Internet freedom under attack in Bangladesh

Published on Sunday, December 2, 2012

The 14-minute trailer of the movie titled "Innocence of Muslims," a movie that may or may not exist, is poorly made and outright stupid. Anyone of even modest intelligence, Muslim or not, will find it painful to watch. The trailer, produced by Egyptian-born U.S. resident Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, was initially uploaded to YouTube in July 2012. From that time until September it got the attention it deserves: none. Then, on September 8, Egyptian television host Khaled Abdallah reported on the film and showed excerpts of an Arabic version of the trailer. We all know what happened next.

The YouTube clip – with the help of hate-mongers of both the Islamophobic and the Islamic kind – went viral and sparked outrage across the globe. Tens of thousands of Muslims peacefully expressed their anger at a film that depicts their Prophet Muhammad as a buffoon who endorses extramarital sex and pedophilia. A relatively small number of idiots, fundamentalists, and fundamentalist idiots resorted to violence, and angry mobs attacked diplomatic facilities of the United States and other Western countries. The result: about 75 people died, most of them in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and hundreds were injured. No need to say that there is no justification for this barbarism.

In Bangladesh, we have seen a nationwide strike as well as major protests in Dhaka and Chittagong. Members of Bangladesh Khilafat Andolan, a notorious political party aiming to replace the country's secular judicial system with Sharia law, attempted to march on the U.S. embassy in Dhaka, but were stopped by police. While there were no reports of violence in Dhaka, protesters set a bus on fire and damaged a police van in the southeastern port city.

The government of Sheikh Hasina condemned the movie and requested YouTube to remove it from their servers. Defying several such removal requests, including one by the White House, Google issued a statement saying that the clip "is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube." On September 17, the government blocked access to YouTube, and YouTube has been blocked in Bangladesh ever since. Furthermore, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) requested people in Bangladesh not to post any kind of controversial religious content on social media, and asked Facebook to remove offensive cartoons and comments. Facebook complied.

Internet traffic ranking site Alexa lists YouTube as the fourth most popular website in Bangladesh (after Google, Facebook and Yahoo). It is hence no surprise that scores of users in Bangladesh protest the ban. While tech-savvy Bangladeshis use proxy addresses and other tools to bypass the government block, a mother complained in an online comment that her four-year-old daughter can no longer watch the YouTube clips through which she used to learn alphabets, the number system and rhymes. Others complain about technical difficulties that occur on other Google websites, such as Google Mail or Google News, as a result of the YouTube ban. Businesses, in particular those involved in internet technology, have suffered and continue to suffer as well. Yet, according to recent reports by several local news outlets, sources inside the Ministry of Information indicated that the YouTube ban will continue indefinitely.

Isn't it time that Bangladesh joined those societies in which people enjoy the exercise of their right to freedom of thought and speech? A sign of a mature country is that its government provides protection of the people's right to freedom of expression, not hamper it for reasons that only fit politics of paternalism where the government does not work for the people but treats them as children. Such treatment is wrong. After all, those who impose the bans are citizens of the country no different from those on whom the ban is imposed. The citizens of Bangladesh have a right to decide for themselves whether to watch the controversial clip or to snub it. These are not peculiar Western ideas but ideas that apply to all societies where human beings live their lives and are attempting to flourish.

We are reminded here of Professor Amartya Sen, a Nobel Laureate originally from India and now teaching at Harvard University. In his essay, "Human Rights and Asian Values," published originally by the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, he shows very clearly that there is no substantial difference between the basic values that need to be promoted and defended in the West and the East. This is no surprise, of course, since in both regions of the globe what is of concern is a legal infrastructure suitable for human beings. Their needs from government are no different. Sen showed that some of the major thinkers of the East, such as the Mughal Emperor Akbar who reigned between 1556 and 1605, were champions of tolerance and peace, with ideas not much different from the ideas promoted by such Western luminaries as Thomas Paine.

Sen also shows that these ideas, shared by what some mistakenly take to be drastically different cultures, are needed for economic development. The reactionary policy of permanently banning YouTube would clearly be a step backward in Bangladesh's progress toward development, something that ultimately would be very detrimental to its citizenry.

The Bangladesh Liberal Forum created the following petition calling on the Government of Bangladesh to stop censoring the Internet:

Dear Prime Minister Hasina, dear Ministers Ahmed, Inu and Khatun, dear Mr. Bose:

I and the other signatories of this petition letter are deeply dismayed at your plan to set up a localized version of YouTube in Bangladesh, thereby giving yourself the power to block inconvenient content, and we call on the Government of Bangladesh to stop censoring the Internet.

Freedom of speech and expression is essential to both development and a well-functioning democracy. We believe in an educated citizenry and a free Bangladesh where ideas are openly disseminated, discussed, and debated. Progress is possible only if one considers all ideas, from whatever source, and tests one's own convictions against opposing views. The citizens of Bangladesh have a right not to be treated like children. They have a right to decide for themselves which opinions are hateful or offensive, whether to watch a controversial clip on YouTube or to snub it. We will not surrender the power to make these decisions to the Government of Bangladesh without making our voices heard, for history has taught us that government is more apt to use this power to persecute vulnerable groups than to protect the public good. If the people of Bangladesh are to be the masters of their fate and of their elected government, they must be well-informed and have access to all points of view. Ignorance is a breeding ground for oppression and tyranny. Censorship fits authoritarian governments such as those in Saudi Arabia and North Korea, but not the proud nation of Bangladesh.

In addition to being a moral right, the right to free speech is also a universal human right. It is enshrined in Article 19 of the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

Furthermore, the honorable Prime Minister's aspirational goal of a "Digital Bangladesh" presupposes that the citizens have free access to information. Any action taken to limit the free flow of information severely undermines the present government's commitment to its own stated vision of a "Digital Bangladesh". The government's current ban of YouTube and the proposed continued censorship of the content therein will not only delegitimize the government's own political standing and technology policies in the short term, but will also impugn on the current government's legacy. There is no doubt that history will judge internet censorship harshly and the current government, instead of being remembered for its promotion of a "Digital Bangladesh", will likely be remembered more for censorship's crippling effect on democracy and "Digital Bangladesh".

Government actions in recent years stand in stark contradiction not only to the government's own policies, but also to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to human decency. In March 2009, YouTube was blocked in Bangladesh after a video was posted that revealed the military's discontent with how the government was handling a mutiny by border guards in Dhaka. In May 2010, the Government of Bangladesh blocked access to Facebook, a popular social networking site, after the arrest of a youth for uploading satiric images of some politicians, including the prime minister and the leader of the opposition. Most recently, on 17 September 2012, YouTube was banned for the second time following the controversy surrounding "Innocence of Muslims," an anti-Islamic movie trailer.

Internet censorship gives the government the power to determine what information citizens can consume on the internet. The practice is an attack on the right to freedom of speech and expression, and a threat to democracy and development.

We urge you to stop censoring the Internet, and to instantly halt your plans to establish a localized version of YouTube in Bangladesh. We recognize that this takes political courage, but we trust that you will do the right thing.

Thank you for your time.

To sign the petition, click here.

(This article is co-authored by Tibor R. Machan. Professor Machan holds the R. C. Hoiles Chair in Free Enterprise and Business Ethics at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University in California. He is a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.)

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