Unfree Speech: Bangladesh's Digital Crackdown on Dissent

Recent arrests of political dissidents at the hands of police are reigniting international concern for the plight of free speech in Bangladesh. Ever since the young nation’s formation, Bangladesh has endured a long, troubled history of election violence, corruption, vote rigging, and suppression of political opposition. This latest iteration affirms its government’s commitment to employing brute force, justified by federal statutes stipulating harsh penalties for those convicted of digitally spreading disinformation or distasteful remarks, to achieve national conformity subservient to the regime’s legitimacy. Intolerance to internal opposition strikes at the core of Bangladesh’s espoused belief in democracy and undermines the value of its democratic institutions. Continued political repression stymies any genuine transition to becoming a fully-fledged democracy and, notwithstanding its tremendous economic growth rates, may embolden Bangladesh to further dissolve the freedoms enumerated to all its citizens.

Bangladesh’s crusade into digital regulation commenced in 2006, with the passage of the Information and Communication Technology Act (ICTA). Under the auspices of combating cybercrime, the ICTA served as the government’s primary authority for punishing unwanted behavior in the burgeoning digital industry. Later, it was amended by Prime Minister Hasina’s government in 2013 to raise maximum jail sentences for relevant crimes, from 10 to 14 years, while removing bail in many of those instances. Crimes remained broadly defined to maximize the government’s latitude in arresting and prosecuting perpetrators. Spreading corrupting, fake, or derogatory material through digital or news media, however interpreted as such by authorities, renders offenders punishable by the ICTA to this day.

As streets protests rocked Dhaka in August 2018 after a deadly traffic accident, Bangladesh unfurled drastic measures to quell the outbreak. Young protestors, placing sole blame upon the shoulders of the Bangladeshi government, organized human barricades throughout the capital to halt traffic. They took to social media to rally, advocate, and demand for safer traffic regulations, improved road conditions, and higher standards for vehicle maintenance. Additionally, they leveraged broadcast media to garner international attention at the government’s efforts to silence the protests. In response, the government throttled internet networks and arrested journalists, interrupting the movement’s ability to continue organizing and reporting.

Amidst the chaos, prominent Bengali photojournalist Shahidul Alam conducted an interview with Al Jazeera English. As a social rights activist, Alam has long advocated for the government to promote greater democratic inclusivity within its policies. In his interview, Alam linked the enormity of the street protests with ‘pent up’ discontent over pervasive governmental corruption, bribery, pillaging of the media, and beyond. He squarely condemned PM Hasina’s leadership and the government’s categorically undemocratic rule for instigating the demonstrations. Immediately following the interview, Alam was apprehended by unmarked agents of the federal government, who acted under authority of the ICTA. By his own account he was, “handcuffed, blindfolded … tortured, [and] interrogated” by his captors. This stunning episode, a blatant attempt to stifle Alam, caught traction amongst international media and stained Bangladesh’s reputation globally.

Human rights groups and influential individuals, among them Amnesty International, Binayak Sen, and Joseph Stiglitz, all petitioned for Alam’s immediate release. He would later be granted bail, but he still stands trial today, and his separate legal battle against the ICTA awaits final decision in court.

By October, mere months before the December 2018 Bangladeshi general election, PM Hasina ushered an incredibly restrictive bill curbing freedom of the press through the Jatiya Sangsad, Bangladesh’s national parliament. Entitled the Digital Security Act (DSA), the bill, now law, extended the preexisting legal ambiguity and breadth of regulations codified by the ICTA to new, characteristically unspecified, domains. Among these, DSA enabled police to loosely conduct warrantless arrests, simply upon the belief a crime is being, or will be, committed. Furthermore, DSA greenlighted arrest for individuals found covertly recording conversations, meetings, or briefings within government buildings. Corruption is standard practice in Bangladesh, and the imposition of DSA provided assurances, to PM Hasina, Cabinet Ministers, and all benefactors of graft, these impurities would never be brought to light.

By mid-October, members of the Bangladeshi press erupted in united opposition against DSA with protest signs and human-linked chains before the National Press Club. Demanding the government’s immediate reconsideration of the law, the journalists ripped DSA for being a conduit into a heightened security state in which freedom of the press, government criticism, and authentic democracy would all be suffocated. Their protesting ahead of the 2018 general election was perceived to strike at the delicacy of the ruling government. By highlighting PM Hasina’s infringements upon freedom, it was believed they could draw substantial domestic and international ire against Hasina, potentially ousting her from power by year’s end.

But Hasina held on – by a landslide.

Nearly a half-year removed from the elections, Bangladesh continues to obstruct the political freedoms and fundamental human rights it fought to earn through its independence. PM Hasina’s government has promulgated censorship upon anyone – be they lawyers, teachers, poets, students, or human rights activists – who expresses an unfavorable opinion of the government. Bangladesh best exemplifies a consolidating autocracy, which is especially troublesome for the nation’s 160+ million citizens, South Asia’s long-term stability, and Bangladesh’s entrance onto the world stage in the 21st century.

Bangladesh is made much poorer economically, socially, and politically for being, as Shahidul Amal aptly described the country, “an autocracy by any means.”

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