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Bangladesh: Government Observation of Facebook Ignites Debate

For a while now, the Bangladeshi authorities have been keeping an eye on the social media space and the country's Facebook users are increasingly finding themselves in the eye of the storm.

When a supposed coup to overthrow the government was scuttled in January this year, it was known that the plotters were using Facebook as one of the tools to mobilize and instigate their supporters. The government was shaken and became ultra-cautious, so much so, that now it seems that any even an off the cuff remark made against the government in a Facebook status update can get a person hauled up, arrested and/or prosecuted.

In one such instance, Bangladeshi citizen Ruhul Amin, a lecturer at the Jahangirnagar University in Dhaka, was sentenced by the country's High Court to a 6 month jail term after he failed to appear in court to face trial regarding his Facebook status update, in which he had allegedly wished death to the Prime Minister. Mr. Amin, who is currently in Australia on a study leave, is now facing sedition charges for his action.

In another incident, a college student was arrested after posting some ‘derogatory comments’ about the Prime Minister and her late father, Bangladesh's founding leader – Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. These aforementioned incidents and the resulting government crackdown have created a lot of heated debate, both online and offline.

Remix from Bryant Arnold

Remix from Bryant Arnold

In the comment section of the news article on Ruhul Amin, which was posted on blog.bdnews [bn], Mukhosh Pora Sadhu wrote:

আমাদের দেশের রাজনীতেবিদের প্রতি সাধারণ মানুষের যে প্রচন্ড ক্ষোভ তারই বহি:প্রকাশ এটা। অনেকেই তা গণমাধ্যমে প্রকাশ করতে পারেন না । কিন্তু বর্তমানে “ফেইসবুক” অলিখিত অত্যন্ত শক্তিশালী গণমাধ্যমে পরিনত হচ্ছে। এর কারণ আমাদের সংবাদ পত্রের “হলুদ সাংবাদিকতা”

This is an outward expression of the extreme anger that the common people are feeling towards our country’s politicians. They are not able to express these sentiments in the mainstream media. However, Facebook is now becoming an informal but powerful medium of expression. The reason for this is the yellow journalism practiced by mainstream newspapers.

On Sonar Bangla blog, Hassan expressed his concern [bn]:

ফেসবুকে স্ট্যাটাসও দেওয়া যাবেনা- এ কোন সময়ে আমরা? কারাগারে বন্দী আজ মত প্রকাশের অধিকার…বর্তমান বিশ্বে সামাজিক যোগাযোগের পাশাপাশি মতামত প্রকাশ, জনমত গঠন ও গনতান্ত্রিক আন্দোলনের ক্ষেত্রেও ফেসবুকের ভূমিকা অনুস্বীকার্য। তার প্রমাণ সাম্প্রতিক মিশর ও মধ্যপ্রাচ্যের আন্দোলন। যতই দেয়ালে পিঠ ঠেকে যাক না কেন – মাননীয় প্রধানমন্ত্রীর বিষয়ে বিশ্ববিদ্যালয়ের সম্মানিত শিক্ষকের স্ট্যাটাসটি এরকম না হলেই শোভন হত। তবে অশোভন বক্তব্য তো আমাদের জাতীয় দূর্বলতায় পরিনত হয়েছে। তবে একজন সরকারের বিরুদ্ধে কিছু বললেই তার বিরুদ্ধে লেগে যেতে হব এমন করাটাও ঠিক না।

Now we cannot even give a Facebook status update. In which age are we living? Freedom of expression has been incarcerated… In today's world, the role of Facebook, not only as a medium of social networking but also as a medium for expressing opinions, mobilization and democratic protests is undeniable – the events in Egypt and the Arab Spring being a case in point. I agree, whatever may have been the extenuating circumstance, it was quite unbecoming for an university lecturer to write such a status update regarding the Prime Minister. Making such unbecoming statements seems to have become our national weakness. However, the moment someone says something against the government, it is also not right to get after him in this manner.

On CUETblog, Ayan commented [bn]:

স্ট্যাটাস দিবেন ভেবে চিন্তে, নইলে পুলিশে ধরপে!

Be careful about what you write on your Facebook status, else the police will catch you!

However, not everyone was supportive of the accused. Some of the bloggers were strongly critical of the nature of the status updates, especially since they were made by a responsible citizen – an university lecturer, in the case of Ruhul Amin.

On the blog.bdnews article mentioned above, Mosharof commented [bn]:

এইসব শিক্ষক দের কাছ থেকে ছাত্ররা কী শিখবে? এরা ছাত্র দের ঘুষ, দুর্নীতি, যাবতীয় খারাপ কাজ শিখায়।

What will students learn from teachers like these? They teach their students bad things like corruption, bribery etc.

Mahtab stated [bn]:

শেখ হাসিনাকে কেউ পছন্দ না ই করতে পারেন সেটা তার বাক্তিগত ব্যপার কিন্ত হাসিনা যে চেয়ার বা পদ এ বসে আছেন সেই পদের তো সন্মান আছে। এই সাধারণ বিষয় যিনি বুঝেন না তিনি তো প্রাইমারী স্কুল এর শিক্ষক হবার ই যোগ্যতা রাখেন না। তিনি কী করে বিশ্ববিদ্যালয় এর শিক্ষক হন। স্টুপিড।

Someone may not like Sheikh Hasina – that is his or her personal matter. However, the (Prime Ministerial) chair occupied by her deserves respect. A person who is unable to appreciate this simple matter does not even deserve to be a primary school teacher, let alone being an university lecturer. Stupid.

There appears to be some confusion among bloggers with respect to Ruhul Amin's 6month jail sentence. Bloggers like Meghbandhu understood the sentence to be punishment [bn] for his Facebook status and commented:

সত্যি অবাক লাগে এ কেমন দেশে বাস করি? যেখানে আমেরিকার প্রেসিডেন্ট বুশ'কে জুতা মেরে তেমন কোন সাজাই পায়নি ইরাকের সেই বিখ্যাত সাংবাদিক, সেখানে শুধুমাত্র ফেসবুক স্ট্যাটাস দেয়ার কারনে এই অবস্থা।!!!

It really amazes me when I think, what kind of a country do we live in? Over there, that famous Iraqi journalist did not suffer any punishment even after throwing a shoe at the then President Bush and here a mere Facebook status is having such a consequence!

However, others like Hassan Kalboishakhi were quick to correct them and clarify:

ওনার সাস্তি হয়েছে ফেসবুকে মৃত্যুকামনার জন্য নয়। মৃত্যুকামনা মামলায় উনি সরি বললেই মাফ পেয়ে যেতেন। আদালত কে অবজ্ঞা করার কারনে ওনার এই শাস্তি।

His (jail) sentence is not because of his Facebook status wishing death (of the Prime Minister). For that, he could have simply apologized and gotten away. His punishment is for contempt of court

After the sentencing of Ruhul Amin for contempt of court, everyone is eagerly waiting to see what will be the court's final verdict in the actual Facebook status case. The trial is being seen as a very important roadmap for freedom of speech in Bangladesh. The current government had promised its citizens a Digital Bangladesh. However, many feel that this verdict stands to threaten both freedom of expression and the dream of a Digital Bangladesh. As for Ruhul Amin, he says that he is “too frightened to use Facebook anymore“.

In a related incident, the authorities recently foiled a mobilization attempt by a Facebook group Blue Band Call – a youth based group who wish to be “agents of change” in the country's political process. While authorities claimed that the group had not taken the requisite permissions to hold the public program, the group claimed otherwise.

Upal Bangladesh reported the incident in the Projanmo forum and commented [bn]:

সরকার মনে হয় আজকাল সবকিছুতেই “ভূত” দেখা শুরু করেছে

Looks like the government is seeing “ghosts” everywhere (is a bundle of nerves)

The government on it's part is taking no chances. The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) has announced the formation of a special cell to monitor cyber activities in the country, round the clock. It will be interesting to see how this latest move pans out in the coming days.

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