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It is a challenge for governments to manage the onslaught of social media that can incite public violence. But too often, a state crackdown is aimed more at silencing critics than maintaining public order.

This is certainly the case in Bangladesh. When bloggers and activists were recently murdered, instead of protecting free speech, government officials repeatedly warned against hurting religious sentiments. The authorities, too often, curtail free expression rights in print and digital media.

Screenshot of the "Moja Losss?" Facebook page. © Facebook

On Facebook, an alleged administrator of Moja Losss, a satirical page that occasionally made fun of politicians, is facing charges for anti-government posts. Advisers to the prime minister wrongly claimed that the December 2015 arrest was for public safety and argued that the satire had crossed the thresholds of decency. In September 2016, Dilip Roy, a student activist, was charged for making “derogatory remarks” towards the prime minister in a Facebook status criticizing her decision to support a controversial coal plant.

Now it appears that Bangladesh authorities are attempting to enlist Facebook directly as an agent of censorship. The post and telecommunications minister has announced a proposal for Facebook to implement a separate set of rules for Bangladesh that will protect the nation’s culture, tradition, and history and regulate posts that hurt religious sentiment. The proposal asks for a dedicated department to respond to requests to restrict expression and verify identities with government documents, which could aid in further abusive charges. According to authorities, these proposals are necessary counterterrorism measures.

Facebook has already restricted content in compliance with local laws since 2013. In the midst of a 22-day government block on access to Facebook and other social media and communication applications in 2015, Facebook officials met with government authorities. That year marked the first time that Facebook provided authorities with data related to criminal cases.

Mark Zuckerberg has stated: “We fight to protect our community from unnecessary or overreaching government intervention.” In Bangladesh, the proposed guidelines could go beyond local laws and places restrictions on rights that hurt the very individuals Facebook claims to help by providing a platform for their voices. It is up to Facebook to reject the government proposal and fight for their users in Bangladesh, and to do so in a transparent manner.

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