Censorship and content filtering – The Business Post (businesspostbd.com)

Censorship and content filtering

Ziaur Rahman
18 Feb 2023 00:00:00 | Update: 20 Feb 2023 08:57:51

The rapid growth of ICT, internet and digital technologies have brought a revolutionary change in the country’s communications sector. It has created a huge opportunity in media to instantly connect with others and share lives through photos, videos and status updates.

Any type of information such as voice, data, and media services has now become instant, quick and fast reachable. Internet has also greatly changed the behaviour of people and the traditional systems of communications.

People nowadays do not wait for morning papers or sit down at an appointed time for the evening news on television or radio. Digital platforms have totally changed the news industry. The consumption, distribution and the process of production have been changed fundamentally.

With the advancement of technology it has become very easy to access any website and most people by this time have become familiar with various forms of social media. These days people are less depended on traditional media rather they follow some online news portals and share their ideas, beliefs and news on media platforms.

It all happens because of widespread Internet usage and smart phone adoption in Bangladesh. According to Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC), about 127.6 million (12.76 crore) people, almost two-thirds of the country’s total population, are now using the internet.

Mobile phone users have also increased in recent days. It is estimated that more than 180 million people have mobile devices, and almost half of these connections are smartphones. GSMA (Groupe Speciale Mobile Association) Intelligence’s numbers indicate about 106.8 percent mobile connections in Bangladesh.

Internet has empowered people to express their views, opinions and beliefs. But the advantages in media industry is being impaired greatly nowadays mainly due to poor infrastructure, low internet freedom and regulatory environment. Internet freedom in Bangladesh, however, improved lightly in last year following a three-year of decline.

According to a US-based think tank, Freedom House, Bangladesh scored 43 points out of 100 in 2022, improving three notches from the year before. Since 2013, Bangladesh has been consistently categorised as a “Partly Free” country on the internet freedom index of Freedom House which documents how governments censor and control the digital sphere. The report assessed the level of Internet freedom in 70 countries based on 21 indicators pertaining to obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights.

The internet is considered as one of the most important sources of freedom of speech and expression through mass media including digital, electronic, traditional and social media. But freedom of speech and expression is being impaired in the country because of low internet speed, censorship and content filtering. According to sources, the government very often throttles the internet speed specially whenever there is any opposition programme. The move is aimed at preventing live streaming on Facebook and other social media platforms and stopping usage of the messaging apps at the rally venue.

Downgrading of 3G and 4G internet services were also reported from major divisional cities in Bangladesh during October-December period in last year when the mainstream opposition political party BNP was holding their rallies.

Governments often impose shutdowns, block websites or restrict internet services mainly to stop spread of disinformation and maintain law and order situation. Sometimes these are done, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information.

But in reality, these network disruptions block people from knowing the real situation and they don’t feel safe and secure when they have no access to information and are disconnected from their webs.

Internet shutdowns have been imposed multiple times in Bangladesh over the years to quell protests, control instability over religious tensions, and prevent rumours and propaganda in the lead-up to the national elections.

Internet challenges the right to freedom of expression safeguarded in the international human rights treaties. Nevertheless it empowers freedom of expression by providing individuals with new means of imparting and seeking information.

Experts, human rights activists, Journalists and writers recently attended an advocacy meeting on “Internet Censorship and Content Filtering” observed that the focus of regulation should be on improving content moderation, rather than adding content-specific restrictions. “There might be restrictions in case of disinformation, hate speech, defamation and harmful content but these should be based on laws,” said researcher, lawyer and human rights activist Rezaur Rahman Lenin while addressing the campaign held in Dhaka recently.

News Network, one of the country’s leading media NGO, organised the advocacy campaign on Internet Censorship and Content Filtering in cooperation with EngageMedia and Internews. According to Lenin, restrictions imposed by states should be based on laws. “These should be clear, necessary, proportionate and non-discriminatory, he added.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the government is using sophisticated equipment to block websites critical of the government and carrying out surveillance on online traffic. Human right activists and opposition leaders are accusing that the government is marching towards authoritarianism through intimidating the free press and cracking down on freedom of expression. Journalists are already self-censoring, fearing retaliation for criticism.

According to sources, suppression on press has increased substantially following the COVID-19 pandemic in Bangladesh. Any information that was deemed critical of government was branded as “rumors” during the pandemic. The government allegedly suspended a number of doctors, government officers, and academics for criticizing the government response to COVID-19.

Over the last decade, digital information and communication technologies have become the focus of heavy-handed state intervention in Bangladesh. The government introduced two internet security laws , Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, 2006 and the Digital Security Act, 2018 (DSA 2018), both woefully inadequate to address the challenges of the evolving nature of the internet.

Sources said, the laws are being used to bring trumped up charges against journalists, activists, lawyers, and academics, and clampdown on free speech. The DSA also prohibits journalists from obtaining any documents, information and pictures of the government offices without “official consent,” which makes investigative journalism on urgent issues of public interest almost impossible.

The writer is a journalist. He can be contacted at mzrbd60@gmail.com