Digital paradoxes in Digital Bangladesh
Abdul Aziz, Erasmus Mundus Scholar, VUB, Belgium : In the country’s history, the ruling Bangladesh Awami League has introduced a long-term ICT integration strategy. It’s a country’s first benchmark initiative to ICT development that includes a number of critical fields at the national and regional levels. Officially titled Digital Bangladesh, a multi-stakeholder initiative launched in 2009 has been considered by policymakers as the key means of advancing toward a better, more inclusive and developed information society by 2021.
At the same time, there have been numerous cases of ICT policy and of legal and regulatory steps that created contradiction and uncertainty in the cyberspace. Especially, the young “netizens” of Bangladesh who are constantly facing challenges and ‘fear’ related to ICT policy and practical matters.
Bangladesh government has enacted several laws and regulations to govern and control the internet, such as ICT Act, Telecommunications Act, National ICT Policy, Digital Security Act and key governing body like Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC). The government proposed establishing an Internet monitoring committee with the help of the country’s intelligence services.
In relation to the ICT Act, the Section-57 of the law comes under huge condemnation considering a clear violation of the citizens’ rights protected in articles– 39 and 49 –of the constitution of Bangladesh. It deals with punishment for publishing fake, obscene or defaming information in electronic form that mostly contradicts with ‘freedom of thought and expression’ whereas under this section ‘right to privacy’ is highly bearing huge ambiguity. Despite the high criticize from the civil society and media activists, the cabinet approved the draft of the Digital Security Act-2018 on January 29. The citizen felt duped by the government as Section 57 of the ICT Act was kept in the proposed law with some changes, despite reassurances in the past of abolishing the controversial provision. The draft was approved keeping a provision for revoking sections 54, 55, 56, 57 and 66 of the ICT Act. According to the draft law, the government will form a digital agency to ensure national digital security and combat cybercrimes. However, the powers given to the agency under the new law are sweeping and contradictory with existing ICT regulations.
In this context, the government repeatedly blocked the social media sites and mobile apps in the last few years. For example, Facebook and YouTube were blocked (for a week in June 2010 and November 18, 2015), cutting off access to the internet within the country’s borders on the grounds of national security while Facebook, WhatsApp, Viber, and other social media networks continued inaccessible.
Bangladeshi authorities strengthen draconian elements implementing a punitive measure of the ICT Act of 2006. Under the law, several dozen individuals were arrested and charged for exercising freedom of expression online till today, while the provision is wide open to politically motivated and misuse. Moreover, the Daily Star (July 07, 2017) reported that 11 cases have been filed against 21 journalists since March 1 in 2017 under Section 57, and most of the cases are related to news reports or social media posts accused of promoting anti-government sentiment in cyberspace.
A number of actions have been taken against the new-media activists and digital media content contradicted the aims of the Digital Bangladesh program, through which the government had stated its goal to create a space for a vibrant digital society. For example, student activist Dilip Roy was detained in August under the ICT Act for Facebook posts criticizing the prime minister and spent two months in jail. A faculty of university Muhammad Ruhul Amin Khandaker was sentenced to three-year in prison for ‘wishing death’ for the premier through a Facebook post. Another example of the government’s step was the blockade of internet access to The Wire, an Indian news site a day after it published an article on the role of the country’s military intelligence agency in the forced disappearance and secret detention of the university academic. More recently, The Daily Star website was blocked by anonymous after broadcasting the audio conversation of Teknaf municipal councilor Akramul murder with social media heating up with anti-governmental extra-judicial killing policy.
The Freedom House reports (2017) the government censorship of digital content and surveillance of telecommunications and social media have become increasingly frequent. In a series reports on internet freedom shows between June 2015 and May 2016, Bangladesh scored -5 just below Uganda (scored-6) as one of the top countries where net freedom is plummeting. Moreover, the country ranked 4th in Asia in a category of ‘internet topic censor by type’ such as criticism of authorities, political opposition, satire and blasphemy.
In an apparent response to this growth in media-based activism, 2013 is also seen with the authorities’ drastic actions aimed mainly at suppressing the multiplicity of the media role in the public domain. For example, the BTRC shut down the Diganta TV channel on 6 May 2013 owing to its reporting on raid on Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh for criticizing the government move role. The closure came at midnight without any legal notice, followed by the ban of daily Amar Desh. Both the media outlets were accused of anti-government activities through “irresponsible exaggerations and misinformation to inflame public opinion, a violation of the conditions of its license”. Critics have alleged this as a stance of the Awami League government of using the regulatory step to silence dissidents.
Instead of being empowered by the advanced and sophisticated ICT tools, netizens get themselves at risk to arbitrary arrest or subjective content blocking without access to a protective legal safety net and public opinions in the digital space.
This new drive to limit citizens’ internet access and public opinion are extremely worrying, particularly in Bangladesh where freedom of expression is increasingly under threat and fear, both online and in everyday life. Citizens and social media users are struggling to see how these regulatory steps might have a positive impact on public safety in the age of digital communication, but the ramifications of this regulatory strategy seem self-evident.