The Bangladesh government has embarked upon an intensive and intrusive surveillance and monitoring of social media ahead of the national election, raising concern over a chilling effect on speech, Human Rights Watch said Saturday.
Draconian new laws and policies are being used to target political opponents, journalists, internet commentators, and broadcasters, it said.
As the national election approaches, opposition parties and independent observers fear that the increasing crackdown on privacy and free expression is an attempt to limit speech and criticism of the government in the election period, the HRW said in a statement.
The government claims these efforts are to stem harmful rumours, false information, or objectionable content to maintain law and order, said the statement of the rights body.
“Bangladesh is using claims about public security to silence opponents and critics,” it quoted Brad Adams, HRW Asia director, as saying. “The government’s surveillance practices are violating the rights to privacy and freedom of expression ahead of the elections.”
Bangladesh has 28 million Facebook users and since social media emerged as a key tool to express dissent and organise protests, the authorities have monitored various platforms and internet-based communication. This has already led to arrests for using social media to criticise the government.
State Minister for Information Tarana Halim on Oct 9 announced formation of a nine-member social media rumour detection and monitoring cell and said that content that threatens communal harmony, disturbs state security, or embarrasses the state would be considered rumours and sent to the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission for filtering or blocking.
The government has also ordered security agencies to intensify their surveillance of online expression. The agencies include RAB, it said.
The government had previously announced its Cyber Threat Detection and Response project of installing mass monitoring equipment at key points on Bangladesh’s networks to bolster widespread telecom and internet surveillance.
The project raised concerns over violations of privacy rights on a mass scale, it read.
Crackdown on dissent
Television networks, already under government pressure, will face increased restrictions under the proposed National Broadcast Act 2018, HRW said, adding that the law, which the cabinet approved on October 15, provides sentences of up to three years in prison for “going against the spirit” of the Liberation War, or airing “misleading or false” information.
On October 10, a new law governing online speech, the Digital Security Act (DSA), came into force. It replaced the controversial section 57 of the ICT Act with provisions that are in several respects more broadly drawn and carry even harsher sentences, it said.
The DSA grants law enforcement authorities wide-ranging powers to remove or block online information that “harms the unity of the country or any part of it, economic activities, security, defence, religious values or public order or spreads communal hostility and hatred.”
The government rejected journalists’ calls for amendments to nine sections of the act.
Journalists do have cause for concern, HRW said, because of the recent history of the use of existing laws covering sedition and criminal defamation to threaten and detain journalists for exercising free expression and peaceful speech.
HRW cited the arrest of Nusrat Jahan Sonia, a 25-year-old primary school teacher in a rural area of Patuakali on August 4, for allegedly “spreading rumours.”
In a similar case, a Chittagong University teacher Maidul Islam has been in custody since September, charged under section 57 with making “defamatory” remarks against the prime minister on social media.
On Aug 5, Shahidul Alam, an internationally renowned photographer, was arrested for Facebook comments.
“There is a chilling atmosphere for journalism and free speech in Bangladesh right now, with even those sharing innocuous social media posts at risk of arrest and harassment. The government should immediately end this assault on fundamental political rights, and instead create an environment conducive to ensuring that Bangladeshis are able to elect their leaders without fear,” Brad said.