This year, Bangladesh has seen high levels of violence against communicators, with a deeply concerning lack of response and investigation from officials and government. Bangladesh is currently on the Global Impunity Index, and the lack of accountability around attacks on communicators endangers freedom of expression in the country, as well as individuals exercising that right.
Today, on International Day to End Impunity, ARTICLE 19 Director for Bangladesh and South Asia, Tahmina Rahman, has condemned in the strongest possible terms the brutal killings and the lack of progress in investigation into the attacks: “Impunity for targeted attacks and murders of bloggers and journalists fosters an environment in which violent groups are strengthened, because they are effectively empowered to silence those they disagree with without consequence.”
Murder of Communicators
This year, Bangladesh witnessed the murder of four bloggers within a period of less than six months: Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman Babu, Ananta Bijoy Das and Niloy Chakrabarti on 26 February, 30 March, 12 May and 7 August respectively.
Avijit Roy, a software engineer who lived in the United States, was well known for his liberal secular writing, often challenging religious extremism. He was also the founder of popular Bengali language blog Mukto Mona (‘Of Free Mind’). Roy and his wife, Rafida Ahmed Bonya were attacked by unknown assailants, reportedly with a machete, at the Dhaka University campus when returning from the Ekushey Boi Mela, a traditional month-long book fair.
Blogger Washiqur Rahman, who wrote on the popular blog Somewhereinblog under the pseudonym ‘uglyduckblog’ (Kutshit Hasher Chhana) was attacked in a similar manner. Having apparently been under constant threat from religious groups because of his often critical Facebook postings. Washiqur was pronounced dead on arrival at hospital in Dhaka after an attack by unknown assailants.
Subsequently Ananta Bijoy Das and Niloy Chakrabarti (who wrote under the pseudonym ‘Niloy Neel’), both bloggers known for their secular views, were murdered in reportedly religiously-motivated attacks. ARTICLE 19 has also recorded a fatal attack on journalist Abu Sayem, fatally stabbed in his own residence in July.
This year has also seen the circulation of three “hit-lists” reportedly written by Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), an Islamic militant group. The most recent of these, released late September, includes 20 bloggers based outside of Bangladesh, some of whom are Bangladeshi citizens, others being dual-nationals or citizens of the western nations.
While the international community has spoken with one voice to condemn these crimes and their impact on the exercise of freedom of expression in the country, the State’s response has been almost conciliatory at times, and has consistently fallen short of the necessary unconditional condemnation of these horrendous attacks on freedom of expression.
While some arrests have been made, progress of investigations has remained slow and incomplete for the most part, with police officials claiming to be ‘taking the time to conduct thorough investigations.’
Aside from the case of Washiqur Rahman Babu, no charges have been pressed against perpetrators, indicating that it is likely that investigations and trials will take much longer. Flawed investigations have also lead to the discharge of suspected perpetrators , resulting in no further legal action in the case of journalist Humayun Kabir Balu, murdered in Khulna in 2004. Trials are yet to commence in the cases of journalists Sardar Nipul and Delwar Hossain who were murdered last year.
Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19 commented,“These patterns of vicious attacks have no doubt had a chilling effect on expression, encouraging individuals and organisations to self-censor for fear of violent reprisal”.
This wave of violence against bloggers, prominent secularists, and critics of extremist religious doctrines, and the lack of adequate official action or response, has put Bangladesh back on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Global Impunity Index. Bangladesh is ranked at 12 of the fourteen ‘spotlight countries’, where, ‘killers go free”.
Speaking to ARTICLE 19 Professor Ajoy Roy, academic and father of murdered blogger Avijit Roy commented: “I urge to the government of Bangladesh to take stern action against the perpetrators of the killings of the bloggers Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman Babu, Ananta Bijoy Das, Niloy Chakrabarti, Rajiv Haider along with other free thinkers so that their dreams for establishing a secular, peaceful and harmonized Bangladeshi society are not in vain.”
This lack of action, delay in investigation, and absence of convictions, may serve to embolden perpetrators, and is contributing to the culture of impunity for acts of violence. Of the 44 journalists and 5 bloggers murdered since 1995, there has been only one conviction, and trials are yet to even commence in many cases.
ARTICLE 19 remains deeply concerned by the level of impunity regarding these attacks, which amount to crimes against freedom of expression. The state has a duty to prevent, protect and ensure accountability for such attacks on expression: a speedy, independent, and effective investigation must occur, the government must act further to protect bloggers in full compliance with international standards.
ARTICLE 19 calls on Bangladesh’s Government to:
- Unequivocally condemn acts of violence against journalists and bloggers, and commit to holding accountable those who are responsible for the attacks;
- Take reasonable steps to protect communicators when they know, or ought to know of the existence, of a real and immediate risk to the life of an identified individual;
- Take all necessary steps towards prompt, effective and transparent investigation to ensure the perpetrators, and organisers, of all crimes against journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders are brought to account; and
- Establish a specific mechanism to provide protection and to investigate attacks on freedom of expression, overseen by an independent body.
Given the absence of convictions, and delays in investigations reaching unacceptable levels in Bangladesh, the Government must adopt a holistic protection approach to address issues of protection, and must furthermore act to break the prevailing culture of impunity around attacks on freedom of expression.