Bangladesh is facing international criticism due to its extensive social media surveillance methods in light of its upcoming elections. Four days ago, the Human Rights Watch published an article addressing the social media supervision that is occurring in the country. Their article stated, “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.” There are numerous new laws that are being implemented within Bangladesh that are being used to silence journalists and political opponents alike. The national elections are occurring in the beginning of 2019, and this social media surveillance may be the government’s attempt to curtail opposition speech and party growth.
In the beginning of October, the Bangladeshi government introduced their “nine- member social media rumor detection and monitoring center.” This center includes representatives from the Press Information Department and is led by the department’s deputy principal information officer. The purpose of this center is to detect rumors on social media and filter them, only providing ‘truthful’ information to Bangladesh residents. The Human Rights Watch article discusses the extent of surveillance present in this initiative: “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 rumors and sent to the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission for filtering or blocking.”
Bangladesh has about 28 million Facebook users, with social media acting as a major platform to voice disapproval and objections towards the current administration. Authorities have arrested dissenters for criticizing the government, and they closely observe all social media platforms to monitor who is saying what. The government has stated that their increased social media surveillance is to “stem harmful rumors, false information, or objectionable content to maintain law and order.” The justification for monitoring and surveilling social media platforms is to protect the integrity of the current administration, by only allowing for “right information” to be published. However, they are outsourcing their efforts to organizations such as the Rapid Action Battalion, which is a paramilitary force that is connected to numerous enforced disappearances. The government’s use of historically violent organizations does not align with their statement of protecting ‘state security’ and ‘communal harmony’, and appears to be a method to limit the freedom of speech of Bangladesh residents.
New policies such as the Digital Security Act were implemented earlier this month, and more recently, the National Broadcast Act was approved of last week. The Digital Security Act allows law enforcement to arrest dissenters without a warrant, and the National Broadcast Act allows for multiple- year sentences for releasing ‘false information.’ These policies, along with the “nine- member social media rumor detection and monitoring center,” exemplify the implicated freedom of speech restrictions that have caused global outcry.
There are already many cases of Bangladeshi residents that have been arrested for their opposition, ranging from activists to teachers. The new laws in place make it increasingly easier for the government to monitor and act against those who speak out against the administration, even though they are non-violently expressing their criticisms. Bangladesh is not the only South Asian country that is under scrutiny for restricting freedom of speech and freedom of the press. In the past few months, Nepal has made headlines for their new civil and criminal codes. These laws are in reference to journalists and press officials specifically and limit their investigatory powers due to new restrictions on privacy and defamation. Both Bangladesh and Nepal are facing criticism from the international community, but have yet to redact their new laws or lessen their punishments.