Murder of blogger in Bangladesh highlights attacks on free expression

A blogger critical of fundamentalist religious beliefs was stabbed to death in Dhaka Monday, the second such killing in the South Asian nation in a month. The incident highlights the frequency of attacks on free expression in Bangladesh and around the globe.

A.M. Ahad/AP
A Bangladeshi policeman escorts Jikrullah, left and Ariful Islam, two among three suspected of the killing of a blogger as they are presented before the media in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Monday, March 30. Blogger Washiqur Rahman was hacked to death by three men in Bangladesh's capital on Monday, police said. The killing took place a month after a prominent Bangladeshi-American blogger known for speaking out against religious extremism was hacked to death in Dhaka.

A blogger known for expressing atheist views was murdered in Bangladesh Monday, again highlighting the frequency – and viciousness – of attacks on free expression both in the developing South Asian nation and around the world.

Three assailants brutally murdered Washiqur Rahman, a known critic of religious fundamentalism, near his home in the capital of Dhaka Monday morning, Agence-France Presse reported.

Police said they found three knives and arrested two suspects at the scene, but a third attacker escaped, according to the wire service.

Mr. Rahman’s death comes just weeks after the murder of another atheist blogger, Bangladeshi-American Avijit Roy, sparked public outcry against attacks on press freedom in Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim nation that has struggled to resolve religion’s role in its society and politics.

More broadly, the two killings highlight the growing risk of reporting as attacks on journalists and media organizations continue unabated, most often in the form of targeted violence.

In Bangladesh, Mr. Roy’s father, who described his son as a “secular humanist,” told AFP that Roy had received a number of threats via email and social media from hardline Islamist groups before his death. Roy had written about 10 books, his father added, the most popular of which was called, “Virus of Faith.”

Similarly, Rahman wrote critically about religious extremism and repression of ethnic minorities, The Guardian reported. He was also a member of eight Facebook group pages, including Atheist Bangladesh, according to the Dhaka Tribune.

Their deaths mark an escalation of a polarizing dispute within Bangladesh, which is home to almost 150 million Muslims, the fourth largest Muslim population in the world.

"There is a political aspect to that struggle between those who are promoting political Islam to turn Bangladesh into a fundamentalist, religious state and the secular political forces,” Imran Sarker, head of the Blogger and Online Activists Network in Bangladesh, told Deutsche Welle. “The more radical branches of the Islamic organizations are gaining strength by the day.”

The murders in Bangladesh are also part of a larger issue: That of attacks against members of the press worldwide.

In 2015 alone, 17 journalists, not including Rahman, have already been killed in direct reprisal for their work, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

No less than 20 journalists, mostly local reporters, have been killed for their work every year since 2011, according to CPJ data. Among the most publicized of these were the viral execution videos released by the militant group known as the Islamic State or ISIS, and the deadly attack at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris.

“Things are bad, and getting worse,” Charles Sennott, executive director of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit international reporting initiative, wrote for The Boston Globe in February. “In the last six months, the killing of the messenger has reached a depth of darkness that few could imagine.”

Part of the issue stems from the gray area between “the freedom of expression and the right to protect and respect religious sentiments,” University of Hong Kong law professors Puja Kapai and Anne S.Y. Cheung wrote in a 2009 article in the Buffalo Human Rights Law Review.

Religious communities feel outraged that their religious beliefs and sacred symbols are mocked, insulted, attacked or vilified. ...On the other hand, the authors and creators of these controversial works argue that any law seeking to restrict their works amounts to a violation of the sacrosanct right of freedom of expression, which is the bedrock of any democratic society.

Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, Pope Francis famously told reporters that free speech, as important as it is to any society, should be limited when it comes to offending and ridiculing the faith and beliefs of others.

Doing so, he added, would be the equivalent to getting punched for insulting someone’s mother.

“It’s normal,” the pope said. “You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others.”

Others questioned that mindset, arguing that the right to offend is so vital a part of the right to free expression that the former is nothing without the latter.

Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index on Censorship, wrote for The Guardian:

I find it offensive that in many parts of the world people are regularly beaten, jailed and murdered for daring to follow a different belief system, for voicing their sexuality, or for suggesting they want a democratic government. ...These things make me angry. But the fact that I find them offensive or anger-inducing cannot, and should never, be used as an excuse for shutting down their speech. Because that is exactly how millions of people are silenced the world over, how repressive regimes thrive – through law, or through violence, or both. And what protects people’s rights to say things I find objectionable is precisely what protects my right to object.

Ginsberg added that being allowed to argue about and debate over the issue is itself part of the solution.

She concluded: “If the reaction to the latest attack is that there are no more debates about free expression, no more speech that one or other person finds offensive, then the result will not be less offensive speech, it will be no speech at all."

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