April 04, 2007

The Bangladeshi Blogosphere

SLATE Magazine (The New Age), 4th of April 2007.

Mahfuz Sadique charts the phenomenal rise of a vibrant community of Bangladeshi bloggers on the worldwide web..

They are nothing more than modern day journals, yet the simplicity and flexibility of Web logs or Blogs has hooked statesmen and head-banging teenagers alike. Hosted at various websites that seem to have sprung up almost overnight to meet our insatiable appetite for revealing our innermost thoughts, blogs have become a powerful and hip platform from which to connect with the rest of the world. In the past few years Bangladesh has witnessed a phenomenal rise in the number of bloggers churning out page after page of thoughts, news and analysis.

So how or why has blogging caught on in Bangladesh, or as bloggers would say, in BD? ‘When the Iraq war started in 2003’, types Rezwan Islam, a Bangladeshi living in Berlin, ‘I was in Dhaka and I read a story in a local newspaper about a man called Salam Pax, an Iraqi, who was writing an online diary about the war and the effect it was having on his everyday life. I read his blog over and over, and started browsing around for others. After a while I started to think about writing my own. I found from many blogs from around the world that there appeared to be huge misconceptions about Bangladesh, mainly due to the absence of Bangladeshi voices on the internet, so I began to contribute comments to these blogs myself.’ It is vital that we correct these misconceptions, he argues, in Rezwan’s 3rd World View (http://rezwanul.blogspot.com) which has become one of the most widely read Bangladeshi blogs on the net. ‘Then I started following other Bangladeshi bloggers,’ he ruminates. ‘And with time, I have seen more and more Bangladeshi bloggers emerge. Some of them approached me directly and I helped them set up their sites and supported them with ideas. In 2003 there were only a handful of Bangladeshi bloggers; now I have seen more than 500 writing in English, and over 3000 in Bangla.’ Many people initially stumble across blogs by chance before finding very soon that it has become a passion.

Most bloggers, like Rubel Ahsan, the author of http://salamdhaka. blogspot .com started out with the intention of merely sharing his thoughts. ‘I first started noticing blogs about 3 years ago’, he says. ‘I enjoy writing; I often think about political issues and there is no real forum for young people to discuss the issues of the day; blogging seemed to be the only way to share ideas with other young Bangladeshis,’ he says. However, only around one per cent of people in Bangladesh currently have access to the internet. As a result, before the blogging boom, the national presence on the web, beyond organizational capacities such as online editions of newspapers, and government and non-governmental sites, had been sparse. Although there were non-resident Bangladeshis and local enthusiasts attempting to make up for it through their personal sites, they were few and far between. However, since blogging has become a popular pastime, the entire Bangladeshi presence on the landscape of the internet has changed. In the beginning Bangladeshi bloggers had to write in English because of technological barriers. But with the incorporation of Unicode (which is an acronym for a standardization of symbols, Universal Code, which recognizes Bengali characters) into various blog-hosting sites, the number of Bangla blogs has risen exponentially. This was best demonstrated by a blog hosted by a Danish-Bangladeshi site, Somewhere in, when it launched an exclusively Bengali blog platform site — ‘Badh Bhangar Aawaj’. According to Hasin Hayder of Somewhere in, ‘there are around 5000 bloggers continuously writing’. The figures are staggering; since it started, a little over a year back, more than 31,000 articles and 350,000 comments have been posted. The ability to blog in Bangla seems to have liberated Bangladesh from its initial online inhibitions.

While the phenomenon of blogging started out as just another web experience enjoyed by a relatively small group of techno-geeks, it now holds a power over the media of unrivalled proprortions. Nazim Frahan Chowdhury, chief executive officer of Bangladesh’s leading advertising firm, AdComm, and a regular blogger (http://nazimfarhan.blogspot.com), feels that blogs are taking on a much bigger role than anyone could have ever envisaged in the beginning. ‘I came across blogging at an advertising conference where people were saying that leading brand owners are now losing control over their own brands as consumers with blogs can make or break a brand overnight. I was intrigued. Blogging to me constitutes a paradigm shift in the power from centralized outlets, medium or corporate, to the individual. Just think of it, we can get what our world view is to the world in a matter of seconds.’ Indeed, when used in the right way a blog can be political dynamite. Bangladeshi blogging has another unlikely political commentator. Though not a direct presence in the pickled world of politics itself, Sajeeb Wazed Joy, the son of Sheikh Hasina, and doyen to a political dynasty, has also started a blog – http://sajeeb.blogspot.com. Between tending to his three-month old baby girl, Sajeeb shares his thoughts online. ‘I realized that there was a lot that I wanted to say about the political and developmental issues of my country. Some people suggested that I write a column for a newspaper, and others suggested that I write a blog. I toyed with the idea for almost a year before I decided to take the plunge with the blog,’ he writes, via email from the US , where he works as an IT expert. While blogging might seem an alien concept to many inhabitants of a relatively internet-starved country like Bangladesh, could we be seeing signs of a new wave of –based politis? Sajeeb thinks so: ‘the internet is a critical means with which to get our [Awami League’s] message out. The traditional methods still reign in Bangladesh due to the lack of development, but I would like us to get ahead of the curve in adopting these new ideas.’ But Sajeeb does point out that due to the medium he uses, which is mostly restricted to non-resident Bangladeshis and upper and middle-class élites, ‘my audience is extremely limited. I’ve had people ask me to publish my posts as weekly newspaper columns in order to reach a wider audience, and I am considering it. My only concern is that what I write are my own opinions and views; they do not necessarily reflect the Awami League’s official position and I don’t want people to confuse the two’. So, no Howard Dean-style ‘Blog for America ’ in the offing? ‘I had not really thought of it being quite that big!’ he says. But the country’s still-nascent internet infrastructure spells the ultimate limitations of such a platform, despite its relatively robust growth. Andrew Morris, an expatriate who has worked in Bangladesh’s development sector as a consultant and whose blog (www.morristhepen.net) explores a wide range of topics, agrees that low internet access has restricting effects but disagrees with evidence of a broader, more general shift. ‘Of course more access would widen the debate, but education and the technical know-how required to communicate on the net is certainly still the preserve of the few’, he says. ‘Not that they should stop, mind you — otherwise there’d just be silence’. ‘Of course blogging as a pastime is still an upper class pursuit. It is dominated by people with money, and a certain level of technological education,’ says Ahmede Hossain, a journalist with a leading English-language daily. ‘For most people, having enough money to afford a PC is out of the question.

 Most of the Bangladeshi bloggers have very little idea of what the toiling masses think.’ Like a growing number of bloggers, his site (http://ahmedehussain.blogspot.com) is a rather serious affair. ‘Instead of talking about what I do in my everyday life, I try to put more focus on politics and human right issues. Sadly most of the Bangladeshi blogs deal with mundane and superficial issues like how the writer has spent his or her summer vacation, or how the summer vacation has spent them’. While by vocation Ahmede is a journalist, there is a growing band of bloggers who are bypassing the mainstream media in favour of their own to take up reporting of news or opinion analysis, via their blogs. These Citizen Journalists, springing up all around the world, are transforming the view of blogging from a simple tool of personal expression into a potent source of un-reported and under-reported news. Arianna Huffington, the Washington-based Bush-baiting political blogger has created the fifth most popular blog in the world, The Huffington Report, and the Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton affair was first broken to the public in the online Starr Report. ‘Blogging is democratizing news and news-making,’ believes Tasneem. ‘Taking it away from corporate media houses, blogging has the power to give news to its true stakeholders – the people’. That said, there is still a certain element of big business to blogging. MySpace – a networking forum, which currently has 115 million members – is owned by the media mogul Rupert Murdoch, and Google recently aquired YouTube for $1.65 billion. ‘Mainstream media sometimes has to abide by certain restrictions or censorship regulations which cannot be overcome. New Media, especially blogging with its flexibility and near real-time advantages, dismantles these barriers. With surprising agility, a blogger sitting at home can break news before any major media outlet,’ says Tasneem Khalil, whose blog [http://www.tasneemkhalil.com] was the first to break the news of the hiring of a professional Washington-lobbyist during the tenure of the last government. With a ban on ‘free speech’ under emergency and restrictions on ‘political discussions’, blogging has come as an unlikely medium for many, both as expression and source. On the night of January 11, 2007, as the country was still unsure as to what the modalities of the State of Emergency were going to be, and speculation was rife, bloggers went into overdrive. Some of the first news items from Dhaka came via blogs such as the US-based Drishtipat, and Adda. The Guardian, (a UK-based newspaper that includes a daily blog spot), and French television stations covered the blogging frenzy that took place from Dhaka, and concerning Dhaka. Whether bloggers, with a rather limited reach, can have an impact in information dissemination remains to be seen. But Sajeeb is optimistic. ‘We have this idea in Bangladesh that being “neutral” means criticizing everyone equally. I’ve always believed that the truth is the truth, irrespective of who is speaking it,’ he says, whose blog incidentally started after the emergency was declared. ‘The problem with traditional media outlets is that they are ultimately owned and controlled by private individuals who have their own agendas.’ Rubel agrees with him. ‘The internet has always provided a platform for political exchange when a government has attempted to stifle traditional political culture. For that very reason I think the blogosphere will continue to increase,’ he writes. Not to say that bloggers are completely immune from ordinary political restrictions through their freedom of anonymity.

On the internet, it is easy to assume that you can say whatever you want to say, be whoever you want to be and not be held accountable to the truth; perhaps this explains the enormous popularity of the confessional nature of most blogs, but it is also easier to bypass libel accusations from the safety of a computer room. However, sites get closed down and posts on major sites, such as Wikipedia, can be removed if of dubious origin. YouTube recently came under international criticism for its arguably irresponsible decision to host a video clip of the execution of Saddam Hussein; it consequently removed the footage. But Rezwan believes that anonymity used wisely can move mountains. ‘You can make yourself undetectable, so, yes, blogging can ensure you greater freedom of speech. And if you are a wise blogger in Bangladesh today, you will express yourself more candidly and ironically than ever.’ Rezwan also points out that Bengali bloggers were cautioned by Somewhere in authorities that they would be held responsible for their writings should the government authorities try to explore the people behind the site. But some just do not bother. ‘Non-residents are in a privileged position as they are outside the jurisdiction of Bangladesh. So they can write more freely’. But blogs are also acting as social tools.

In the new age of Web 2.0 and social networking, blogging is going beyond mere personal meditations or news sharing. Ahsanul Bari, a computer science graduate from North South University, whose blog, http://ahsanity.wordpress.com, which concentrates on the rather dry, technical area of PHP (a webpage scripting application) has landed him freelance work with an internet start-up company from Silicon Valley, feels that blogs can come in handy in the most unlikely ways. ‘My blog was stumbled upon. From there they gathered my contact details and hired me,’ says the budding IT professional. ‘I never thought that just an offhand blog would actually land me a job,’ he says. Indeed, Lily Allen, the platinum-selling British popstar launched her musical career entirely from her MySpace slot. Andrew is now fundraising for the Bangladesh National Women’s Lawyers Association Hostel, and the blog allows him to keep people updated without having to send loads of emails, he says. ‘A blog allows you to communicate as yourself without having to tailor it to your mum, your best friend or your former boss; it is enormously liberating! You find your voice – others can take it or leave it – but you’re no longer constrained’, he adds. With a robust telecommunications sector, and options such as Wi-Fi opening up options for providing internet access to an even wider portion of the population, blogging’s time of reckoning might not be far. Even yours truly has a blog [http://mahfuz.wordpress.com], so what are you waiting for?


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