(New York) – Bangladesh authorities are blocking access to online news sites in violation of the right to free speech and access to information, Human Rights Watch said today. The government has also adopted advanced methods to block or conduct surveillance on internet traffic and regulate online news sites without a sufficient legal framework to protect rights to privacy, expression, and access to information.
On December 29, 2019, access to the Sweden-based investigative journalism website Netra News was blocked within Bangladesh after it published a report alleging corruption by Obaidul Quader, an influential party leader and a minister in the Awami League government. Bangladesh authorities have previously blocked access to international news sites like Al Jazeera and The Wire for publishing articles that criticized the government. They have also arbitrarily blocked Bangladeshi news websites.
“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. “These restrictions disregard the basic principles of free expression and suggest that the government has plenty to hide.”
In December 2019, the government announced that the Home Ministry was reviewing all Bangladeshi online news sites and that in the future all news sites will require government approval and registration. According to Information Minister Hasan Mahmud, 3,595 news sites had applied for registration that was ordered with a June 30, 2019 deadline, and that “steps would be taken” against those that failed to apply.
The registration requirement has been in place since the publication of the 2014 National Broadcast policy and was reiterated in the 2017 National Online Mass Media Policy. These policies require online media outlets to register with an independent Broadcast Commission, which was to include civil society members, among them a “freedom of expression” specialist. However, this commission has never been formed and the Home Ministry is reviewing applications instead. The process and conditions for approval are unclear and causes for revocation of registration under the 2014 policy include “mockery of the national motto or goal, mockery or derogatory remarks about the people of Bangladesh, or disrespect of the national character of Bangladeshi people.” These overly vague and broad stipulations raise concerns that the government could simply deny registration for any news site that publishes content critical of the ruling party.
Journalists are already self-censoring, fearing retaliation for criticism. One newspaper editor told Human Rights Watch that he currently publishes only “10 to 20 percent” of the news at his disposal. Another newspaper editor estimated that about 50 percent of content is self-censored.
Under the 2018 Digital Security Act, journalists can face life in prison for “propaganda” against the nation and up to 10 years for any content that “hurts religious sentiments or religious values” or “destroys communal harmony, or creates unrest or disorder.” The law not only stifles investigative journalism, but has a chilling effect on free speech for anyone who might dare to criticize the ruling party and its leaders. Odhikar, a Bangladeshi human rights organization, reported at least 29 arrests under the law in 2019.
The government’s Ministry of Home Affairs reportedly increased its technical capacity to filter and block content as well as to conduct surveillance on individual online activity under the National Telecommunication Monitoring Center’s Content Blocking and Filtering Project. The monitoring center, which is used by several security agencies including the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), Bangladesh’s military intelligence agency, lacks a sufficient legal framework to protect against abuses of the rights to free speech, access to information, and privacy.
The Netra News editor, Tasneem Khalil, said he had information that intelligence agencies had blocked access to the site. Telecom authorities told Al Jazeera that there was no official order to block Netra News but indicated that the DGFI had the capacity to block websites.
Previously, in order to block a website, security agencies needed to notify the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, which then sent a request to all internet providers. But in 2019, the government required all internet service providers to install Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) equipment, an advanced method of network monitoring that can be used to block or surveil internet traffic.
Telecommunication providers were required to put the technology into operation by February 2019, and shortly thereafter the government blocked nearly 20,000 websites in what was described as an “anti-pornography” sweep, but which included popular blogging sites and social media apps. Experts have criticized the use of DPI for censorship and surveillance as an invasion of the privacy and a means for political repression.
The introduction of such technology opens the door to rampant abuse under Bangladesh’s vague and overly broad legal framework on surveillance, seriously threatening the rights to privacy and freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said. The 2006 amendment to the Telecommunications Act stipulates that the government can give any security officer the authority “to bar, record or to collect the information” that is “sent by any client using the service of any telecommunication” for the purposes of national security and public order. The monitoring authorities defined “national security and public order” as “keeping the state and the people safe and disciplined against any kind of unpleasant, provocative event,” essentially giving authorities free rein to block speech and information without meaningful oversight.
For a law to provide a legitimate basis for restricting protected rights under international standards, it must be drafted with sufficient precision that the people affected can determine how it can be applied. Vague definitions leave it to the authorities to decide what content requires tracking, collecting, or blocking. Bangladesh authorities have an obligation to ensure that restrictions on online expression and access to information are necessary and proportionate to achieve specific and legitimate security objectives.
“Controlling access to information is one of the hallmark signs of an authoritarian government,” Adams said. “As the Bangladesh government increasingly stifles its civil society, it’s critical for the international community to press the government to uphold the basic principles of democracy, including a free press.”