One of the first moves of a regime averse to criticism is to imprison or ‘liquidate’ its critics; traditionally, these tend to be political opponents, a tradition Mr Putin is proudly upholding in Russia at the moment. However, artists and intellectuals who have a frustrating habit of masking their criticisms in allegorical ambiguity are also perennial thorns in the totalitarian side. Back in the Soviet era, author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had spent time in a Gulag and brought the conditions there to the attention of those in the west who had turned a blind eye to Stalin’s suppression; he was eventually expelled from his homeland, even if that’s something that might seem like a relatively humane sentence in retrospect. More recently, however, the Chinese authorities have made a similar example of conceptual artist Ai Weiwei, demonstrating once again how the individual voice singing from a different hymn sheet to the mass chorus has a habit of spoiling the common song.
Last week, Ananta Bijoy Das was murdered in Bangladesh, ambushed outside his home by four masked men wielding machetes who hacked him to death in broad daylight on a bustling street. He wasn’t a major political activist or noted agent provocateur on a government hit-list, merely a man who does what I and other contributors to this blog do – a blogger interested in the issues of the day and exercising his right to free speech by occasionally criticising them. His criticisms were fairly mild and tended to offer suggestions for an alternative within them; being a native of a country that is currently engaged in a cultural war between primitive Islamic fundamentalists and secular moderates, it was only natural Das should discuss such relevant topics on his blog; but in daring to do so, he has lost his life.
Sadly, his case isn’t unique. Ananta Bijoy Das was the third Bangladeshi blogger to be slaughtered in the space of three months, following the murders of Avijit Roy and Washiqur Rahman in February and March respectively. With tragic irony, Das had criticised the sluggish police response to the previous murders on his blog, and his own case suffered a similar reaction from the forces of law and order in a part of the world where police and political corruption are endemic. But it was Das’s temerity in his critiques of Radical Islam and its governmental appeasers that sealed his fate, even if the gruesome outcome of voicing an opinion labelled liberal and atheist because it challenges enforced interpretations of religious texts is nothing new in Bangladesh’s recent history. Attacks on outspoken writers and bloggers have increased over the past three or four years, making the simple act of writing one that appears to require danger money.
Lest we forget, the heinous crime of caricature is another one that can provoke bloody retaliation, as was highlighted in such a ghastly fashion at the Paris HQ of ‘Charlie Hebdo’ magazine earlier this year. Although none of these terrible killings were carried out by agents of a despotic government, the aim of the organisations responsible is identical to that of a North Korea or USSR, to silence dissenting voices with brute force. Because events in Paris were carried out on European soil in a civilised country that has nevertheless spilled its fair share of blood over the centuries, the attention it received was worldwide – less so equally awful events in Bangladesh; but both mark an especially worrying development for freedom of speech.
I think free speech is viewed by democratically elected governments as fine in theory but more problematic in practice; the show of support by world leaders on the streets of Paris in the wake of the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ massacre appeared admirable, but it’s worth remembering that many of those world leaders who stood shoulder-to-shoulder in defence of free speech head administrations that sanction the tapping of phones, the monitoring of internet traffic and listening-in on their alleged allies’ private conversations. Indeed, David Cameron’s first task upon returning from Paris was to emphasise the urgent need to legislate for the so-called ‘snoopers’ charter’, ensuring free speech is okay as long as the government gets to see it even if it’s not intended for public consumption.
Whilst the punishment dished out to enemies of the state or critics of religion is particularly brutal today, there is a long history of such responses that suggest they will always be with us. John Wilkes was an eighteenth century radical journalist and libertine politician who was arrested for seditious libel after ridiculing the recent King’s Speech in print; although he craftily avoided imprisonment by calling on parliamentary privilege, he was later branded an outlaw after publishing a poem deemed obscene, a judgement that provoked a flight to France. When Wilkes eventually returned to Britain, he was gaoled and expelled from Parliament, though he continued to be an irritant to the authorities. From today’s perspective, the cat-and-mouse battles between Wilkes and the powers-that-be seem almost comic, but were Wilkes around now I dread to think what the end result of his mischievous endeavours would be. Having said that, I’ve also a feeling our beloved landlady would be persuading John Wilkes to pen a post, for the contemporary blogger – at his or her best – is today’s nearest equivalent to being the eighteenth century author and publisher of an articulate and entertaining pamphlet attacking the authorities.
The likelihood that such an innocuous position in society could be life-threatening sounds ludicrous, yet that’s exactly what it is in many countries. However, expulsion or imprisonment without trial for such offences is not the British way; the mainstream media simply blacklists whilst social media abuses. I don’t even need to name a certain story that has made occasional appearances here over the past three years, one that our so-called professional investigative journalists have avoided touching with or without the proverbial bargepole. Meticulously researched and told with both eloquence and wit, this story should have earned the plaudits that lesser ones have routinely scooped; but because it exposes the sham of the consensus, a conspiracy of silence has condemned it to the cyberspace version of a small independent record label rather than a major that has the money and the clout to reach the widest possible audience.
It would be perfectly understandable if the Bangladeshi Anna Raccoon, Petunia Winegum or Gildas the Monk hesitated from speaking their minds in the face of three hideous murders that occurred because minds were spoken. But I’ve a feeling the horrific attempts at silencing online criticisms of a deranged and nihilistic strain of a particular faith may well spark a fresh wave of bloggers rightly outraged at what has happened. Bravery is not an attribute that should really be necessary when it comes to penning a post for a blog, but in the current climate it would appear to be a more vital component of the writing process than ever.