Even as the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) unilaterally blocked Northeast News in that country towards September end, a US non-profit organisation has said in its latest report that “internet freedom in Bangladesh has declined” while “online activists and journalists encountered increasing levels of violence”.
This comes ahead of the arrival in Dhaka of a six-member team of experts from the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) to study the ground realities related to free, fair and participatory elections in Bangladesh. The team will be in Dhaka from October 8 to 11.
The IRI-NDI team will talk to various stakeholders, including representatives of the main political parties, civil society organisations, the bureaucracy and the police administration among others. It will meet Awami League representatives on October 9.
While categorising Bangladesh as “partly free”, Freedom House has scored the country 41 out 100 on three counts – obstacles to access, limits on content and violations of user rights. Freedom House’s score for Bangladesh on political rights and civil liberties was 39/100 in 2022.
The following are some of the key highlights of the Freedom House: Freedom on the Net 2023 report:
Internet freedom in Bangladesh declined during the coverage period, while online activists and journalists encountered increasing levels of physical violence and supporters of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) faced an ongoing crackdown.
Internet and communications services were throttled several times ahead of BNP rallies. Authorities continued to target opposition leaders, journalists, government critics, and ordinary users under the Digital Security Act (DSA), fueling self-censorship online.
The government’s control of the digital environment is expected to tighten thanks to proposed regulations and amendments to existing laws related to digital content, online news, and data protection.
The ruling Awami League (AL) has consolidated political power through sustained harassment of the opposition and those perceived to be allied with it, as well as of critical media and voices in civil society. Corruption is endemic, and anticorruption efforts have been weakened by politicised enforcement. Due process guarantees are poorly upheld and security forces violate human rights with near impunity. Violence and discrimination against religious minorities and refugees, particularly Rohingya who have fled Myanmar, are significant problems.
Between October and December 2022, the government throttled internet and communication services at least seven times ahead of BNP events.
In June 2022, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) restricted the ability of Grameenphone to sell new SIMs to customers, an arbitrary and overbroad action that negatively affected the sector.
The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) and BTRC revised the draft regulation for digital media and over-the-top (OTT) services. The latest version was submitted to the High Court in January 2023 amid growing public concern with the initiative.
Authorities launched 189 DSA-related cases during the coverage period, according to tracking by the Centre for Governance Studies. In June 2023, a government minister said that 7,000 cases related to the DSA, which the government and its supporters employ in a partisan fashion, had been filed to date.
In January 2023, it was reported that the National Telecommunication Monitoring Centre (NTMC) had bought vehicle-mounted surveillance equipment with the capacity to intercept encrypted messages and inject spyware into targeted devices.
In January 2023, Raghunath Kha, a correspondent for online newspaper Dainik Projonmo Ekattor and Deepto TV, was abducted and tortured by the police.