Killing the Voices

Media in the Mal­dives and Bangladesh are speak­ing out against the bru­tal treat­ment meted out to blog­gers.

Southasia - - FRONT PAGE - By Lubna Jerar Naqvi

On Au­gust 8, 2015 a large and peace­ful group of peo­ple streamed out into the streets of the Mal­dives. Hold­ing plac­ards with #Find­moy­amee­haa (Find Mad Man) writ­ten across, the par­tic­i­pants of the group were ask­ing for in­for­ma­tion about the miss­ing blog­ger Ahmed Ril­wan Ab­dulla. He was pop­u­larly known as Moya Mee­haa be­cause he would speak out against the atroc­i­ties in the coun­try. He had been ab­ducted from out­side his home a year ago.

Among the group was an el­derly lady, the mother of Ab­dulla, who wanted to know about her son’s where­abouts. In­stead of giv­ing her the in­for­ma­tion, she and the oth­ers were mis­treated by the po­lice which had been de­ployed to stop the rally. The gov­ern­ment’s cal­lous treat­ment re­in­forced its lack of em­pa­thy to­wards

the miss­ing and also re­vealed the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of the media in the Mal­dives.

Since Moya Mee­haa’s dis­ap­pear­ance, his mother and friends, mostly lo­cal jour­nal­ists, as well as in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions like the In­ter­na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists (IFJ) and even the UN, have been try­ing to find out about him.

Ac­cord­ing to a lo­cal blog­ger and friend Yameen Rasheed, Ahmed Ril­wan went miss­ing shortly af­ter he had writ­ten a re­port on death threats re­ceived by jour­nal­ists for re­port­ing on the pow­er­ful gangs op­er­at­ing in the coun­try. Rasheed said the sit­u­a­tion in the Mal­dives had be­come quite dif­fi­cult for jour­nal­ists to work in and was only get­ting worse. He said al­most all jour­nal­ists had re­ceived threats and ev­ery­one was wait­ing to see who would be next.

The media in the Mal­dives never en­joyed com­plete free­dom and was al­ways con­trolled by the state and even in­de­pen­dent news­pa­pers were in­flu­enced by those close to the regime. Things changed slightly in the early 2000s, when demo­cratic forces started to emerge. Media out­lets, es­pe­cially web­sites, be­came pop­u­lar for the peo­ple to vent their views. Nat­u­rally this led to the gov­ern­ment block­ing them but it did not stop the peo­ple from ac­cess­ing the sites through prox­ies.

The wave for change seemed to be im­mi­nent but the strug­gle had only be­gun. The change was sup­ported by the rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the con­sti­tu­tion in 2008, af­ter which Ar­ti­cle 28 of the con­sti­tu­tion granted media free­dom in the Mal­dives, thus in­creas­ing the space in which the media could work. This helped to im­prove the stan­dard of press free­dom in the coun­try. As a re­sult, the Mal­dives moved from the 103rd po­si­tion on the Re­porters Sans Frontières ( RSF) Press Free­dom rank­ing to the 51st po­si­tion. But this was hard to re­tain by the Mal­dives. In Fe­bru­ary 2012, Pres­i­dent Nasheed’s gov­ern­ment ended with a coup and the media re­verted to the pre-2008 po­si­tion. This was aug­mented with at­tacks on and dis­ap­pear­ance of jour­nal­ists, mak­ing the sit­u­a­tion even more dis­mal. It is pru­dent to men­tion that the media in the Mal­dives may be freer to work in some ways but it is still not in­de­pen­dent and jour­nal­ists are prone to ex­er­cise self-cen­sor­ship.

In June 2012, blog­ger Hi­lath Rasheed suf­fered a near fa­tal at­tack when his at­tack­ers slashed his throat. Mirac­u­lously he sur­vived but only to flee the coun­try. The at­tacks con­tin­ued, some by groups al­legedly sup­ported by the regime. In Oc­to­ber 2013, op­po­si­tion aligned Raa­jje TV's main sta­tion was de­stroyed in an ar­son at­tack. Then, in June 2014, many peo­ple were ab­ducted and ha­rassed by rad­i­cal­ized gang mem­bers for al­legedly post­ing pro-sec­u­lar­ist con­tent.

Another coun­try where blog­gers in par­tic­u­lar are be­ing tar­geted is Bangladesh. In a lit­tle more than five months at least four blog­gers were bru­tally mur­dered in the coun­try but the author­i­ties have seemed un­able to stem the ag­gres­sion to­wards blog­gers. Blog­ger Avi­jit Roy was mur­dered on Fe­bru­ary 26, Oyasiqur Rah­man on March 30, Ananta Bijoy Das on May 12 and Ni­ladri Chat­ta­pad­haya Niloy was also killed in­side his home in the cap­i­tal city’s Go­ran on Au­gust 7. An­sar-Al-Is­lam, the Bangladesh chap­ter of al-Qaeda in the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent, ac­cepted the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the at­tack on Niloy. Its mem­bers were picked up for in­ter­ro­ga­tion by the po­lice and are cur­rently un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The sit­u­a­tion is quite grim in Bangladesh, and the author­i­ties are walk­ing on a thin rope in try­ing to grap­ple with the out­spo­ken blog­gers and their ag­gres­sive op­po­nents. The Bangladesh In­spec­tor Gen­eral of Po­lice, AKM Shahidul Haque said af­ter Niloy’s mur­der, “There is no prob­lem in writ­ing blog posts. But, don’t write any­thing that hurts oth­ers’ re­li­gious sen­ti­ment. Hurt­ing re­li­gious sen­ti­ment is an of­fence.”

The at­tacks on jour­nal­ists in Bangladesh be­gan two years ago in 2013, when blog­ger Ra­jiv Haider was bla­tantly hacked to death on Fe­bru­ary 15, 2013 in front of his home in Mir­pur, Dhaka. Sim­i­larly, the other at­tacks on blog­gers were in full public view – Niloy was killed in his own home with his wife present in the build­ing. The bold­ness of the at­tack­ers re­veals the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of blog­gers in Bangladesh. All the blog­gers who have been at­tacked in Bangladesh had one thing in com­mon - they sup­ported or were mem­bers of Gono­jagoron Man­cha, which lit­er­ally means Na­tional Awak­en­ing Stage (gono means peo­ple, jagoron means awak­en­ing, and mon­cho means plat­form). A cam­paign be­gan in 2013 against the ver­dict on Ab­dul Quader Mol­lah, a Bangladeshi Is­lamic leader and politi­cian, de­mand­ing cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment for him and the Raza­kar and Al-Badr mem­bers who com­mit­ted crimes against hu­man­ity in 1971.

Jour­nal­ists from all over the world need to sup­port the strug­gle of jour­nal­ists of the Mal­dives and Bangladesh against the dan­gers they face in their coun­tries. The UN and other in­ter­na­tional jour­nal­ists’ bod­ies need to step up ef­forts to try and re­solve the sit­u­a­tion in these coun­tries and strengthen the jour­nal­ists. One way to do this would be to strengthen the jour­nal­ists in the coun­try and high­light the prob­lems faced by them. The in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions need to open chan­nels of ne­go­ti­a­tions with the gov­ern­ments to im­prove the state of af­fairs and to give free­dom to the jour­nal­ists. Atroc­i­ties against jour­nal­ists should also be high­lighted through global cam­paigns to build pres­sure on the rel­e­vant gov­ern­ments.

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