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     Volume 7 Issue 1 | January 4, 2008 |

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Talking Outside the Box

Hana Shams Ahmed

Eleanor Roosevelt described Anne Frank's diary as "one of the wisest and most moving commentaries on war and its impact on human beings." Her diary, which was actually an autograph book, was given to her by her father on her 13th birthday. Her diary was discovered after her death and later published. Over the years it has come to be one of the most compelling documents describing the atrocities carried out by the Nazis. Had the Internet been available during Anne Frank's time, the world may have known much sooner what was going on in her life and in the lives of thousands more Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Perhaps an online petition could have brought the world's attention to the outrage.

But there was no Internet (in fact there was very little of the modern media we take for granted now) and Anne never made it past her 15th birthday. What she left was a legacy for people to speak out in times of crisis. Over the decades, such speaking out has gradually migrated from the form of the book to radio, television, wireless, home video, mobile phone, and now blogs. In Bangladesh wide access to Internet is still not a reality hindered in part by a backward thinking government policy of the last decade. Even today, the BTTB monopoly and outrageous tariff on internet traffic holds back the development of internet while Asian countries like India and Vietnam are jumping into the second tier of technology-led development. However, in spite of all these challenges, blogs have emerged as a vital and structurally different part of the Bangla media space.

The first thing to understand about blogs is that anyone can have a blog. By opening an account at wordpress.com, blogspot.com or any of the other blog companies, someone from Kalabagan can start a blog. The blogger can post as often as they like, with no rules. Some blog every day, typing at a furious pace. Others blog once in a blue moon, when the mood takes them. Others blog when special events catch their attention. Thus blogs are not bound by the daily cycle of newspapers or the hourly cycle of television news. This also makes them fast, nimble and often the fastest place to get news or opinions when sudden events occur. With the advent of images and video, a blog can even become like a small TV channel (although here Bangladesh's poor internet speed is a barrier). Finally blogs are two-way traffic. After a blogger posts an item, anyone can post a reply in the “Comments” section of that blog (usually the comments are moderated by the blog owner, who can choose whether to make them public). This creates an instant two-way dialogue. All of this makes blogs a unique new addition to the media space.

In fact, ever since the political turmoil started at the end of term of the last democratically elected government the blogs have been abuzz with reporting and analyses. People have reported with eyewitness accounts of events on the ground opening up whole new possibilities for citizen journalists to give a broad perspective on the happenings around us from politics to human rights to health issues. The previous year has seen a significant interest from the Bangladeshi diaspora. When emergency was declared on 1/11 the blogging community was at its most active. More news and views seemed to be coming from there than any other news medium, whether print or electronic. Some officials have also responded by criticizing blogs, but as governments from China to Singapore have learnt, blogs are the ultimate democratic medium.

Although blogging in Bangladesh is still reserved for the select few, it does open up a world of possibilities for the future of political campaigning and some individuals are already making good use of it. In prosperous economies where a significant portion of the people has access to the Internet, blogs have been a standard part of the media for several years. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Queen of England are posting their annual messages on YouTube, which has become THE most popular video blogging site. The spread of blogs worldwide has become so far-reaching that Merriam-Webster's Dictionary declared "blog" as the word of the year in 2004. Time magazine featured Chinese entertainment blogger Wang Xiaofeng in its 2006 person of the year issue. The Guardian newspaper and BBC have already introduced blogs to their online versions and the response has been tremendous. Some blogs during the December 2004 Tsunami used SMS text messaging to report giving first hand accounts of devastation from affected areas in Sri Lanka and Southern India.

In Bangladesh, there are many such blogs and a comprehensive listing is beyond the scope of this article. Drishtipat is one of an influential human rights advocacy group formed after it raised funds for journalist Tipu Sultan's treatment, after he was severely beaten in retaliation for investigation into underworld links to the then ruling AL government. Since then, the organisation has taken up many issues, including rehabilitation of cyclone victims, acid burn victims' treatment, garment workers rights, etc. Drishtipat also runs a blog, Unheard Voices (http://drishtipat.org/blog), which demonstrates some of the challenges of trying to give equal space to both sides of an issue. This being one of the biggest discussion forums, when some of the more heated issues are raised, temperatures can get hot in the Comments section. However, the blog moderators are very strict about rejecting offensive comments or religious and personal attacks. Unheard Voices is possibly one of the most organised and active blogs with members all over the world.

Another very active blog which gets the highest number of posts from Bangladeshis living inside the country is Sachalayatan (http://www.sachalayatan.com/). This is probably the biggest Bangladeshi blog in the Bangla language and deals with issues from politics to contemporary literature, and even has a section called Addaghor (chit chat). Of course one has to first master the art of typing in Bangla first before venturing in to post anything there.

In terms of providing alternative opinions at a time when the mainstream media failed to do so, some blogs like Rumi Ahmed (http://rumiahmed.wordpress.com/), Shada Kalo (http://shadakalo.blogspot.com/) and The 3rd World View (http://rezwanul.blogspot.com/) have regularly kept their keyboards clicking despite their authors coming from three different parts of the world.

Blogs are probably the most novel interface there is for a person sitting in an unknown narrow alley in one corner of Dhaka to talk and debate with an academic in Yale. No other medium can boast of doing that. Its possibilities are as immense as one's imagination. Blogs can be used as something as simple as writing about one's personal experiences to expressing one's opinion about an issue of national importance.

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