O Opinion

Opinion: Silenced Into Censorship? - Bangladesh's New Censorship Project

Cover Image © Nahid Sultan / Wikimedia Commons

Last week, the Bangladesh government revealed its proposals for a four-month project to monitor social media sites such as Facebook and Whatsapp, ahead of the upcoming general election. The project led by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite anti-crime unit, will detect anti-state propaganda on the internet, bdnews24 reports. This is the latest development in a series of media reforms introduced by the Bangladesh government in its vigorous clampdown on political dissent.

 

The RAB project

Since its creation in 2004, the British-trained paramilitary unit has faced criticism from a number of human rights groups including Human Rights Watch, who stated that:

“RAB has egregiously violated the most basic rights of Bangladeshis, as well as the country's laws and international human rights obligations.”

A number of foreign governments and international bodies have previously raised concerns over the behaviour of RAB.

In its comprehensive report of the elite security force, Human Rights Watch examined a number of extra-judicial killings, ‘disappearances’ in Bangladesh, which have long been connected to the unit. Although many critics draw upon RAB’s conduct under the leadership of the last BNP government (Bangladesh National Party), Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina regarded the continuous use of the unit necessary to ‘capture corrupt people’.

The need for such a project has been defended by a RAB spokesman who outlined its principal purpose “to monitor the evil propaganda and militant activities on social media and bring the people behind these to justice,” bndnews24 reports.

Alongside the violent allegations linked to RAB, its latest task to monitor social media accounts have raised further concerns amongst a number of individuals, including Swedish-Bangladeshi journalist Tasneem Khalil, who has urged international actors to “sanction this force which is a tool for curtailing freedoms and liberties of ordinary citizens in the country."

 

Censorship in Bangladesh

Whilst it must be noted that these projects to detect and route out ‘evil propaganda’ are no new occurrence in Bangladesh, the RAB project exhibits the government’s frighteningly overt approach in its efforts to eliminate any anti-government sentiment.

The Digital Security Act (DSA) introduced last month, is another example of Hasina’s endeavour to curtail freedom of speech in Bangladesh. The new law aimed to combat the abuse of social media platforms, unveiled a set of stringent punishments including prison sentences of up to 14 years for those who spread negative propaganda against the Liberation War of 1971, Al Jazeera reports.

Amongst its critics, a group of editors from the country’s leading newspapers staged a protest in Dhaka last week calling for amendments to nine sections of the DSA.

Mahfuz Anam, the editor of the English-language newspaper the Daily Star, claimed that "the growth of digital Bangladesh will be stifled" under the new law, Al Jazeera reports.

Despite controversy, Sajeeb Wazed Joy, Hasina’s son and security adviser, was quick to defend the DSA in a Facebook post declaring that ‘journalists and editors who have no intention of publishing falsehoods have nothing to worry about.’

The necessity for a number of media reforms in Bangladesh has been justified by the government with the intention to protect citizens from ‘false’ information and save them from ‘confusion’. However, the overarching theme of what determines ‘false information’ has now become synonymous with anything that seeks to taint the image of Hasina’s government.

This can be seen most notably in the ongoing detention of Shahidul Alam. Alam’s ‘provocative’ documentation of the mass student protests which took place over the summer and his subsequent interview with Al Jazeera led to his imprisonment. His content was deemed offensive and the government blamed him for instilling fear amongst students and provoking violence. The incarceration of Shahidul Alam epitomises the complete intolerance to critics of the Bangladesh government.

 

It has become seemingly obvious that the government’s parochial view of what opinions are acceptable are now solely dependent on whether they tow the Awami League’s party line. The RAB project is merely another tool for the government in its efforts to eradicate political dissent. With the elections rapidly approaching, the people of Bangladesh are arguably being silenced into censorship. 

 

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