Is Bangladesh an online state?

Is Bangladesh an online state?

Afsan Chowdhury,
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Bangladesh is an online state with an incredibly high number of virtual citizens. Few can match them in enthusiasm, participation and enjoyment of what the online world offers, good or bad. Much great stuff happens on the net but so does nasty stuff. It’s also a great producer of cultural and otherwise, not to mention, political ones.

The recent spate of actions against online content considered “harmful” have spiked, which, given the volume, was inevitable. Several hundred porn sites—all foreign—have been shut down and any material considered salacious is now being put under scrutiny. However, of those considered are Google Books, so the blocking enthusiasm may be more than much else.

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There are also two recent cases of Youtube stars who had to take down uploaded content—considered “unwholesome”—and apologise for producing them. The pursuit was being pushed by the ICT minister himself who is very keen to block what he considers sexual. For the moment, the government is taking the online world seriously both politically and sexually just as much as the people do.

Cyber Security and Digital Security Act

Cyber security is of course a very serious matter in a country which has seen jihadi activism. The Holey Artisan cafe attack of July 2016 captured world attention and online recruitment is the preferred jihadi way given overwhelming youth presence in it. However, the government counter-terrorism operations have been largely successful since the attack. Much of that has been possible due to extensive online surveillance and tough police actions and anticipatory moves.

“We are not complacent, but we are confident,” informed a senior CT official. Digital security and forensic operations now constitute a regular part of counter-terrorism plans. But not all online activities are jihadi, though many are rude and a few nasty. They often create concern among the authorities who are now quick to respond.

A few subjects are completely taboo and result in swift reaction. These are related to the PM and her family, the armed forces, national icons etc. Anyone making fun, let alone making nasty comments or memes, can expect to be tracked down, arrested and dealt with severely under the Digital Security Act (DSA).

Many others who are running afoul of authorities are netted under this rather wide interpretation of what constitutes violations of the DSA. Journalists and media workers have protested this Act, but it remains in place. Though it’s being slightly more sparingly used than before, several journalists were sued and one arrested under this act on February 19. The team had published a report on a police official. The case was filed by a ruling party activist.

Taboo breaking Sefuda and cultural transition  

The digital world is not singular and certainly not just about politics. Some individuals have become underground media stars and are followed by many as they attack traditions and taboo. Once, a Malaysia-based Youtuber Asad Pong Pong was very popular, but his words also led to complaints in his country by BNP activists there and he had to spend time in jail. Since then he has dimmed.

The top space is now occupied by one Sefuda, a late middle-aged man, who has the largest online following in Bangladesh. Living somewhere in Europe and hence protected by laws there, he uses abusive language to attack just about anyone and any topic. He has no sacred cows and no taboos and openly says he drinks and sleeps around. He goads and taunts his viewers, largely young people, by asking if they want to be like him. So great is his popularity that many even order books that they think may be written by him though he hasn’t written any yet. He is without any doubt a digital superstar.

He is also obnoxious and often turns to hate speech and obscenity. But he keeps his crowd happy and they adore him for the perceived freedom and irresponsibility he represents. It’s a cultural phenomenon of social transition.

Suicide and adultery

Another incident that has taken recent online journalism by storm is the suicide by one Dr Akash of Chittagong city, after blaming his wife’s adultery for the cause. Before killing himself, he had uploaded a few selfies of his wife with others on his FB page and a hyper-viral phase began. Akash also uploaded a video done apparently by himself in which his wife Mitu confessed to various pre- and extra-marital affairs. The video showed that she had experienced physical violence, speaking to the camera in a state of great fear.

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The reaction was as expected from a society suffering high levels of anxiety, particularly among males. Various cases have been filed against Mitu, including instigation to commit suicide etc. But what kept the matter alive is the explosive viral spread and even the growth of instant content on Youtube. At least a dozen ‘news shows’ on the issue sprang up with more or less the same content but marketed with different teasers.

The police also wasunder pressure and the wife was taken into remand and her supposed “confessions” are making the rounds regularly. What’s interesting is the low quality of much of the content, which means that most were produced by non-professionals hoping to cash in on the event. Thus, the rise of viral economy is obvious, which is drawing hundreds to the sector everyday.

Rise of sarcasm and earki.com

Since the available political space is limited and there is a lack of interest in politics after the Awami League’s massive victory in the elections, public interest has shifted more to sarcasm and satire and memes have become a common way to express sentiments, both political and social. Thus, instead of serious op-eds on various issues that are rather predictable, humour is gaining ground very quickly.

One such site is earki.com which is run by young people but has fans across an age spectrum. With shares running into thousands and generating a high volume of content with willing and voluntary contributors, it’s a new scene that serves all vehicles. For the moment they have been allowed to run free but how long this may last is not known when no one is sure which will cause ire and which will be forgiven.

But the digital world is on and no one is going to stop its growth never mind how it looks or whom it makes uneasy.

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