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Apr 02

Blogger Oyasiqur’s death: Some lives are more valuable than others

In a textbook mode gruesome attack bringing to mind images of machete wielding radical Muslims attacking proponents of free speech, Oyasiqur Rahman Babu, an atheist online activist and member of Atheist Bangladesh, was hacked to death in Dhaka by three cleaver wielding bearded youths on the 30th of March, 2015. It brought to memory the jarring event of a murder of similar magnitude which had taken place just five weeks ago at the campus of Dhaka University; that of atheist Bangladeshi-American blogger Avijit Roy. The attacks have provoked much contempt and condemnation. The response of the government has however been lacklustre, taking into account the fact that police have had little progress over solving the murder of Avijit, despite announcing arrests and being offered help from the FBI. This time however, the police have been luckier; as two of the attackers were nabbed from the scene of the crime itself. Although the narrative espousing since seemingly points towards the overtly simplistic discourse of radical-Islamist-kills-free-thinker, the issue at hand is infinitely more complex, and warrants serious investigation.

The media narrative:

With national news headlines such as “Radical Islamists strike again” and global headlines such as “Bangladesh Killings Send Chilling Message to Secular Bloggers”, the stage is set for a blame focused media narrative, with most media maintaining that Oyasiqur was killed for his anti-religious views, and by religious fundamentalists.

Blogging under the name of Kutshit Hasher Chhana, or The Ugly Duckling, Oyasiqur was known for his keyboard attacks on Islam, which included mockery of Islam and making sharp-edged satire of the same. He was also passionate in his defense of Avijit Roy, and reportedly changed his facebook profile image to read “I am Avijit”. One of his last facebook statuses read, “The pen will remain active, will continue till the death of your belief. Get Islam destroyed, get Islam destroyed, get Islam destroyed.”

The two men who were apprehended after the brutal attack on Oyasiqur, namely Zikrullah and Ariful Islam, confessed that they were madrassah students and that someone named Masum had asked them to kill Oyasiqur as ‘he was writing against Islam and the Prophet(SM)’. Zikrullah, one of the detained, said that they had not seen Oyasiqur before and were not aware of his write-ups. They just heard from their ‘senior’ that the person was writing against Islam, Allah and the Prophet(SM). He said that Masum had given them three machetes on Sunday afternoon in Hatirjheel area and asked them to kill Oyasiqur showing them his photograph and giving them his address. Police however, have been unable to give more details on the mysterious ‘senior’, and building upon past experiences, it is improbable that such a character, if existing, may never be comprehended. Compare this comparative lethargy, to the fact that the Bangladeshi intelligence services have demonstrated through an impressive track record, their efficient capacity to intercept and block all phone and data communications, and can boast of successfully apprehending any person that mocks the Prime Minister on social media.

The gruesome attack has already had international ramifications. The Daily Star has reported that the government of France has condemned the attack and called upon authorities to investigate this “revolting act”. A similar strong statement has been issued by the European Union. The significance of the statements and their underlying connection with the Charlie Hebdo attacks in particular and with a rapidly developing new front of terror in the region is not lost on the reader.

The missing narrative:

Before we go on to delve further, it would be wise to consider the bigger picture at play here. The lion’s share of the media outlets currently on air and in print in Bangladesh are owned by corporate houses headed by backers of the present government. The repertoire of such backers includes an impressive array of business cum political leaders, bankers, businessmen, members of Parliament and influential ministers. While it is true that there should not have been much matter for concern if an appropriate system of checks and balances in journalistic ethics and freedom of expression had been followed, the fact that the country is still being largely portrayed by the media as being cozy and all when international rights groups have been practically screaming out serious concerns regarding human rights and a general reign of terror should be a cause for all out alarm.

Few can deny the fact that media in Bangladesh is being subject to heavy censorship. But the danger lies in the fact that few people know the range and depth of the censorship being applied. Add to this the factor of self-censorship, a product of years of grooming of the media by the state, including imprisonment of ‘rogue elements’ in the sector such as outspoken journalist Mahmudur Rahman and media personality Mir Kashem Ali, clamping down on entire media outfits such as Diganta TV and Islamic TV which have been effectively sealed shut post May 6, 2013 and a general carrot and stick approach towards the rest of the media outlets. This has led to a trend of self-censorship in the Bangladeshi media, to an extent that most editors know what to publish and what not to publish to avoid a knocking on the door in the middle of the night.

So in relation with issue at hand, the narrative in question seems complete when we consider the case of the Oyasiqur. Except that it is not. Why is is that the West goes berserk on the murder of two bloggers and pinpoints the blame on “radical Islamists” rather than on a clearly deteriorating security situation? Why is it that, to put it bluntly, the West do not care when say, opposition activists are killed or people get burnt daily on account of political violence? The western media and the Western governments are not filled with the same outrage when talking (or completely ignoring) of scores of dead political activists, raising questions as to whether the liberal western press is capable of equally championing human lives when they don’t fit a liberal, secular, western narrative. A recent article questions this selective attitude, terming it a “problematising of the Charlie Hebdo effect”.

Moreover, numerous instances of documented extrajudicial killings, imprisonment of hundreds upon thousands of political activists, government hand behind incitement and sabotage of political programmes of opposition leading to more unrest and incitement and gruesome and fascist statements by security chiefs, public officials and the Prime Minister herself; have strangely all failed to pass the litmus test of worthy causes to be championed by Western democratic governments.

Thus it is safe to claim that in a nation accustomed to hearing daily gruesome reports of political victims of extrajudicial killing, the murder of the bloggers have received significantly greater coverage, not because of any public outcry over the issue, but because of the fascination of western media over them. This selective outrage is indicative, not of concern for human rights, freedom and justice in Bangladesh as most would like to think, but of a general apathy in the regular breaches of human rights in Bangladesh, perpetuated nonetheless by the custodians of human rights themselves, the government.