New Media Project

Posted on May 17, 2013 by

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Portrayal of Islamic “Blasphemers” and Opposition in Two News Source

Blasphemy laws have long been a part of cultures all over the world, limiting the freedom to speech related to blasphemy, whether it be toward God, an artifact, customs, or beliefs.  Not only do these laws give the ruling authority the right to punish the wrong-doer, but in some cases, these laws allow anyone who had been offended to take action.  As societies and cultures grow, these laws change, and freedom of speech and religion develop.  While many of these laws are not enforced in a number of countries, there are still places where the punishment for blasphemy can be anywhere from a fine, to a prison sentence, to death.  One such place is Bangladesh, where four bloggers were arrested in early April 2013 for “hurting religious sentiments.”  Before their arrest, they had arranged a sit-in at a public square to demand a ban on Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s largest Islamic political party, for war crimes committed over four decades ago.  While Bangladesh is a secular state, Islam is the state religion, and an 1860 law left over from British occupation could give the bloggers up to 10 years in prison.  But that wasn’t the end of the story.  On April 6th, Islamic extremists rallied in Dhaka, where the bloggers were being held.  Supported by Jamaat-e-Islami, the members of the rally identified themselves under the banner of Hefezat-e-Islam.  Hefezat demanded, among other things, capital punishment for the bloggers.  In reacton to the Hefezat march, some 25 liberal groups denounced the rally and enforced a daylong general strike across Bangladesh that would cut off Dhaka’s communications with the rest of the country.  Soon after, an international consortium of atheists planned rallies outside Bangladeshi embassies and consulates in New York, Washington, London, Ottawa, Calgary, and Vancouver to demand the release of the bloggers.  Groups supporting these rallies included the Center for Inquiry, American Atheists, and the International Humanist and Ethical Union, all of who hoped to show the Bangladeshi government that “there are a lot of people […] around the world who care about the right to freedom of expression and the plight of the bloggers.”  And while the prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, has announced that she will reject the calls made by Hefezat because the existing laws were sufficient to prosecute the bloggers, I think that it is worth examining the ways that different sources report the recent events.

Religion News Service, where I first found the article entitled, “Atheists rally around jailed Bangladeshi bloggers,” is owned by Religion news LLC, a non-profit, limited liability corporation based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.  The first thing that I believe should be addressed is the location of the source.  It is worth noting that the source is based in America, a country with freedom of religion and freedom of speech.  For people born and raised in this country, it is difficult to imagine other cultures where citizens are not allowed to speak their minds, especially about religion.  It is difficult to put one’s self into the shoes of someone who has been raised in a country with a state religion, living under the rule of a government that monitors opinions.  Especially in the modern age, with cell phones, text messaging, the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, etc., ideas can not only be easily spread, but easily monitored.  So when Religion News Service wrote this article, I think that they should have given a background on the country in which these events are taking place, as well as the 1860 law that could give the bloggers up to ten years in jail.  For an American reading this article, with no contextual knowledge about Bangladesh or its blasphemy laws, it is easy to automatically take the side of the bloggers.  Whether this is the morally “right” side is irrelevant.  Without providing this background information, I have no way to judge the actions of the Bangladeshi government.  Additionally, Religion News Service does not provide any information about the sit-in organized by the bloggers, other than the opposition to the country’s largest Islamic political party.  It would be helpful if they provided this information, so that the reader could judge the actions of the bloggers for themselves.  Also, by including quotes from the director of a program that supports the bloggers, but not including quotes from the Bangladesh government, the author is not providing the reader with opinions from both sides of the argument.

Another article, which highlights the actions of the rally in Dhaka, Bangladesh demanding capital punishment for the bloggers, is from CNN.  A worldwide corporation, one would expect this article to be a bit less one-sided than the previous source.  Since I could not find any information on the author of the article, I can not fairly assess his background.  It would be helpful to know what culture he grew up in, what culture he identifies with now, or his religion, to name a few.  (Although I think I should mention here that these criteria by no means completely define a person’s perspective on any given topic).  Right in the first sentence is a word that should be carefully employed: radical.  This word can mean many different things to many different people, and the word alone brings up certain feelings for some people.  For an American reader, the world radical might automatically come with a negative connotation.  I, for instance, can recall the first time I heard this word with regard to religion: September 11, 2001.  For me, my first reaction to this word is negative, but I do not necessarily believe that it will always carry this tone.  In another context, the word “radical” may be used to bring about a totally different feeling.  Any reader should absolutely take this word with a grain of salt, and I believe the author could have found a better word.  As mentioned before, providing information on the sit-in organized by the bloggers is key to giving the reader all sides of the story.  CNN does this, stating that “the bloggers initiated a recent sit-in at Shahbagh Square demanding the death penalty for people involved in war crimes perpetrated more than four decades ago.”  They also provide some information on Jamaat-e-Islami, the political group opposed by the bloggers.  But just as he did in the first paragraph, the author employs another term that often takes on a negative meaning.  While it may be true (to some) that the Muslims demanding the death penalty for the bloggers are “hard-liners” in the negative sense, the term instantly poises the reader to take the opposite side.  Finally, what spoke to me most about this article wasn’t necessarily in the article.  A hyperlink underneath the final paragraph takes the reader to an article titled, “American says he would die for justice in Bangladesh.”  I didn’t even need to read the article to pick up on the message the author was putting down (although I did read it, that would be hypocritical of me not to).  The reader of the original article is probably American, considering CNN’s largest audience is Americans.  And this article instantly inspires American patriotism.  The reader may subconsciously think, “well if this American citizen is willing to fight for this cause, I should be too!”  Isn’t that how a “good” American citizen would react?  The author should have at least tried to be a little more unbiased in his word (and hyperlink) choice.  At least from what I’ve been told, good journalism reports the facts in an impartial manner.

I think that here would be a good place to say that what I have written above is not meant to reflect my opinion on the issue of the bloggers in Bangladesh.  That will remain unsaid, but I do think it is important for me to state that, when writing this, I wanted to play devil’s advocate.  All of the articles that I found on this topic (I only include two here, to keep it short) seemed to be in favor of the bloggers, and although this may be the morally correct choice for many people, both sides deserve an equal chance to state their side of the story.  No where was I able to find any quotes from the Hefezat, and this may be due to their lack of comments, but it also may be due to the opposition they face from the sources I investigated.  In my opinion, each side deserves a fair say on the matter, and from there it is up to the public to choose sides.  From what I was able to find, it does not seem that this has occurred.

Bibliography

Ahmed, Farid. “Bangladesh Islamists rally for blasphemy law.” CNN. April 7, 2013. CNN. May 6, 2013. <http://www.cnn.com&gt;.

“Worldwide Protests for Free Expression in Bangladesh.” Campaign for Free Expression. Center for Inquiry. May 6, 2013. <http://www.centerforinquiry.net/cfe/page/protest&gt;.

Ghosh, Palash. “Bangladesh Rejects Tougher Blasphemy Laws, As Islamic Fundamentalists Square Off Against Secular Liberals.” International Business Times. April 9, 2013. May 6, 2013. <http://www.ibtimes.com&gt;.

Hanks, Henry. “American says he would die for justice in Bangladesh.” CNN. March 28, 2013. CNN. May 6, 2013. <http://www.cnn.com&gt;.

Winston, Kimberly. “Atheists rally around jailed Bangladeshi bloggers.” Religion News Service. April 24, 2013. <http://www.religionnews.com&gt;.

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