The powerful world of Bangla bloggers

Over a lakh bloggers? The extraordinary world of the Bangladeshi blogging community reflects a mini nation.
There is much cause for celebration on December 19, the fourth Bangla Blog Day, says SYEDA GULSHAN FERDOUS JANA
Bloggers are independent and speak freely.  Bloggers analyze and reflect upon issues.  Bloggers create conversations and become change makers.  Imagine how dynamic, exciting and powerful blogging could be if bloggers united.  That is what bloggers in Bangladesh has done since the first Bangla (Bengali) Blog community came to life 7 years ago
in December 2005.  The result is a unique blogosphere quite unlike anywhere else in the world, a blogosphere that even celebrate a dedicated Bangla Blog Day every 19th December, with their slogan: "It´s not about me, it´s about us!” 
How it started
In 2005, there were not more than 50 to 100 blogs in the whole World that were maintained by Bangla speaking people.  One day in August, chilling rumors started spreading about terror attacks from Islamist militants all over Bangladesh.  It took several hours before the TV stations gave reliable updates, a day before the online newspapers had any update. People were frantically craving news updates and that’s when the small team of the newly started social media company “Somewhere in…” felt the need for a citizen media, a real-time dynamic online blog community. 
I was clear that, if we were to promote real freedom of expression in Bangladesh it had to be in Bangla, though there was no Bangla font back then. Our blog community www.somewhereinblog.net
created a common front page displaying extracts of the latest posts from any blogger as well as an easy way to enter Bangla text including phonetic and virtual Bangla keyboards. 
The only marketing ever done was just personal emails to the then 30-40 active Bangla speaking bloggers.  The word spread fast and within two months one thousand bloggers had signed up.  Today our platform has 1,40,000 bloggers with new posts coming in by the minute. As an effect of the common front page and the Bangla language, the blog platform quickly became one of the top five local websites and has retained that position ever since. Further on, bloggers get free promotion for their posts, comments and debates starts within minutes of postings, and important posts may be selected as top story for some time to mobilize for a public debate. 
Bloggers break traditional media monopoly
Our bloggers often blog with and for the community, as the feeling of “us” is greater than the feeling of “me” in our society.  The Bangla name of our community is “
Badh Bhangar Aawaj”, the sound of the dam breaking. The monopoly of the traditional media is broken, the free flow of citizen voices is making a roaring sound.
Our Bangla Blog Community concept became so popular that some 20-30 other platforms following the same idea have later sprung up, with Sachalayatan.com being the first to follow suit only half a year after we started. In total, all platforms probably make the number of Bangla blogs near about 300,000 and we support and encourage new platforms and help each blogger find a place to belong. Over the years, bloggers are encouraged to develop their talent for writing and get the courage to publish their own books.
Blog communities have a greater chance of influencing the public debate compared to the typical individualistic bloggers. For readers, it is easy to skim through the headings of the recent entries on the community main pages several times a day to catch the vibes and interesting pieces, rather than to keep an eye on a pool of single blogs. Journalists, activists, students, politicians (hopefully), teachers, writers and others use the blog communities for research and opinion meter. We think that blog communities, despite their high popularity, thrive in synergy with professional media.
Handling opinions in a greatly polarized country
It is not easy to promote freedom of expression in Bangladesh nowadays. The nation had a very painful birth 41 years ago, where justice for war crimes is yet to be achieved and history has been corrupted through different governments and media. Polarization in terms of political affiliations and religious beliefs also results in different groups claiming ownership of truth.
We maintain post-moderation of content based on abuse reports and review of these. Not much is removed, often just active and open participation in the debates by me and my team is sufficient to ensure that debates do not turn into something nasty. Many times we are criticized for moderating, while even more often are we criticized for not moderating, as it is hard for many to tolerate opinions that differ significantly from own views. It is dangerous to moderate opinions and we have strived to keep neutrality and a very high ceiling of tolerance, keeping moderation to hate speech and clear violation of the rules, rules that the blog community has been part of shaping. The problem is that neutrality is a vague term in a polarized world…remember what a recent American ex-president said: “Either you are with us, or against us”?
For us, intimidation and threats come with the job and only confirm the fact that the work we do actually have real impact and influence on society.
Thus far,bloggers have enjoyed great freedom and we have an important role to play to help build awareness. But Internet Governance and has lately become a ‘hot’ topic for lawmakers and the authorities. Bangladesh still enjoys a great level of press freedom and the government has a vision about Digital Bangladesh, but pressure is mounting from political and religious quarters. Take a look at recent happenings: 
  • Youtube blocked in Bangladesh since September 17th; previously, Youtube and Facebook were blocked for shorter periods. 
  • A cyber security incident response team formed by the government, giving a chilling feeling of increased surveillance and monitoring of opinions.
  • Thousands of girls are being harassed through impersonating and obscene profiles, leading to suicides or social disgrace.
  • Public misinterpretation of Facebook´s tagging features led to massive rampage and communal riots against local minority groups just a couple of months ago.
  • Religious groups have demanded closure of our and other blog platforms and death penalties against us, the owners, as some content were not to their likings. 
We are avid activists fighting for Freedom of Expression, but we also see that it can be abused, especially in a country like Bangladesh where online behavior and culture is still to take proper shape. While bloggers are mature and quite responsible, the immature and harmful use of social media, if not addressed timely and properly by their authorities, may lead to more restrictions being imposed to our cyberspace by the authorities. While social media is a rather new phenomenon and the law-makers also need to be more progressive in their understanding, we feel we do have a positive dialogue with key people in the government. Patient awareness building, constructive participation in policy making hearings, and keeping the public focus on how the positives of a free Internet outweighs the negatives in all aspects. 
Bangla Blog Day to protect bloggers
As a people´s media with no affiliation to any political, religious or corporate group, our strength lies in the unity of our community, as well as the national and international alliances we build. www.somewhereinblog.net
has represented Bangladesh in many international conferences on Freedom of Expression in Germany, Hungary, Nepal and Sweden. Three years ago our media partner, the German Deutsche Welle, included Bengali as the 11th language in the global “Best of Blogs” award in honor of the unique standing of our Bangla Blogosphere. Today, on the eve of the 4th Bangla Blog Day on December 19, we are both humbled and proud that Bangla bloggers in US, UK, Germany, Japan, Malaysia and other countries, as well as groups of bloggers in many cities and towns around Bangladesh, are organizing local celebrations of the day, contributing to a larger feeling of community belonging.
(Syeda Gulshan Ferdous Jana is the founder and editor and of www.somewhereinblog.net. She is based in Dhaka, Bangladesh)

 

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