Shamil Shams and Arafatul Islam
03. 05. 2017
Government critics and secular writers in
Pakistan and Bangladesh have never been more vulnerable. They fear religious
extremists and their governments alike when it comes to blasphemy allegations,
which are enough to put them in prison or get vigilante mobs to lynch them.
After Bangladesh witnessed a spate of
killings of secular activists, Pakistan is experiencing a government crackdown
on liberal bloggers, journalists, academics and activists. At the same time,
religious fanatics are targeting secular social media activists, who have to go
into hiding or self-censor to save their lives.
The "abduction" of liberal
bloggers in January – allegedly by Pakistan's security forces – and the recent
lynching of a secular journalism student in the north-western city of Mardan by
a mob have shocked activists and the journalist community in Pakistan. There
has been increased social media vigilantism, which is forcing critics of the
government and military as well as human rights activists to censor their
thoughts and words.
Pakistan is already one of the most
dangerous countries for journalists, but the blasphemy issue has made it even
more dangerous for them.
Blasphemy is a sensitive topic in the Islamic
Republic of Pakistan, where around 97 percent of its 180 million inhabitants
are Muslim. Rights advocates have long been demanding a reform of the
controversial blasphemy laws, which were introduced by the Islamic military
dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s. Activists have said the laws have
little to do with blasphemy and are often used to settle petty disputes and
Rights group say the government is using
the "blasphemy tool" to intimidate critics and dissidents.
In January, renowned Pakistani rights
activist and university professor Salman Haider disappeared from the capital
Islamabad. Three other secular activists - Waqas Goraya, Asim Saeed and Ahmed
Raza - also went missing. After weeks, all these bloggers returned to their
homes, with Goraya claiming that he was "abducted" by Pakistan's law
On January 16, the missing bloggers' issue
took a new turn when a resident of the capital Islamabad filed a complaint with
the police accusing the missing activists of committing blasphemy. The
complaint was followed by a media campaign against bloggers portraying them as
Pakistan's conservative sections started
sharing images and quotes from a number of secular Facebook pages that they
claimed were administered by activists like Haider and Goraya. Although there
was no proof that these people were running those pages, the South Asian
country's anti-liberal TV commentators criticized them for engaging in
"anti-national" and "anti-religious" activities.
But why has the government suddenly
intensified its crackdown on academics, writers and intellectuals?
While these activists work in different
fields, they all have one thing in common: their consistent and sharp criticism
of Pakistan's security establishment and conservative groups. Rights groups say
the authorities want to stifle dissenting voices as an increasing number of
people are criticizing their policies and actions through social media and
other cyber platforms. And that is also the reason why the Pakistani government
has introduced stricter measures to control social media and the Internet.
"The crackdown on dissidents is
actually a political witch hunt," Arshad Mahmood, a Pakistani writer and
social media activist, told DW.
"Those who are critical of the state, the military and the
China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project are being picked up by the government
agencies. I wish the authorities had shown the same enthusiasm in targeting
Islamist militants," Mahmood added.
The situation in Bangladesh is quite
similar to Pakistan. A series of ghastly attacks on bloggers in the past few
years has showcased the deteriorating state of freedom of expression in the
Muslim-majority country. People are now feeling more threatened to express
their views online.
Local media have reported scores of attacks
in the past few years that have killed at least 35 people and injured over 130.
While radical groups claimed responsibility
for those killings, the Bangladeshi government has so far denied any presence
of international terror outfits on its soil.
As attacks on secular bloggers and
activists have intensified, Bangladesh has slipped in international press
Benjamin Ismail, head of Paris-based
Reporters without Borders' Asia-Pacific desk, told DW the situation of press
freedom in the country is extremely concerning. "The many attacks of the
last few years have provoked a sharp increase of self-censorship among
journalists and bloggers. If the government continues to refuse to react firmly
and significantly, what were already sensitive subjects to cover will become
irreversible taboos," he underlined.
Faheem Hossain, a researcher of social
media and assistant professor at the State University of New York in Korea,
believes Bangladeshis, in general, are feeling less secure to express
themselves either online or, to some extent, offline due to the recent gruesome
killings. "This sense of insecurity is transcending from individual level
towards online and offline media as well," he told DW.
Battle between Secularism and Extremism
Activist Bonya Ahmed lambasted Bangladesh's
Information and Telecommunication (ICT) Act, arguing that it was being used to
muzzle free speech in the country.
"The newly amended ICT act has made
the criticism of religion on the Internet punishable with up to 14 years of
imprisonment," she told DW. "The ICT act is being widely used to
persecute and harass critical writers, bloggers and journalists. Police have arrested
numerous bloggers, writers, journalists and publishers under this law,"
This view is shared by analyst Hossain. He
believes liberals in the country are facing threats from both the government as
well as the extremists. "As a result, people in Bangladesh are now feeling
threatened to express themselves, particularly online."
Ahmed said the real issue is not only about
fanatics reacting violently to criticism of Islam; it is also a battle between
secularism and extremism.
"Historically, fundamentalists have
always felt threatened by scientific facts and secularist ideas," she
added. "It is easily understandable why they perceive us as their prime
The killing spree has led a number of
bloggers to flee the country, atheist blogger Asif Mohiuddin relates. "At
least 28 bloggers have fled Bangladesh over the past years, and another 40 are
seeking ways to do so due to the constant fear of being attacked," he told
Mohiuddin has been living in Germany since
2013 after being attacked by religious fundamentalists in Dhaka and jailed by
the government for criticizing Islam. His blog was banned, which ultimately led
him to leave the country.
"A number of international
organizations are now helping Bangladeshi bloggers who are in desperate need of
help," said Mohiuddin.
Despite threats to their lives, journalists
and activists in both Pakistan and Bangladesh refuse to give up the fight. They
say they would continue to strive to report and express their views
"Civil society needs more unity now to
protect freedom of speech. In the age of social media, independent thinkers
have a platform to voice their concerns against certain actions of the
government, and it is their right," Nahyan Mirza, an Islamabad-based
development professional, told DW.
"Pakistani society, unfortunately, is
being controlled to a large extent by the right wing," Mirza added.
"These groups will never tolerate social, cultural and intellectual change
that poses a challenge to their power. But I am hopeful the change will come