In February 2013, Bangladeshis around the world united around a shared purpose, to demand capital punishment for those found guilty of 1971 war crimes. The movement was sparked by bloggers and online activists, mobilized both online and offline participation, and has resulted in national discourse and government action.
Like other global uprisings, the Shahbag Movement was organized by the youth and amplified by the use of social media.
New York Times’ Jim Yardley wrote:
“Protests and strikes, common in Dhaka, are often coordinated and organized by political parties. But the Shahbagh protests, as the demonstrations over the verdict have come to be known, were organized by bloggers and have attracted poets, artists, social activists and untold numbers of other citizens.”
Unlike other uprisings, western media and activists were not initially supportive of the protesters’ demands of capital punishment. This resulted in a grassroots effort to educate people and foreign journalists about the 1971 war crimes, through the use of multimedia content and social media.
Hours after the Mollah verdict was announced, the Blogger and Online Activists Network (BOAN) created a Facebook event and invited people to join an offline protest on February 5, 2013.
Bangladesh writer Tahmima Anam described the momentum:
“They set up camp in Shahbag, an intersection at the heart of Dhaka, near the university campus, and staged a small sit-in. They collected a few donations and ordered khichuri (a mixture of rice and lentils) to keep them going through the night. Word spread on Facebook and Twitter. The next day, a few news channels began covering their protest. By the end of the week, they had managed to put together the biggest mass demonstration the country has seen in 20 years.”
Like their Occupy and Tahrir Square counterparts, the Shahbag protesters declared they would not vacate Shahbag Square until their demands were addressed, and used digital technology to document activities taking place at the square.
One individual set up a live webcam to stream events in real time. Another created a Twitter account to document events taking place at the Square and around the movement in general. Yet others have created websites (Shahbag Movement, Shahbag Protest, Shahbag Mass Movement) to curate content around the movement, and Facebook pages (Shahbag Movement) to keep people up-to-date on latest news and events.
This coverage serves not only local Bangladeshis, but also involves the Bangladeshi diaspora. As Sabrina Rashid commented:
“On behalf of many expatriates like us.. thanks a lot.. it makes us feel a lot closer to the protest..”
Nidhi Makhija, member of the MSLGROUP Insights Network commented:
“In the recent Mumbai protests for women’s safety, people wanted to know what was happening on ground before they joined. If a crowd had gathered offline, people were inspired to join. If the crowd seemed violent, people preferred to stay home. Shahbag’s live webcam was a great tool to gather media attention, energize supporters and help maintain safety.”
A column in the Indian Express comments on the larger impact of this type of activity:
“A protest on such a scale is partly self-organising. It uses the internet like a decentralised command and control system and the media, traditional and social, as amplifiers. By bridging online and offline methods in a never-ending feedback loop, they are able to do a new kind of democratic politics in which the visible perception of numbers matters more than actual political leverage. “
Shahbag protesters created articles, infographics and videos to educate people about the history of the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, and dispersed these using social media.
Here is a video that explains the shared purpose that unites the protesters:
Here is an infographic created by the International Crimes Strategy Forum, a “global coalition of independent activists and organisations committed to the cause of bringing to justice the perpetrators of war crimes during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971.” ICSF was set up in 2009 and organizes projects such as monitoring of related Wiki pages, creating factsheets and managing media archives.
Activist Jillian C. York points out that such online efforts plays a huge role in the lead up to an offline movement:
“Last year in Egypt the world watched, stunned, as a city, then a country rose up against the twenty-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. Indeed, what the world saw was a mass of humans converging upon a city square in protest. But what they missed was everything else: Offline actions—such as labor strikes—and online ones, such as the years of collective blogging about police brutality, torture, and other human rights violations. The online actions in particular served a dual purpose: They raised awareness amongst a certain subset of the population, certainly, but perhaps more importantly, they confirmed for many what they always knew but couldn’t talk about.”
Shahbag protesters encouraged supporters to access real time updates on Twitter, tweet using #Shahbag and tag foreign journalists to create international awareness.
The Shahbag.org team even posted a ‘how-to’ guide for people new to Twitter, and listed Twitter handles of foreign journalists.
In an analysis of conversations taking place around #shahbag, CNN iReporter awalin noted:
“Many of the tweets are from very new users, those people joined Twitter with the spirit to share the words, to tell the world how they feel about this movement, I could see that they still do not have any profile picture, so Twitter used the default ‘egg’ icon for their profile pictures.”
Shahbag protesters also reached out to foreign media to report inaccuracies and dissatisfaction with international coverage.
Bangladesh-born journalist Anushay Hossain observed:
“most of the “western media” has either ignored the swelling numbers of ordinary Bangladeshis joining the movement, others have wrongly labeled it as a mass demand for capital punishment.”
Online activist Tomal Dutt wrote:
“Many human rights activists are protesting themselves against the death penalty of the war criminals, to which Bangladeshi Facebook users are growing furious.”
Protesters addressed banners to foreign media companies and circulated photos of these to convey their point of view.
Inaccurate media coverage was also one of the reasons Matir Manush set up the live webcam at Shahbag:
“We just tried to speared (sic) this worldwide, cause media is not presenting right information.”
Acts of solidarity amplified the movement, increasing its reach and showcasing the scale of support. In Bangladesh, the Shahbag protesters organized candle light vigils and called for 3 minutes of silence nation-wide in memory of the deaths of 1971 and to show solidarity with the movement. Politicians, teachers, students, Bangladesh Premiere League cricketers and supporters observed the silence.
Overseas, Bangladeshis organized solidarity events and uploaded photos of themselves in front of global landmarks and important buildings. Online activists mapped the images to show the scale of global support.
In addition, protesters urged foreign governments to express solidarity with the Shahbag Movement using online petition tools. An online petition to the White House collected 25,515 signatures.
Some of these activities were successful in attracting local coverage.
These activities show, yet again, that movements in the digital era have no boundaries and that social media has created a role for global citizens who share the same purpose.
As Anushay Hossain wrote:
“Trying to gage the emotion, and somehow partake in what is clearly a historic moment in Dhaka as a Bangladeshi abroad is both frustrating and exhilarating. Your friend’s Twitter & Facebook feeds keep you updated, yet angers you simultaneously for not being in your country right now. Perhaps like me, you feel like you are missing out.”
The Shahbag Movement seems to have no single public leader, but is made up of collection of passionate and united individuals who launched or supported a host of initiatives.
Some decided to document action with a live webcam set up. Bizon Shariar commented:
“To everyone: This whole thing was hosted and co-ordinated by 6 very young people and the whole idea was implemented in 2-3 hours. a 1Mbps Banglalion net was used. And these guys were roaming Shahbag whole day long carrying a web cam and a Laptop.”
Others offered to fund initiatives. Abu Sufean Khan commented:
“I am more than happy to Donate if you guys need funding for better streaming..”
Yet others strived to create an independent archive of the movement. The founding editor of ShahbagMovement.com wrote:
“Heads up photographers, bloggers and everybody else. Let’s not forget a single moment and document everything; A single page in Wikipedia is not enough, neither are Facebook Fan-pages – they will get washed out soon with time. So,register and start contributing event timelines, description of developments, photos, videos and everything else at this site. Keep every moment and progress documented.”
Songs from Shahbag is a collaborative initiative to compile an album of all the songs created with the spirit of Shahbag.
The Shahbag Movement used both digital media and technology as well as on-ground activations to gather momentum and drive policy change. The initial success of the movement implies that both online and offline activism is necessary to achieve scale and drive change.
Daaimah S. Etheridge, a program coordinator at the Drexel Radiological Department, wrote:
“For a movement to really work, it has to connect with what’s going on in the streets. Social media is designed to share information, but that’s only one aspect of activism. In order to create a sustainable movement, there must be on-the-ground organizing and people mobilizing in real space.”
(The Shahbag Movement is ongoing and shows signs of a local revolution as people demand justice and clash with opposition forces. The protesters have given the government a deadline of March 26, 2013 to begin implementation of their demands.)
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