blog’s popularity as being due to “its tirade against religions in one of the most conservative parts of the world,” making specific reference to a satirical piece Mohiuddin wrote in July 2012 on “the mass conversion of supermen to Islam.”  They also point out that the state religion of Bangladesh is Islam, and that ninety percent of Bangladesh’s 153 million population is Muslim.   His blog refers to god as “Almighty only in name, but impotent in reality.”

The news report (from bdnews24.com, Bangladesh’s self-proclaimed first Internet newspaper) specifies that no motive was currently apparent, and that the Officer-in-charge at the Uttara (West Section) Police Station, Khandaker Rezaul Islam, claimed to be unaware of the incident and that they were “trying to collect information.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists highlights Mohiuddin’s past incidents of official harassment, most notably his detainment by the police for eighteen hours in October 2011 after being arrested during the Jagannath University protests: Mohiuddin claims that he was blindfolded, starved, given no water and kept awake, with the Assistant Superintendent of Police Rafiqul Islam telling him that “Freedom of speech, ethics – these things make no sense in life,” and « Don’t write. You have a job, get married. No one’s ever achieved anything by writing. »  The ASP alleged that Asif’s writing had inspired the students of Jagannath University to protest against fee hikes, and asked him to stop writing his blog and posting on Facebook, labelling it “offensive writing.”

During his stay at the police station, Asif also claims to have been interrogated while blindfolded by an unidentified official between 12am and 3am.  Amongst other questions, he was asked whether or not he eats pork, if he celebrates Eid, if he goes to Puja and if he regularly says prayers.  He was also asked if he had been financially compensated by leftist political parties to engender public sympathy for the Jagannath University movement.

Mohiuddin eventually signed a bond which stated that he would “not call rallies online on the Jagannath University movement issue in blogs or Facebook,” after refusing to sign the original bond proposed by the ASP which would have entailed ceasing to write his blog or post on Facebook (or any other social networking sites).  He quoted the ASP as saying that the state in which he lived had no ethics: “The state will see whether you are on its side or against it. If you’re against it, you’ll be struck down.”

The CPJ had previously documented a number of physical assaults on and even murders of journalists, and their Deputy Director Robert Mahoney has called on the relevant authorities to pursue Asif’s attackers and bring them to justice.   The Hindustan Times reports that several other prominent Bangladeshi writers have been subject to attacks after taking a stand against Islam and Islamic groups including Humayun Azad, a poet, novelist and literature professor: he was attacked by members of an outlawed Islamic militant group for a satirical novel against fundamentalist groups in 2004, and later died in Germany.

Reporters Without Borders have also condemned the attack and suggested that “there is good reason to think he was attacked because of the views he expresses in his reporting on sensitive political and social issues.”  Violence against news providers in Bangladesh is on the increase, and  according to their research it is the sixth deadliest country for media personnel.

Time will tell if Mohiuddin will recover, and if the authorities will exhaust their resources to bring the perpetrators of the attack to justice after their own history of harassing the blogger.

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