A week or so ago a local cartoonist working for a Bangla daily – Prothom Alo – drew a small strip for a magazine mainly read by teenagers and young people. In it, a man asks a boy holding a cat what his name is, to which the boy replies. He is scolded for not adding the name Mohammed to his name, as ‘all Muslims should have the prophet’s name’. He is then asked his father’s name, and replies with the addition of Mohammed at the front. Praised by the man, the boy is asks the name of his cat, and like all good jokes, takes the advice innocently and adds Mohammed to the cat’s name.
Except, because this is Bangladesh, it was not interpreted as a joke and was instead the catalyst for enormous protests, as people poured onto the streets and marched towards the Prothom Alo offices determined to show their outrage to the cartoonist and the paper. Despite the ban by the caretaker government on protests and gatherings, offendees congregated, baying for the blood for yet another cartoonist.
Despite Bangladesh’s rather fierce secular tradition, the police were swift to act by arresting the cartoonist (a twenty year old) and charge him under a British blasphemy law that has been on statue for over a hundred years. Roughly speaking, his crime is to offend the religious sensibilities of the people. A difficult crime to define surely. Not content with the arrest of someone who amongst more nuanced opinion is seen to have made a mistake and misjudged his audience, the protesters did a little bit of bus burning (standard practice for a Dhaka protest) and demanded the government shut down the newspaper and arrest all the editors.
The media in Bangladesh is already under tight controls since the State of Emergency was announced in January, and some electronic media has been shut down whilst other editors have been warned to tow the government line on stories. Prothom Alo is the country’s biggest Bangla newspaper and has been respected for its comment and attempt to remain free in the tightening environment. It therefore seems incredible that protests, rather than complaining against the media crackdown and the decline of free speech and analysis, are actually calling for this to be accelerated!
It is of course true that Islam in sensitive to blasphemy, and free speech is not an excuse to cause deliberate, provocative offence, but in this case the cartoonist simply made a mistake, as many young journalists do. His joke was ill-judged. Yet he now faces two years in prison, and his newspaper is under threat from a powerful minority of professional offendees who manage to take offence at anything and everything.
Bangladesh at this time desperately needs a powerful and free press if the unelected, military backed government is to be kept in check in any way, and such protests are not helpful. Nor is it helpful or right to destroy a young man’s career and work without recourse. As always in Bangladesh, the marginalised and unpowerful can never make mistakes, whilst the rich and influential build careers out of doing so.