Rights group criticize Bangladesh’s media ‘surveillance’

Bishop slams the government’s recent attempts to curb freedom of expression as immoral and unacceptable
Rights group criticize Bangladesh’s media ‘surveillance’

Bangladesh authorities accused of adopting advanced methods to block or conduct surveillance of internet traffic. (Image by:Unsplash)

A Catholic bishop has joined rights activists and journalists in criticizing the Bangladesh government’s recent attempts to muzzle dissent through online surveillance and control media.

“Freedom of speech is our constitutional right, so any attempt to curb freedom of expression is immoral and unacceptable,” Bishop James Romen Boiragi of Khulna Diocese, told ucanews.

Bishop Boiragi, chairman of the Catholic Bishops’ Social Communication Commission, was commenting on recent moves by the government to control media, which has triggered criticism at home and abroad.

Authorities have “adopted advanced methods to block or conduct surveillance of internet traffic and regulate online news sites without a sufficient legal framework to protect rights to privacy, expression, and access to information,” New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement Jan. 9.

The government is blocking access to online news sites in violation of the right to free speech and access to information, it said.

On Dec. 29, 2019, Bangladesh blocked access to Netra News, a Sweden-based investigative journalism website after it published a report on alleged corruption involving Obaidul Quader, a top government minister and secretary of the ruling Awami League.

Earlier, the authorities blocked international news sites Al Jazeera and the Wire for publishing reports criticizing the government. Dozens of local online news sites and freethinking blogs have also been shut down in recent years.

“The Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh continues its march toward authoritarianism, willing only to allow praise, and shutting down criticism,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These restrictions disregard the basic principles of free expression and suggest that the government has plenty to hide.”

In 2014, Bangladesh adopted the National Broadcast Policy, and in 2017 the National Online Mass Media Policy, which require online news sites to be registered with an Independent Broadcast Commission. The commission, however, has yet to be formed.

Some 3,495 sites have applied for registration so far and their applications are being reviewed by the Home Ministry, Information Minister Hasan Mahmud said in December last year, warning that “steps would be taken” against those that didn’t apply.

In 2018, the Digital Security Act was passed with includes controversial sections that recommend stringent punishment for material that “hurts religious sentiments or religious values” or “destroys communal harmony, or creates unrest or disorder.”

HRW noted that this law not only stifles freedom of speech and the press but imposes “self-censorship” among journalists. So far, 29 people have been arrested under the law.

“The government has the right to monitor everything, but nothing should be exaggerated. The government should take action against anyone spreading fake news, should protect and spare those media with objective reporting,” Bishop Boiragi said.

Syed Skukur Ali, former president of Dhaka Reporters’ Unity, said the HRW statement on surveillance of online sites and media was “overstated.”

“The media picture is not as grim as portrayed in the HRW report. Journalists don’t enjoy complete freedom, but the media as a whole can operate more or less freely. Some media are devoid of ethics and standards, so it is necessary to monitor and control them in order to save the image of the media as a whole,” Ali told ucanews.

 

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