Digital freedom in Bangladesh: Navigating in uncertain waters

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

Bangladesh witnessed the internet take on an increasing role in its socio-political sphere in 2013. Usage trends swung more toward heart-warming positives, in contrast to the country’s regulatory precedents, which despite policymakers facilitating net use via cheaper connections and better infrastructure, have been mostly negative. Common people felt empowered using the internet.

Last February, tens of thousands of people were gathered, inspired by blog posts and social media to protest for the first time in the country’s history. At the same time, religious zealots started attacking online activists, and policymakers initiated the use of a draconian ICT (information and communication technology) act to clamp down on opposition, thus threatening digital freedom of expression overall.

Internet usage, mobile telephony penetration, and other ICT-enabled applications have been enjoying steady growth in both Bangladesh’s private and public sectors for over a decade. The present political leadership came to power with a mandate to “digitise” the country by implementing its Digital Bangladesh by 2021 vision. This policy rolled out net enabled ICT centers to ensure easier access of information for its citizens all over Bangladesh. At present, the national teledensity is at over 70%. Around 20% of the population use the internet, of which 90% go online using mobile phone services. There are around 200,000 local bloggers based in Bangladesh, who alongside millions of Bangladeshi Facebook users were until recently enjoying near-uninhibited freedom to express their thoughts online.

The true power of social media to mobilise massive groups of people on a political issue was first observed in Bangladesh during the Shahbag movement in February 2013. Like the 2011 uprising in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, protesters gathered for several weeks in the Shahbag intersection of Dhaka University campus, demanding justice against known war criminals of its liberation war in 1971. This movement was initiated by local bloggers and social network users, and flourished with their help. People were using online media freely to organise in the real world and to create spaces for net based dialogue on critical issues.  However, along with such freedom came confrontation. Shahbag made public the conflict between the ultra religious, anti-establishment elements and the moderate, mainstream and secular netizens. One pro-Shahbag blogger was killed, many other online activists were threatened with physically harm by the zealots. Suddenly an online inspired mass protest, which was enjoying complete freedom of expression in the digital space, turned out to be the root cause of a messy and prolonged offline affair.

The Shahbag movement exposed the major weaknesses of the local legal system, responsible for guaranteeing its citizens’ freedom of expression. The government turned out to be confused in their decision making process and tried to appease both sides. It first banned several ultra-religious sites. Then the law enforcement agency arrested four secular Shahbag bloggers and organisers, charging them with “harming religious sentiments”. Such actions sent out confusing signals to the general population and posed serious questions on the existence of any tangible legal safety net for online communication in Bangladesh.

In fact, the government’s performance in the digital space has been consistently disappointing between 2012 and 2013. In addition to its self-conflicting stance on Shahbag, it applied a heavy-handed approach in dealing with other web services throughout the year. YouTube was banned for months (September 2012 to May 2013) due to The Innocence of Muslims, which ignited major protests in Bangladesh. Additionally, Facebook was blocked on several occasions, from periods of a few hours to days at a stretch. Freedom House included Bangladesh for the first time in its yearly Freedom On the Net report in 2013. Based on its performance in 2012 and first half of 2013, the internet in Bangladesh was found to be partially free, enjoying a relatively better online environment in comparison with its South Asian peers, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Nevertheless the situation is getting worse. Indiscriminate applications of the ICT Act 2006, a rise of online hate speech and related crimes have left net users in Bangladesh insecure.

In 2013, the government started using the ICT Act of 2006 more frequently, mainly to address issues related to online space and freedom of expression. This act was formulated in early 2000 and according to many legal experts, it was due to be amended to become more user-friendly and inclusive. The Bangladeshi government did amend it in August 2013, but unfortunately made it more repressive and inflexible. The newly amended act provisions a maximum 10 years in prison and fines up to £74,555 for any offensive religious, social, or political expression made online. It moreover made arrests under this act non-bailable and the police were given the power to arrest people without a warrant. Instead of strengthening the legal system to protect peoples’ right to communicate freely online, this act tightened its grip on peoples’ freedom of communication. A series of arrests took place and several court cases were filed under the act in 2013. Besides the bloggers, editors and journalists of two newspapers, two NGO officials, and several other people were arrested, some of whom are close to opposition party politics. One university teacher was sentenced to seven years in prison under the act for threatening to kill the prime minister through a Facebook status.

Overall, the present state of affair of net freedom in Bangladesh is very uncertain. There has been no independent regulatory or legal body put in place to protect the rights of the people online. Civil society needs to be more active to thwart any digital policing that compromises public freedom. As the challenges related to ICT access in Bangladesh are being solved fast, it is now high time to make sure that its citizens enjoy true freedom while using such digital infrastructure.

This article was posted on 10 April 2014 at

Future looks fraught in polarised Bangladesh

Election day in Bangladesh (Image: Md Manik/Demotox

Election day in Bangladesh (Image: Md Manik/Demotix)

It is a story worthy of great theatre: the bitter rivalry between two women that is tearing apart a country.

Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia head the two main political parties of Bangladesh, and have swapped power back and forth for the last 20 years.

The relationship between the two “battling begums” has come under international scrutiny recently, after Bangladesh suffered the most violent election in its short history. More than 100 people died during the campaign, with the country disrupted by strikes, blockades, and violent clashes between police and opposition supporters.

The controversy started well before the country went to the polls on 5 January. Since 1996, Bangladesh has held elections under a neutral caretaker government. In 2010, Hasina’s Awami League party, buoyed by a strong parliamentary majority, decided to abolish the provision. The opposition, Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) took issue with this, saying that a fair election could not be guaranteed without a neutral body overseeing it. The Awami League would not set up a caretaker government. The BNP boycotted the election.

Hasina decided to go ahead with the poll. Inevitably, her party – unopposed in 153 of the country’s 300 constituencies – won. But, equally inevitably, the validity of a contest in which there was only one real option has been questioned. The election result was also undermined by an unusually low turnout, with the government putting the figure at under 40 per cent and others reporting far less than that.

This was not just to do with voters choosing not to vote, but with a systematic campaign of intimidation and violence by supporters of the opposition BNP. Enforcing blockades, strikes, and boycotts, supporters of the BNP and their allies, the Jamaat-e-Islami, petrol bombed buses carrying workers, and set fire to shops that had opened in defiance of the strikes.

“The violence perpetrated against people who have not complied with the opposition call is a criminal act and it is the responsibility of the government to bring the attackers to justice,” says Abbas Faiz, Bangladesh researcher for Amnesty International. “But the majority of people who died during the two months of elections died from gunshot wounds. There is a strong possibility the police may have used excessive force.” Amnesty is calling for immediate investigations to identify the perpetrators of attacks, and to establish whether the force used by police was lawful. In a statement, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called on “all sides to exercise restraint and ensure first and foremost a peaceful and conducive environment, where people can maintain their right to assembly and expression.”

Elections in Bangladesh tend to be big public events, with people getting up early to join famously long queues and proudly displaying their ink stained fingers. Yet people in the capital Dhaka during this year’s election described an eerie calm. Voting took place in just nine of 20 seats in the city. There were vicious attacks on the country’s Hindu minority, who make up around 10 per cent of the population and tend to support the Awami League.

The consensus seems to be that both of the main parties are equally culpable for the farce that the election has descended into. An editorial in the country’s Daily Star newspaper said that the Awami League had won “a predictable and hollow victory, which gives it neither a mandate nor an ethical standing to govern effectively”. Its verdict on Zia and her associates was no better: “Political parties have the right to boycott elections. But what is unacceptable is using violence and intimidation to thwart an election.”

The election chaos comes after a year of ugly political violence in Bangladesh: around 500 people were killed in political clashes during 2013, making it one of the most violent years since independence in 1971. This began with a mass popular movement against religious fundamentalism. Named the Shahbag movement, after the area of Dhaka where it began, the protests swiftly triggered a backlash from the religious right and their supporters. Much of this polarisation – between secularists and Islamists – had been precipitated by the government’s war crimes tribunal. Prosecuting people for crimes committed during the war of independence in 1971, the tribunal has reopened old tensions. Islamists claim it is being used to shut down the opposition, while secularists argue that the sentences (which include the death penalty) are not harsh enough.

Now, several weeks after the election, the political system remains in crisis. Zia is effectively under house arrest, while Hasina’s victory is seen across the board as empty. International and domestic observers alike say that the only way forward is for the two women to sit down together and hammer out a compromise. With early elections expected within the next 18 months, and with political uncertainty and violence continuing, this is ever more pressing.

This article was published on 21 January 2014 at

Journalists caught in Bangladesh crossfire

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

On 15 January, Asif Mohiuddin left his office in Uttara, an upmarket area of Bangladesh’s capital city, Dhaka. He was accosted by three unidentified men. They stabbed him several times in the neck and back. He was admitted to hospital in a critical condition.

Mohiuddin, who identifies as an atheist and writes a widely read and award-winning Bengali-language blog, survived the attack. But that was not the end of his troubles. In April, still struggling with persistent ill-health after the knife attack, he was arrested for posting “offensive comments about Islam and Mohammed”. Now awaiting trial after several delays, he faces a possible 14 year jail sentence and a fine of 100,000 Euros on the charge of “hurting religious belief”.

The month after Mohiuddin was attacked, another blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was hacked to death outside his house in Dhaka. A frequent critic of religious fundamentalism in Bangaldesh, Haider’s death – like the attack on Mohiuddin – is widely thought to be the work of Islamic extremists.

Yet, as the subsequent arrest of Mohiuddin and three other bloggers in April demonstrates, journalists in Bangladesh face a double threat: Violent retaliation from Islamist groups on the one hand, and official repression on the other.

Bangladesh has the largest number of media outlets among the world’s least developed countries. It has 50 national daily newspapers, of which eight are English language, 25 television channels and more than 300 regional magazines. Its widely watched TV talk shows are host to robust political debate. But despite these impressive statistics, the last year has seen a significant deterioration in press freedom. According to monitoring groups, 2013 alone has seen more than 100 attacks on members of the press.

This worsening climate for journalists should be seen in the context of a polarised political situation. Antagonism between the ruling party, the Awami League, and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, is nothing new. But political tension has now spread outside this narrowly partisan rivalry, to a broader disagreement about the kind of country Bangladesh should be. In April this year, the Shahbagh demonstrations saw tens of thousands of secularists taking to the streets. Counter-protests by Islamists drew similar numbers. Mohiuddin, Haider, and other bloggers were all advocates of the Shahbagh protests.

Much of this polarisation is related to a war crimes tribunal set up by the Awami League, which is prosecuting individuals for crimes dating back to the 1971 war of independence, when Bangladesh separated from Pakistan. Many of those standing trial are members of the Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party allied with the opposition. In February, a senior Islamist was sentenced to life in prison. This kick-started the Shahbagh protests: secularists felt the sentence was too lenient, advocating the death penalty, while Islamists and their supporters say that the tribunals are merely being used to stamp out the opposition. Against this backdrop, journalists and bloggers who are critical of one side or another are vulnerable to retaliation from vigilantes or officials.

Perhaps the most high profile case is that of Mahmadur Rahman, the editor of Amar Desh, a major pro-opposition newspaper, who criticised the tribunals. He was arrested in April on charges including sedition and remains in prison. Two Islamic TV channels which broadcast images of violence by security forces against Islamist protesters have been taken off the air. In March, the government intervened to stop TV channels broadcasting a speech by an opposition leader.

There has also been a spate of attacks against journalists who simply attend street protests to cover them. In April, Nadia Sharmeen, a journalist for Ekushey TV, was chased down the street and beaten by Islamists while covering a large protest.

While much of this violence against journalists is being carried out by non-state actors, arrests of journalists and bloggers have created a climate of fear.

“We’ve definitely seen panic within the blogger community in Bangladesh,” says Sumit Galhotra, Asia researcher for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “During the arrests of bloggers earlier this year, Islamists published a list of 84 bloggers they deemed blasphemous. According to local accounts, this list was shared with the government, and led to anxiety for many bloggers who expressed criticism of politicians or Islamist groups. Some bloggers went underground or stopped writing altogether for fear of being attacked or arrested.”

International reporters are also feeling the effects of the clampdown on press freedom. The world spotlight turned to Bangladesh in May, after a garment factory collapsed, killing more than 1,000 people. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is acutely image conscious, and international journalists faced problems obtaining visas to cover the crisis. CNN anchor Christine Amanpour raised this in a televised interview with Hasina. “We never stop any media to come to Bangladesh,” was her response. “Every country has rules and regulations.”

While these tight restrictions on foreign reporters gaining access to Bangladesh means that important developments in the country are underreported worldwide, it is, of course, local journalists who bear the brunt. The last year has seen a drastic worsening in press freedom. But as elections approach and the political situation looks set to become, if anything, more antagonistic and polarised, there seems to be little chance there will be any imminent improvement for freedom of speech.

This article was posted on 26 Nov 2013 at

Bangladesh rejects call for blasphemy law, but atheist bloggers still detained

Four Bangladeshi bloggers are being held on suspicion of “harming religious sentiment” amid protests calling for blasphemy to be made a capital crime.

On 31 March, hardline Islamists submitted a list of 84 “atheist” bloggers to authorities, demanding their arrest. Rasel Parvez, Mashiur Rahman Biplob and Subrata Adhikari Shuvo, were arrested on 1 April, and had laptops and other devices confiscated. Asif Mohiuddin was arrested days later.

The arrests take part against the backdrop of the Shahbag protests. The protests, which began as demands for the death penalty for figures convicted of war crimes during the 1971 war that led to independence from Pakistan — when many Islamist groups sided with Pakistan — have broadened to general demonstrations against the radical Jamaat-e-Islami and other “extremist” groups.

The secular movement has drawn a strong response from hardliners, who have called for a blasphemy law, along the way smearing activists as defamers of the prophet Muhammad.

The Islamist group Hefajat-e-Islam has said the capital Dhaka will face a “siege” unless the government meets its demand to introduce the death penalty for blasphemy.

However, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina has rejected calls for a blasphemy law, telling the BBC that “existing laws are enough”.

She went on to say that while Bangladesh is a “secular democracy”, where everyone “has the right to practice their religion freely”, it was “not fair to hurt anybody’s religious feeling”, and that the government “try to protect every religious sentiment.”