On Wednesday, March 2nd, Bangladesh was amongst the 35 countries which abstained in the vote at the United Nations General Assembly criticising Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. Though one might expect that Bangladesh’s experience of its own independence war would result in the government taking the side of a sovereign Ukraine against an invading army, the realpolitik of Awami League’s need to keep Russia on its side seems to have swayed them.
Along with Russia’s involvement in the construction of the Rooppur nuclear plant and its possible involvement in further energy projects within the country, the current government has kept in mind the willingness of authoritarian Russia to accept a non-democratic Bangladesh, something which will become all the more important as (rigged) elections loom. The Awami League government’s support of authoritarian governments that favour its own drive towards autocracy should of course come as no surprise considering it has not said a bad word about the alleged genocide of the Uighurs in China.
However, this article is not about the merits or otherwise of Bangladesh’s position on Russia’s military intervention into Ukraine, but what might happen if the two paragraphs above, or similarly worded criticism, were published on Facebook from Bangladesh in the future.
This question needs to be asked as the Bangladesh government has put out for consultation a new regulation, the “Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission Regulation for Digital, Social Media and OTT platforms”, that would require Facebook to inform all its users in Bangladesh that they should not “display”, “upload”, “publish” or “share” content which “threatens friendly relations with friendly states” or “is insulting to a foreign nation”. The draft regulation is very poorly composed, but it seems to imply that Facebook would be required to remove such content.
One might assume that the government would not think that the opening paragraphs to this article could fall within this prohibited wording — but do not bet on it. The Bangladesh authorities have arrested and detained people under the Digital Security Act for critical Facebook posts about the visit of Indian Prime minister Narendra Modi to Bangladesh claiming that such comments could result in “deterioration of law and order”. If somehow criticising Modi’s visit is a threat to “law and order” then, criticising the government’s position on Ukraine and Russia’s support of the current government could certainly be interpreted by Bangladesh authorities to fall either within “threatening friendly relations” with Russia or “insulting a foreign nation”.
However, if you think this may be an over-stretch, the new draft regulation in any case requires Facebook to outlaw users from posting or sharing material that “creates unrest or disorder or deteriorates or advances to deteriorate the law and order situation” (sic) —the same reason used for arresting Modi critics.
However, the draft regulation does not just require the outlawing and removal of posts on the basis of these three reasons. There is in fact an extensive list that users are not allowed to post about. This includes content which:
— is defamatory or libellous
— is obscene or pornographic
— is invasive of another’s privacy (including bodily privacy)
— is insulting or harassing on the basis of gender
— is racially or ethnically objectionable
— is harmful to children
— threatens public order
— prevents investigation of any offence
— is against the liberation war of Bangladesh or the spirit of liberation war
— is against the father of the nation, the national anthem, or the national flag
— is offensive, false or threatening and insulting or humiliating to a person
— hurts religious values or sentiment
— creates enmity, hatred, or hostility among different classes or communities of the society or destroys communal harmony
— breaches secrecy of the government
One must ask whether there is anything that can be written on Facebook worth writing which the Bangladesh authorities could not interpret as falling within one of these categories?
Writing about an unpublished document or information which the government does not want you to write about. Could that not be said to “breach the secrecy of the government”?
Writing critically about anyone, particularly politicians. Would not the government argue that it comes within the prohibited category “offensive, false or threatening and insulting or humiliating to a person”? As we know, so many people have been arrested by the police under the old Information and Communications Technology Act 2006 and the new Digital Security Act 2018 for criticising ruling party politicians.
Writing critically about a government policy. Could not the government argue that this might “threaten public order”?
One can only imagine the kinds of posts about the upcoming general election which Facebook would be precluded from allowing users to publish under this new regulation.
And how in the world would Facebook know when a post falls within one of these very broadly worded prohibited categories?
Through this regulation, the Bangladesh government wants Facebook and other social media organisations to act as its giant censor. The government consultation does not even explain or seek to justify any of the categories it wishes Facebook to prohibit or how it thinks they should be interpreted.
While, surely, no independent social media platform will agree to do what the Bangladesh government hopes, it is particularly cavalier even by the standards of this government which has shown little interest in freedom of speech, that it considers it seeks such limits on freedom of speech without providing any explanation or justification.
There are reasonable and justified restrictions that the law should impose on what is publishable on Facebook. But rather than thinking through clearly what these should be, and construing any such restrictions as narrowly as possible, the Bangladesh government is trying to make Facebook into the censor of practically everything.●
David Bergman (@TheDavidBergman) — a journalist based in Britain — is Editor, English of Netra News.