A popular Bangla community blog named Istishon was blocked by the BTRC (Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission) for users in Bangladesh; this is yet another attack on freedom of speech in the country. Founder and Editor Nur Nobi Dulal said on Monday that many users could not access Istishon since Sunday night and he urged the government to withdraw the “ban” immediately, according to the Dhaka Tribune. Banning and blocking individual and community blogs have become regular phenomena in Bangladesh since 2013. Several atheist bloggers from Somewhere in… blog and other blogs were banned by a government’s order in 2013, four of the bloggers were later arrested under the infamous act 57 of the ICT law for hurting religious sentiment. As a result, the Bangla blog community went in to black out, with no avail. Around the same time, an Islamist blog named Sonarbangla Blog was also banned. Such bans were part of a bigger picture of harsh censorship over public media – that also saw the bans of newspapers and TV channels, as the country was facing a near civil war crisis.
Under this restriction, the Bangla community blogging culture is in decline ever since. Istishon is a rare case in this regard; the community blog platform was launched in early 2013 and since then only increased in popularity. According to Parvez Alam, who regularly writes on Istishon, the blog has millions of followers. On Facebook he writes: “It’s a blog platform read by millions. My own blog alone has more than a hundred of blog posts and almost half a million views. Now the blog is not accessible anymore for Bangladeshi viewers, being another victim of severe censorship at the hand of Bangladeshi Government.” Some consider Istishon as a secular and left leaning blogging platform, but it actually is a blogging platform where bloggers with diverse world views speak their minds, some of them are also Islamists. Bangladeshi bloggers, writers and activists of all kinds of alignment are protesting against the blocking of the website. Asad Ali, a popular Islamist writer wrote: “I am writing in Istishon blog for the last couple of years… A platform that generally has all sorts of bloggers, some theists, some atheists, some belong to Awami League, others to BNP or Jamaat. So there will always be some blog posts that criticize religion or the Government…I condemn such an imprudent decision by the government and ask the Government to unblock the site“.
Acute Censorship has become part and parcel of the difficult reality Bangladeshi society is facing in recent years. The 73-year-old atheist writer Shamsuzzoha Manik languishes in prison since February 15 2016, for publishing a book that allegedly hurts religious sentiments. He was arrested under act 57, which does not give him right to bail, and if found guilty, he faces 14 years of jail. Recently, a leftist student leader named Dilip Roy was also arrested under the infamous ICT act, for criticizing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Facebook regarding her statement on the ongoing Rampal Power Station project near Sundarban, the largest mangrove forest in the world – yet another example of the ICT law being used to silent critics of the Government. Currently, Dilip Roy is simply being held in the jail without any chance for bail.
Arresting vocal critics of the social, religious and political status quo of the country and holding them in jail for an indefinite period has become common in Bangladesh; all kind of critics are under such persecution. Iftekhar Jamil, a popular young Islamist writer was also arrested recently and since then was not granted bail. Police charged him for being a member of Islami Chatra Shibir, the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh. Although the organization is not an illegal entity in Bangladesh, the police have been extra hard on its members in recent years and have arrested many just for being involved with the organization. In Jamil‘s case, he had no affiliation with the organization. Calling him a Shibir member was just an excuse to arrest him.
We condemn the blocking of Istishon and ask for its immediate unblocking. This situation does not only undermine the freedom of speech in Bangladesh, but will also make things worse by taking the country in a downward spiral. We want the release of Dilip Roy, Iftekhar Jamil and Shamsuzzoha Manik. We demand a revised ICT law and the abolition of the draconian act 57.