Bangladesh: Social Media Platform Blocking Signals Further Free Expression Degradation
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
The blocking of access to Facebook, Viber, Whatsapp, Twitter, Skype, and other similar services in Bangladesh indicates a further degradation of free expression in a country that has seen increased violent attacks against writers and publishers in the digital space, said PEN American Center today.
The blocking of online social channels came into effect on November 18 as the International Crimes Tribunal of Bangladesh rejected the appeals of opposition leaders Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed and SQ Chowdhury, both of whom were executed on November 21 for war crimes committed during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. Approximately 18 million Facebook and other social media platform users in Bangladesh were without formal access as a result of the block. The government cited national security concerns to justify the block and assured the public it would be a temporary measure. Twenty-one days after the block was first implemented, Facebook access was restored, but blocks on other platforms like Whatsapp and Viber remain in place. Additionally, three days after Facebook was unblocked, the government blocked Twitter, Skype, and Imo, signalling that the unblocking of Facebook did not signify a marked improvement in access to platforms for expression. While some users have subverted the block through the use of proxy servers, service providers have issued warnings to discourage such activity after prompting by the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission. Officials have threatened that those using proxy servers will be monitored and their accounts hacked.
“Unfettered access to social media platforms and to mobile phone applications is a cornerstone of free expression in the digital era,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, PEN’s Director of Free Expression Programs. “The Bangladeshi government’s disregard for its citizens’ ability to access and share news and information is deeply troubling, especially given the heightened pressure on the media by the government this year amid an escalating pattern of violence against bloggers, publishers, and citizen journalists by non-state actors. The government must rescind the block unconditionally and immediately.”
In Bangladesh, at least five bloggers and publishers have been murdered by religious extremists in 2015, and at east three others have been attacked. Secular bloggers and critics of the government have also been arrested and prosecuted in the past several years under the aegis of the 2006 Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, which allows for warrantless arrests and 14-year maximum sentences for online violations that range from hacking, interference with computer systems, breaches of data, “crimes committed using a computer,” and specific kinds of expression online that could be deemed defamatory or offensive. Two hours after Facebook was unblocked in the country, Refayet Ahmed, administrator of a Facebook page called “Moja Losss?” was arrested for violating Section 57 of the ICT. Section 57 is used to punish any person who deliberately publishes material on an electronic medium that causes the deterioration of law and order, creates a prejudiced image of the state or person, or hurts religious beliefs.
Founded in 1922, PEN American Center is an association of 4,000 U.S. writers working to bring down barriers to free expression worldwide. www.pen.org