United States-based Human Rights Watch in a statement on Friday said that Bangladesh government has embarked upon ‘intensive’ and ‘intrusive’ surveillance and monitoring of social media ahead of national elections, rising concern over a chilling effect on speech.
‘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,’ said Brad Adams, the Asia director at the international rights group.
He called on the government to 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.’
The statement read ‘draconian new laws and policies’ are being used to target political opponents, journalists, internet commentators, and broadcasters ahead of national elections, which are due in Bangladesh by January 2019.
Bangladesh has 28 million Facebook users.
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.
‘Bangladesh is using claims about public security to silence opponents and critics,’ said Brad Adams.
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 government claims these efforts are to stem harmful rumours, false information, or objectionable content to maintain law and order.
On October 9, 2018, the government announced the formation of a nine-member monitoring cell to ‘detect rumours’ on social media, including Facebook.
The state minister for post and telecommunication, Tarana Halim, 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 statement mentioned.
The intention was not to police content, but to ensure people have the ‘right information only,’ she said.
Bangladesh government has also ordered security agencies to intensify their surveillance of online expression.
On October 11, a police complaint known as a general diary was filed against physician Zafrullah Chowdhury, a well-known public health activist, who is also involved in opposition politics, over his criticism of the army chief on a television talk show. The Detective Branch is investigating him for treason.
On October 10, a new law governing online speech, the Digital Security Act, came into force.
It replaced the controversial Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act with provisions that are in several respects more broadly drawn and carry even harsher sentences.
The government rejected journalists’ calls for amendments to nine sections of the Digital Security Act.
Journalists, however, do have cause for concern, Human Rights Watch 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.
The HRW reminded Bangladesh for the country’s obligation under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to protect its citizens from arbitrary arrest or unlawful interference with their privacy and correspondence and their freedom of expression.
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