See More on Facebook

Analysis

Bangladesh’s drift toward digital absolutism

The new Digital Security Law will affect not just journalists and activists but all active users of the Internet in Bangladesh.


Written by

Updated: October 15, 2018

On September 19, Bangladesh passed the latest iteration of its digital policy. Telecommunications and Information Technology Minister Mustafa Jabbar, who proposed the Digital Security Bill 2018 to the parliament, called it a “historic” and “heavenly” law, compared to digital laws in other countries. He also made a cryptic reference to a “digital war” in the future. “If we cannot protect the nation during this war, and if it endangers the state, the fault will be ours,” he said.

The official interpretation of what the law is and what it means for the country is, however, diametrically opposed to the one given by the journalists and rights defenders, who have expressed their frustrations over the provisions of the law and rejected in no uncertain terms the ruling Awami League’s rhetoric of state security. Both groups have said that the law contradicts the basic principles of the constitution and poses “serious threats” to freedom of speech, undermining independent journalism.

Universally, social media has emerged as a major cause for concern—and increasingly so because of its susceptibility to fake news and toxic dialogue. This is a problem that Bangladesh knows well. But the current debate is not so much about the authenticity of the news and views shared online as it is about the right to share or publish them. It’s about the rationale for putting restrictions on a platform once championed as the “people’s platform” that gives a voice to the voiceless.

Rights campaigners say that the new law, with its vague, open-ended terms and unreasonably harsh punishments, is not an answer to the “crimes” that it purports to check. For one, it gives unlimited power to the police, which can be used to punish critics ahead of the upcoming election. In a section-by-section analysis of the law, the Editors’ Council, an association of 20 newspaper editors, called for a critical rethink of eight of the sections they fear will lead to the erosion of press freedom, “policing media operations, censoring content and controlling media freedom and freedom of speech and expression as guaranteed by our constitution.”

Additionally, due to the inclusion of the provisions of the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, the law will undermine the objectives of the Right to Information Act, according to Jyotirmoy Barua, a Supreme Court lawyer and activist. “As a result, people will go into further self-censorship,” he said.

To outsiders, the Awami League’s attempt to control social media might seem strange. Why would a party want to restrict the free flow of news and opinions in the digital sphere when it has built its entire campaign around the promise of building a “Digital Bangladesh”? And yet anyone familiar with the party’s activities in recent years knows that the latest law is just an extension of its policy of intolerance against critical views, which usually goes into overdrive before elections.

Previously, section 57 of the ICT Act, of which the latest law is a successor, had earned notoriety as a tool to stifle dissent. Hundreds have been prosecuted under the act since late 2013, when it was amended to increase punishment for offenders and give power to police to make arrests without a warrant. The amendment came just before the 10th national parliamentary election, held on January 5, 2014. It’s hardly a coincidence that another draconian law has been passed just before the 11th national parliamentary election, which will take place towards the end of December or early next year.

Apparent in the manner in which unreasonable restrictions are being put on social media is a deep-seated fear that social media sites such as Facebook may emerge as powerful opinion-shaping tools ahead of the national election.

Over the years, the ruling establishment has also cultivated an army of cyber warriors to propagate hyper-nationalism and contempt for diversity, often through vicious attacks on their opponents. After two nationwide movements led by the students in recent months, Bangladesh Chhatra League, the student wing of the ruling party, announced the formation of a four million-strong cyber brigade to tackle “rumours” online. This would be followed by a raft of similar measures by the government, including specialised cybercrime units equipped with digital surveillance tools such as open-source intelligence (OSINT), which will be used to “trace comments or posts that are defamatory or can hurt people’s religious sentiments or constitute an offence,” according to The Daily Star.

Simply put, the message that is being given to the critics is: “Use social media at your own peril.” Already, many journalists and activists are opting out of Facebook and Twitter, fearing scrutiny and hoping to stay low-key until there is a more favourable media climate.

Bangladesh is fighting a seemingly impossible war when it comes to press freedom. Currently, the country ranks 146th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index 2018 by Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF), who cited growing media self-censorship amid the “endemic violence” against journalists and “the almost systematic impunity” enjoyed by those responsible. Bangladesh ranked 10th in the Global Impunity Index 2017 released by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), preceded by countries such as Somalia, Syria, Iraq, South Sudan and Pakistan.

The new Digital Security Law will affect not just journalists and activists, but all 9.05 crore active users of the Internet in Bangladesh who will have to readjust their priorities and social media habits in line with the new restrictions.

Badiuzzaman Bay is a Senior Editorial Assistant of The Daily Star, Bangladesh. 

The Asian Writers’ Circle is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors and writers from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers and websites across the region.



Enjoyed this story? Share it.


Asia News Network
About the Author: Asia News Network is a regional media alliance comprising 24 media entities.

Eastern Briefings

All you need to know about Asia


Our Eastern Briefings Newsletter presents curated stories from 22 Asian newspapers from South, Southeast and Northeast Asia.

Sign up and stay updated with the latest news.



By providing us with your email address, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.

View Today's Newsletter Here

Analysis

India, China step up the wooing but Rajapaksa in no hurry to align Sri Lanka

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will try to balance the competing interests of China, India in the region. The conversation in regional capitals after the emphatic win of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the Sri Lankan elections last month centres around a central question: Will he manage to pull a Sheikh Hasina on India and China? The reference, of course, is to the Bangladesh Prime Minister who many believe has managed to successfully push her country’s interests by balancing the competing strategic ambitions of China and India in South Asia. And Rajapaksa knows a thing or two about protecting what he believes are his country’s core interests. After all, he braved the Western world’s intense criticism – and India’s acute discomfort given its large domestic Tamil population – of the means adopted by him as Defence Minister in his brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s


By Ishan Joshi
December 12, 2019

Analysis

Nepal moves up in Human Development Index but still lags behind in South Asia

Nepal’s human development index of 0,579 indicates that people are living longer, are more educated and have greater incomes, according to the Human Development Report. Despite global progress in tackling poverty, hunger and disease, a ‘new generation of inequalities’ indicates that many societies are not working as they should and Nepal is not an exception, according to a new human development report released on Tuesday. The old inequalities were based on access to health services and education whereas the new generation of inequalities is based on technology, education and the climate, according to the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report. “Previously, we talked about wealth as a major driver for inequality. Now, countries like Nepal are in another inequality trap and that concerns


By The Kathmandu Post
December 12, 2019

Analysis

Is polarisation driven by Hyper Information Disorder Syndrome?

In a study of Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Poland, Turkey and the US, writes ANDREW SHENG, scientists attribute populism to the rise of decisive leaders who push nationalism, demonise opponents and stir up issues that further divide societies. BANGKOK – Mass protests seem to be breaking out all over the place, from Hong Kong to Santiago, Tehran, Bolivia, Catalonia, Ecuador, France and Iraq to Lebanon.  The root causes of these protests have many local reasons, but there are common themes, such as inequality, corruption, incompetent governments, rural-urban migration, demography, anger, social media and demand for change. But underlying all these protests is the growing polarization of societies, increasingly manifested in viol


By Asia News Network
December 9, 2019

Analysis

Rohingya Crisis Fallout

Transparency International Bangladesh has painted a grim outlook for the crisis. Bangladesh faces long-term financial, political and security challenges as Rohingya repatriation may not happen anytime soon, said Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) Executive Director Dr Iftekharuzzaman. The fund from the international community for nearly one million Rohingyas may not sustain as no strong international initiative has been taken to oblige Myanmar for creating a conducive environment for the refugees to return soon, he said. “As a result, Bangladesh’s socio-economic instability will grow. There are risks of security at local and national levels. The crisis also creates political and diplomatic challenges for the government,” Iftekharuzzaman said. It also involves the risks of growing extremism as the people who face violence are more likely to become violent, he said at a press confere


By Daily Star
December 6, 2019

Analysis

Pyongyang to hold party meeting ahead of year-end deadline

Kim Jong-un rides up Paektusan again, highlights self-reliance and revolutionary spirit. North Korea will hold a plenary meeting around the end of December to decide on “crucial issues,” its state-run news agency said Wednesday. On the same day, the Korean Central News Agency reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un rode up Paektusan on a white horse accompanied by military commanders, raising speculation that the communist regime may take more provocative military actions as the year-end deadline it set for denuclearization talks with the US quickly approaches. North Korea’s Workers’ Party of Korea announced Tuesday that the 5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the WPK would convene around the end of December, Korea Central News Agency reported, “in order to discuss and decide on crucial issues in line with the needs of the development of the Korean revolution and the chan


By The Korea Herald
December 5, 2019

Analysis

China’s advanced tech presents ‘significant threat’ Share

Japanese leadership in tech called for. At the 2019 GZERO Summit held in Tokyo on Monday, politicians and experts from Japan, the United States and Europe discussed a range of pressing issues, including the absence of leadership in the world and the role Japan is expected to play in the future. Organized by Eurasia Group and supported by The Yomiuri Shimbun and other entities, the symposium was co-chaired by U.S. political scientist Ian Bremmer and Hiroaki Nakanishi, chairman of the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren). In the keynote speech titled “The End of the American Order,” Bremmer argued that the greatest threat to globalization is China creating a “separate system of Chinese technology — its own standards, and infrastructure, and supply chains — to compete with the West,” He also spoke about areas in which Japanese leadership is needed, such as mediating between the U.S. and


By The Japan News
November 20, 2019