“I have a name”: A Bangladeshi blogger on why he risked his life letting his identity be known


Photo: Tom Page/Flickr

Photo: Tom Page/Flickr

This article is from the autumn issue of Index on Censorship magazine, which focuses on anonymity. 

I have a name. I am not anonymous. But what if I didn’t have a name? What if I could enjoy the luxury of being safe at home in Bangladesh, and not far away in Germany?

I could have distanced myself from my identity, adopted a pseudonym and continued to write in Bangladesh. Had I done so, my family wouldn’t have to spend each moment in fear and anxiety. My sister wouldn’t have to wake up from nightmares about rape threats. But I am not anonymous. I carry my name and history with me. And so the possibility of an unnatural death haunts me.

Since 2013, my name has surfaced on multiple “hit lists” targeting Bangladeshi bloggers and other activists. I still regularly receive death threats from religious extremists on Facebook and other social media. One simply told me, “It’s your turn now.”

My words often create problems for others. I see myself as writing for the freedom of various groups, for the rights of oppressed communities, for women, for the sexually marginalised. In my debut book Chastity Versus Polygamy, I addressed the patriarchal notion of purity that is assigned to women’s sexuality; this was considered controversial and it enraged many.

I strongly believe that all human beings possess an equal right to express themselves, to assert their ideas and to be recognised for who they are and what they want to be. When the identity of the writer is out in the open, along with a certain level of insecurity comes a burden of responsibility that commits the writer to his or her words. This is why anonymity never appealed to me. I had faith in the democratic setup of my country, Bangladesh. But the state failed to uphold our freedom by suggesting we should stop writing, rather than that terrorism should stop. So I left.

Anonymous bloggers and activists in Bangladesh come from all parts of the ideological spectrum. They include religious radicals, communists, liberals. Unfortunately, certain sections of this anonymous community aim to create chaos, rather than a constructive democratic debate. A number of them publish hate speech, or post videos which are meant to incite violence.

Generally, however, the bloggers are on the receiving end of aggression. Sometimes, even anonymity is no protection. Those who would silence them are often incredibly adept at technological espionage, and can all too easily crack their identities. In March 2015, anonymous atheist blogger Washiqur Rahman Babu was traced and killed in broad daylight outside his residence. Even I didn’t know his identity at the time.

In the face of threats, therefore, going anonymous is hardly a foolproof solution. However, it may not always be feasible to declare one’s identity under dire circumstances, which is the case in many places across the world right now. Anonymity might turn to be one of the necessary shields in the larger, longer battle for free speech.

This article is from the autumn issue of Index on Censorship magazine.

Ananya Azad, a Bangladeshi writer and blogger, is currently in exile in Germany. His father, author Humayun Azad, was the victim of assassination attempts, and later died in mysterious circumstances.

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[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”From the Archives”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”91922″ img_size=”213×289″ alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/030642208701600613″][vc_custom_heading text=”Testimony of an ex-censor” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”url:http%3A%2F%2Fjournals.sagepub.com%2Fdoi%2Fpdf%2F10.1177%2F030642208701600613|||”][vc_column_text]June 1987

Once a censor in the Syrian Ministry of Information, the anonymous source details the invasion of privacy and censorship the government employs.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”80637″ img_size=”213×289″ alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0306422015591456″][vc_custom_heading text=”Blogging in Bangladesh” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”url:http%3A%2F%2Fjournals.sagepub.com%2Fdoi%2Fpdf%2F10.1177%2F0306422015591456|||”][vc_column_text]June 2015

A series of murders of secular bloggers by religious fundamentalists in has presented clear warnings for bloggers to watch what they say.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”89164″ img_size=”213×289″ alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0306422010362466″][vc_custom_heading text=”Egyptian gate to freedom” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”url:http%3A%2F%2Fjournals.sagepub.com%2Fdoi%2Fpdf%2F10.1177%2F0306422010362466|||”][vc_column_text]March 2010

Mohamed Khaled reports that the Egyptian government continues to harass bloggers, but they’ve become a vital source of information even for the state media. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_separator][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”The unnamed” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”url:%20https%3A%2F%2Fwww.indexoncensorship.org%2F2017%2F09%2Ffree-to-air%2F|||”][vc_column_text]The autumn 2016 Index on Censorship magazine explores topics on anonymity through a range of in-depth features, interviews and illustrations from around the world.

With: Valerie Plame Wilson, Ananya Azad, Hilary Mantel[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”80570″ img_size=”medium” alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2016/11/the-unnamed/”][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”Subscribe” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”url:https%3A%2F%2Fwww.indexoncensorship.org%2Fsubscribe%2F|||”][vc_column_text]In print, online. In your mailbox, on your iPad.

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Interview: Johanna Schwartz on her new film about the bravery of Malian musicians

Songhouy Blues

Songhoy Blues, musicians featured in the film

Index on Censorship has teamed up with the producers of the award-winning They Will Have To Kill Us First for the launch of the Music in Exile Fund to support musicians facing censorship globally. 

In 2012, Muslim extremist groups captured northern Mali, implemented sharia law and banned all music. Musicians’ instruments were destroyed and even musical ringtones were prohibited. They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music In Exile tells the stories of the Malian musicians who fought back and refused to have their music taken away.

The film’s director, Johanna Schwartz, told Index on Censorship about the bravery of the musicians and the current situation in Mali.

“I’ve always been extremely interested in Africa,” Schwartz said. “When I heard that music had been banned I got on an airplane and went.” She didn’t decide there and then to make the film, but as the story affected her, she had started working on one without realising it. “It’s one of those stories that just shocks your soul.”

It was also the general lack of knowledge about what was going on in Mali that encouraged Schwartz to make the film. “The rise of extremism in Africa is quite confusing. People aren’t really sure why, where or to whom it’s happening,” Schwartz said. “The rise of extremism in Mali and west Africa is something that we all need to know a lot more about, and, in a way, the film doesn’t even begin to cover it.”

Telling the story through the eyes of musicians was a way to humanise some of the headlines that people had been reading about.

Since Schwartz started making the documentary the situation in Mali has seen some promising changes, but the future is still very much uncertain for the country’s musicians. “When I started there were three extremist groups in control of the entire north of the country. Then the French army came in and took the north back on behalf of the Malian government,” she explained. “The French intervention wasn’t entirely successful in eradicating the extremist groups and while they aren’t in control of the north anymore, they’re still staging attacks and musicians are still incredibly fearful. Life is definitely not back to normal.”

Music plays a huge role in Malian society. Disco, a musician featured in the film, discusses how music is a way to teach morality and to get your message across, whether it be about health, beauty, education or politics. Many believe the importance of mucic to everyday life in Mali is why it was attacked so specifically.

Schwartz added that getting to know the musicians while following their journey was the best part of making the documentary. “I am always incredibly appreciative when you go out and meet strangers and they trust you, invite you into their life and share with you everything that they’re experiencing.”

“I’m in awe of the bravery of all of these musicians. It’s been incredible to be with them as they’ve gone through this,” she said. “They all had a great deal to say about what’s happened in Mali and they all represent different aspects of life there since the music ban.”

Schwartz pointed to the success experienced by 2014 Index arts award nominees Songhoy Blues, a four-strong “desert blues” band made up of musicians who fled northern Mali. “When we met Songhoy Blues they were refugees and now they’re literally international superstars”, she said. “Watching them get their manager, watching them record their first album, watching them perform it for the first time, watching them go on tour for the first time, play the Royal Albert Hall, go on and International tour, it’s been incredible to be with them.”

Schwartz wants the film to open people’s eyes. “There’s a lot that can be done with this film in terms of widening people’s perspectives, especially in places like France and the US where there are a lot of anti-Muslim feelings right now. Just like 98% of people in Mali, every single person in this film is Muslim, and a lot of people don’t realise that these extremist groups are attacking people who are already Muslim.”

Despite the serious issues in the film, which will be screened in UK cinemas in October, Schwartz hopes it will have a positive impact on people: “Even though this is a film about conflict, war and censorship, it’s ultimately hugely uplifting and inspirational. People can come out of it feeling quite positive about the impact these musicians are having.”