Bloggers in Bangladesh are celebrating their 5th Bangla blog day today, the 19th December 2013. If Bangladesh has had its “Person of the year award”, I would argue that it should have been given to the “Bangla blogger”. The Bangla blogger is not a person, but the voice of hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi people who with passion and engagement publish their thoughts, insights, reflections and comments to about any issue that concerns them through Bangla blogs on the Internet. This they have done in rapidly growing numbers ever since the local blog revolution started in December 2005 by somewhereinblog.net
The word “blogger” became frequently used in every news media, every talk show, every adda and every family discussion after 5th February this year. It was the outraged Bangla bloggers that started the Shahbagh movement. It was their vast network and online activist engagement, supported by strong announcements on blog communities and Facebook, that made them brave themselves through the first crucial night. It was the collective community spirit of bloggers that gave life to the largest public movement seen in Bangladesh since we got our real democracy.
What we need to keep in mind is that the Bangla blogger represents no single party, no single religion and no single view point. On the contrary, the Bangla blogger is a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Christian and a non-believer. The Bangla blogger votes for the AL, the BNP, the JP, communists, religious parties and no party. The Bangla blogger represents Bangladesh in all colours and shades and could be aged between 13 to 70 and more. The Bangla blogger wants the best for the country, and most opinions and viewpoints shared are right in the eyes of the blogger who write and share.
With this comes the greatest blessing, and the greatest challenge for our democracy. We are talking about the freedom of expression and tolerance of differing opinions. This can be hard to accept and difficult to manage in a highly polarised country like Bangladesh. This year we have seen bloggers being stabbed to death, bloggers being threatened and intimidated, bloggers being jailed and bloggers seeking refuge in foreign countries for their opinions and viewpoints. We have seen human seas of protesters demanding that bloggers be hanged and silenced. We have seen an ICT act amendment passed in the parliament where bloggers can be jailed for up to 14 years for something they write and share online. My big question is: Is our democracy, religion or personal tolerance so fragile and sensitive that written opinions and expressions are to be punished harder than most cases of corruption, extortion or even murder?
The Bangla blogger has been given a high degree of freedom of expression and should act responsible when writing. No blogger reaches any significant audience or fame overnight. Influence and respect are earned through hundreds of published writings, thousands of comments and years of online networking. After publishing multiple quality posts and actively interacting with other bloggers, the blogger can enjoy some anticipation for the next post to be published. No serious blogger would want a damaged reputation or lost audience for throwing mindless harassment at others. When they criticise or blow their whistle, it would be for well-founded reasons and observations.
When someone asks me: How can you allow this or that blogger to write on your blog? whether their opinions are from left or right, from believers or non-believers, my answer is: Why should they not be allowed to write? In a democracy, it is important that opinions and views from all sides are heard and tested through reasoning and logic. Freedom of expression in the public sphere is one of the main pillars of democracy; it is also an important means to counter the growth of extremism through reasoning and logic.
The strength of the Bangla blogger lies not in the individual, but in the unique culture of blog communities. Possibly in no other country in the world does the majority of bloggers blog in communities, but in Bangladesh they do and have done so since the very first Bangla blog community, somewhereinblog.net was introduced eight years ago. Before that, not more than 50 Bangladeshi bloggers had their own individual blogs set up. When we launched this blog platform, there were two innovations that made it the fastest growing website at that time: for the first time it became possible to write Bangla online, and it was the first local website where users could publish their own content. The concept was so popular that several other blog communities built on the same concept came to life in the months and years to come, giving even more freedom and choice to the Bangla blogger. So far, more than 160,000 bloggers have blogged through somewhereinblog.net alone.
Bangladesh was fortunate to have this concept introduced while its Internet was still in its cradle. The bloggers soon learned that unity gives result, and in 2006 they saved little Prapti from dying of cancer by collecting fund for her treatment and giving her encouragement and support. Many saved lives later, they also collected evidences against the war criminals, ran a massive petition campaign demanding punishment of the war criminals, supported the victims of Sidr, Aila, flood and winter affected, campaigned to attain fair value for our natural resources and fair fee policies at universities, for repatriation of stranded Bangladeshis in Libya and against ruining our sensitive ecosystems or heritage.
Despite all these highly noble and laudable engagements, the Bangla blogger came under attack and was threatened from many sides, as its voice had become too strong. This is very sad, considering the proud and fantastic contribution of the Bangla blogger to its society. I know, I have been a big sister for the Bangla blogger for the last eight years.
I am extremely proud and forever grateful for the opportunity I got to enable and work with thousands of talented, big hearted, open minded and brilliant young and youthful Bangladeshi people that I call the Bangla blogger. The Bangla blogger represents my hope for the future, for initiating engaged and inclusive public debates, for creating awareness and for building a stronger democracy.
My vote for the Bangladeshi person of the year 2013 goes to the Bangla blogger. Happy 5th Bangla Blog Dibash.
Syeda Gulshan Ferdous Jana is the co-founder and acting managing director of Somewhere in…, the first social media company in Bangladesh.