Bangladesh at Bloggerheads

Like many Bangladeshis, I started concentrating on and paying closer attention to blogging from 2013.

February 2013, to be precise.

There was a time – between 2004 and 2012 – when Bangladesh’s vibrant blogosphere was churning out history and research articles, sociopolitical analyses, original literature and personal stories of love and loss. This was a time when blogs were read mostly by other bloggers and were thus isolated from mainstream attention.

Things changed as social media (esp. Facebook) was adopted as a distribution mechanism, resulting in wider readership. A much-awaited, open and rational discourse on ‘National Identity’ began to take shape in the ether. Bangla language blogs were routinely appearing on website toplists. Gradually, mainstream media started sourcing contents from blog, thereby substantially improving traffic and influence of the Bangladeshi blogosphere. The Shahbag Movement of 2013 – and both its inspiring and macabre aftermaths – has been arguably the most significant outcome of blog-centric activism. These developments effectively pivoted the category of ‘blogger’ into the cauldron of simmering national issues.

‘Blogging’ and ‘blogger’ have come to occupy various, curious frames. Today, the very mention of the words conjures notions of atheism, virulent anti-religious sentiments, religious propaganda and hate speech. It evokes emotions ranging from discomfort to anxiety to outrage. Yet, at least half our population does not know what a blog is, what it represents and what it can do.

bloggerheadsThe concept of blogging takes inspiration from a ship captain’s log and uses word-processing software to create virtual logs. This enables every online citizen to write, and make searchable, ‘web logs’ or ‘blogs’. Think of a ‘blog’ as a personal diary and a ‘blog post’ as a page from that diary. It is a personal account with no institutional mandate or guarantee of factuality or verifiability. There is no restriction on topics, language or media usage either. To put things into perspective: we would not make any distinction between words written with a pen versus those scribbled with a pencil. It is the meaning or message that counts. Yet bloggers continue to be perceived as a unique category, ideologically motivated and/or unsuitable for the mainstream. This is problematic.

What makes Bangladeshi blogs stand out are the content, nature and temperament of the conversations taking place. Typically, dominant Bangladeshi blog narratives either frame present politics in terms of the History of 1971, or link it to the global schism over Islamist ambitions and terrorism. Let us note that these narratives are not shaped by the technology of blogging, but by unresolved issues that keep Bangladesh from historic closure. The moral and ideological fractures surfacing in our blogosphere are rooted in the history and politics of Islam in Bengal, directed by the spirit of 1971 and lately, viewed through a post-9/11 lens. All of this is what makes blogging so contentious in Bangladesh.

History, readers may note, is not without a sense of Irony. After four decades of independence, Bangladesh is taking stock of history, consolidating national history and leveling with war-criminals. Yet this national stocktaking was brought about by thinkers and activists with little or no accountability.

Being a serious blogger in Bangladesh is no laughing matter: especially if one holds that unless you are offending someone, you are not doing it right. Apart from the unforgiving, slander-happy readership base, the Bangladeshi blogging experience is shaped by the twin threats of extremist wrath and state controls. The former especially has prompted many a bloggers to seek asylum in the West.

In a recent op-ed, blogger and Shahbag activist Mahmudul Haq Munshi (a.k.a. Shopnokothok) explains why he now lives in Germany. He describes the reign of terror unleashed upon secular, freethinking activists of Shahbag. His personal security was further jeopardized after he threw a shoe at the corpse of war-crimes accused Ghulam Azam. On other occasions, he claims to have barely escaped petrol-bombs lobbed from the wayside.

Munshi also makes some intriguing claims or revelations. One is an anecdote about ambitious activists who include their names in concocted lists of ‘Islamist targets’ and submit them to various media outlets. Allegedly, they do this to elevate their status and importance. Rivals allege that amplifying one’s actual risk enhances chances of finding asylum in a foreign country. Interestingly Munshi too seems to use life-endangering situations as evidence of his stature, centrality and contributions in this struggle. It is not unlike how ‘prison time’ is used as a measure for veteran politicians.

In spite of the flurry of reports on hounded bloggers and invisible assassins, not much is known of the actual contents being generated on either side. There is still no academic or legislative line separating Critical Questioning from Hate Speech. Very few citizens have actually read the blogs and comments. Most have chosen to consolidate existing political stands, instead of entertaining dissent and alternative narratives. Similarly, media reports have vilified attacks on Religion and bloggers alike, without deconstructing the Religion-Secularism binary. That is why Bangladesh needs young thinkers like Munshi to interpret and contextualize online conversations. The greater civil society needs to be included in these debates. If life and death conversations are taking place on the blogosphere, then no one can afford to remain isolated.

Lastly, it is important for blog bearers, sharers, haters and regulators to remember that blogging is just ‘writing’: intrinsically no more credible than a scribble on a napkin. For older generations habituated to the ‘printed word’ being associated with reasonable standards of credibility, this may be counterintuitive. Today, many blogs look like genuine newspapers or research outlets, but have to submit to no editorial, quality or grammatical standards or controls. Many blog posts refer to yet others as their means of verification. This circular reference makes it difficult for ordinary readers to ascertain the truthfulness of a blog post.

Let me give you an example.

Last week, some people in Badda rose up in waves of protest when they heard that a copy / copies of the Holy Quran had been burnt by a Hindu man. The mob, allegedly led by a local imam, tried to lay siege to the Nimtali Kali Temple. At the same time, various pages (e.g. Noyon Chatterjee, Areefur Rahman) on Facebook were posting photos of the alleged culprit – a practitioner of black magic – combining it with downloaded photographs of burnt copies of the Quran. After the commotion subsided, the imam admitted that there were no eyewitnesses to the incident. Police also found no evidence of a burning on CCTV footage. So, where had this ‘news’ originated? And why? An elementary check confirms that the propaganda pages link back to a website titled ‘Bisshobarta24.com’. Now, here is the catch: Bisshobarta24.com was registered on January 02, 2016: quite likely with the intention of propping up a legitimate-looking news site.

The age of blogging is opening up space for difficult and critical conversations. This process is creating a fair amount of turbulence, prompting all parties to employ propaganda and fabrications. This is a fight for our attention, our support, our opinion; and we cannot continue to be oblivious. Here’s to hoping that we all remember that the ‘Age of Information’ is also the ‘Age of Misinformation’.

Originally published, in a shorter form, on The Daily Star.

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