Are independent bloggers who are trying to forge new ways of thinking, paying too high a price?
The first couple of months of this year have seen abundant evidence of the kind of wrath seemingly innocent words, and pictures, can invite. It began with the slaughter of cartoonists at the daily editorial meeting inside the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris on January 7. Even as the accused embarked on a killing spree in and around Paris, on January 9, in another part of the world, in a public square in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, blogger Raif Badawi received the first 50 lashes of the 1,000 to be administered to him over a period of 20 weeks. (Badawi had been arrested in 2012 for insulting Islam through his website and was later charged with apostasy).
Then on February 26, Avijit Roy, a writer-blogger who lived in the United States but was visiting his native Bangladesh, was hacked to death in public by meat cleaver-wielding attackers while he was returning from a book fair with his wife.
The circumstances may well have differed, but these incidents confirmed that writing (or drawing) continue to remain widely contested, and occupy increasingly dangerous spaces. No matter the cubby hole from where you were voicing your two cents worth of opinion, as soon as it hit the online domain, somebody was watching you, and preparing to draw blood for the offence you were perceived to have caused.
The carnage inside the Charlie Hebdo office notwithstanding, individual bloggers, commenting on politics or religion or the intersection between the two, have begun to run a far greater risk than organised news outlets. Especially if they operate in an environment in which the political or/and religious authority stands to lose much from free speech or an aggregation of the voices of dissent.
Though, the examples cited above might make it seem that it is only followers of conservative Islam who have a problem with independent blogging but the reality is very different.
China’s internet censorship is the best known and probably the most sophisticated, believed to employ around 100,000 people to scan content it deems to be subversive. Private internet companies are reportedly issued a list of restricted words so that they can pre-empt posts likely to alarm the authorities.
Whether in Iran’s Green Movement of 2009, Turkey’s Gezi Park protests in 2011, or Vietnam’s dissatisfaction with authoritarian rule, any real world political activity inspired by online dissent has always attracted sharp censure including imprisonment, if only to set an example and frighten other online opinion makers into silence.
Of course, when it comes to creating alarm, nothing is more effective than a brutal killing of an individual in a public space. Avijit Roy, an atheist who was born a Hindu, had been operating his secular blog Mukto Mona for almost 15 years, and was not a stranger either to the adverse reactions his opinions could provoke or the ease with which his opponents would resort to violence to still his voice. He had been receiving death threats for some years now, and that such threats were not meant to be shrugged off was confirmed by the killing of another secular blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, in 2013.
Roy knew he commanded respect and admiration among those who supported his views, but he also knew that his murder was discussed by religious extremists on social networking sites as something inevitable, with only minor details like place and time to be worked out. His father, and those who collaborated with him on his blog, warned him against travelling to Bangladesh; after all, for a freelance opinion maker, it is only a close personal circle of family and friends who can gauge the danger and suggest means to avoid coming in harm’s way. Roy did not heed that advice, for as a freelance opinion maker whose voice had been heard through the cacophony of the internet, the dissemination of his views had assumed primacy over his personal safety and security.
Last year, The Washington Post carried out a study to determine the reasons for a decline in blogging activity among Iranian internet users, given that vibrant online discussions had provided a crucial impetus to the Green Movement of 2009. It was found that, apart from the overwhelming popularity of social networking sites that had diverted attention from blogging, the filtering of content was also largely responsible for a decreased interest in the medium.
An Iranian writer detained by the authorities pointed out that he was confronted by printouts of every single blog post he’d ever written, in effect turning his blog into his case file.
Such a predicament sums up the dilemma of any writer who has decided to engage with contentious matters on an online forum. A blog is not underground literature, it cannot be surreptitiously circulated and it will always remain exposed, in equal measure, to the target readership and the authorities it is trying to subvert. Campaigns that proclaim “Je suis Raif” or “Amio Avijit” help galvanise public opinion, making sure that Raif does not languish unheard in a Saudi prison, that Avijit’s murder is not swallowed into the depths of obscurity.
Yet, it is never enough to proclaim oneself Raif or Avijit, for in associating their names with certain shades of opinion. A freelance opinion maker has embraced and accepted risks to himself that the anonymous masses cheering him on, haven’t.
Blogging may no longer enjoy the peak popularity it did about 10 years ago (so much that the American dictionary makers Merriam Webster had declared “blog” to be the word for the year 2004). But for the likes of Raif or Avijit or indeed anyone who wishes to challenge established ideas, who try and forge an alternative way of looking at things while making sure that it reaches the largest number of interested readers in any part of the world, it remains the preferred medium. A blog allows a writer to develop his arguments at length and flesh out complicated notions; a reader who wishes to engage can always comment and initiate a discussion.
It is a matter of supreme irony that Farabi Shafiur Rahman, who was arrested after Roy’s murder for issuing a number of death threats to him, was a blogger himself (albeit the extremist kind) and frequently engaged in verbal duels with Roy on the discussion thread.
For all the worldwide outrage that Badawi’s punishment had caused (censure from Western governments and human rights organisations), within Saudi Arabia, he will only be treated as a common criminal who violated the country’s strict laws on religion.
No matter how loudly the defenders of free speech protest, Roy’s murder, too, will be treated as a common crime and not as part of a sustained attack on free speech.
As Mahfuz Anam pointed out in a recent article in an Indian newspaper, Farabi had been arrested two years ago, but on being released on bail, he immediately resumed his incitement to kill all bloggers who supported “free thought”.
The online space, whether blogging or social networking, is now a battleground for establishing supremacy of ideas and ideology.
If one group is allowed to kill, maim or incarcerate at will, with society as a mute spectator, the virtual battle will keep having bloody ramifications on the streets.