Watchdog: Internet Freedom at ‘All-Time Low’ in Bangladesh

Subel Rai Bhandari
Kathmandu
2021-09-21
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Watchdog: Internet Freedom at ‘All-Time Low’ in Bangladesh Demonstrators pour water to extinguish tear gas fired by the Thai police during a protest in Bangkok, Aug. 7, 2021.
Nattaphon Phanpongsanon/BenarNews

Internet freedom deteriorated to an all-time low in Bangladesh, while being severely restricted in Thailand and having declined in Indonesia, an independent watchdog group said in its latest annual report released Tuesday.

Elsewhere in Asia, digital freedom remained restricted in Malaysia and under threat in the neighboring Philippines, according to “Freedom on the Net 2021,” a country-by-country assessment by U.S.-based Freedom House. 

“The rights of internet users around the world, especially the rights to free expression and privacy, are being massively violated as a result of recent state actions,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, the group’s president. 

“Instead of using regulation to curb the immense power of tech companies, many governments are wielding it for their own repressive purposes.”

The report on 70 countries, which account for 88 percent of internet users worldwide, covers developments between June 2020 and May 2021.

The year 2021 marked the 11th consecutive year of global decline in digital freedom, according to Freedom House.

In 56 countries, “officials arrested or convicted people for their online speech,” the report said, while governments suspended internet access in at least 20 countries and blocked access to social media platforms in 21 states – mostly during political turmoil. 

Authorities in at least 45 countries are suspected of obtaining sophisticated spyware or data-extraction technology from private vendors, Freedom House also reported.

Bangladesh

Bangladesh reached an “an all-time low” during the past year, with its internet freedom score falling from 42 in 2020 to 40 – out of 100 – the report said, noting that authorities continued to arrest online users under the Digital Security Act (DSA).

Human rights organizations have criticized the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for allegedly using the draconian law to go after dozens of journalists and writers since the online communications law was enacted in 2018. 

Her Awami League party has “doubled down on harassment” of opposition party members, perceived troublemakers, as well as the media and members of civil society for criticizing the government, the report said. 

In addition, the online portals of many news outlets remained blocked during the past year, Freedom House reported.

“Self-censorship persists amid reports of torture, brief abductions, and a death in detention,” the report said, adding that the online sphere is “impacted by government-hired civilian contractors who hack accounts and use false copyright infringement complaints to get content removed.”

Bangladeshi government officials pushed back against the report.

“I do not accept this sort of report,” Mustafa Jabbar, Bangladesh’s telecommunications minister, told BenarNews. He declined to elaborate.

Law Minister Anisul Huq brushed off the thrust of the Freedom House report on Bangladesh as “a concocted statement.”

“The government in no way stands in the way of internet freedom for the citizens of Bangladesh.”

“Digital Security Act is for digital security of every single citizen of the country,” he told BenarNews.

Bangladeshis.jpg
Two Bangladeshis gaze at their mobile phones near Dhaka University, Aug. 30, 2021. [BenarNews]

Thailand

In Thailand, which is a led by a government with deep ties to the military and a former junta, “the internet is severely restricted,” the report said.

The kingdoms score this year moved from 35 to 36 and was rated by Freedom House as “not free” for an eighth straight year.

Since July 2020, the country has seen massive street protests calling for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the ex-junta chief, to step down, as well as for the constitution to be rewritten and the monarchy to be reformed.

Dozens of the activists have been arrested and charged with Lese-Majeste, a strict law that guards against royal defamation. 

“Internet users were arrested, criminally charged, or subjected to targeted harassment for sharing a range of content, including unverified information about the pandemic and criticism of the governments response,” the report noted.

In March 2020, during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Prayuth signed an emergency decree that allows authorities to impose curfews, bar public gatherings, and censor news deemed to be fake or seen as inducing general fear and panic.

Freedom House described the decree “repressive” and said it imposed “further constraints on freedom of expression.”

In January, a former revenue officer received 43 years in prison for uploading to YouTube radio clips critical of the monarchy. Freedom House called it “one of the most draconian sentences imposed in Thailand in recent memory.”

The 63-year-old woman is still in jail after her bail was rejected. Her lawyers have appealed her case.

However, in a positive development, Thai courts rejected government requests to restrict content and shut down platforms on several occasions, as well as ruled in favor of people who face criminal charges on their online content.

Indonesia

Internet freedom in Indonesia declined, with the countrys score falling to 48 from 49 last year, the report said.

This was primarily due to a new government regulation that imposes the takedown of online content and registration requirements on a broad range of technology companies.

The government regulation, released last November, also requires the companies to “provide law enforcement officials “direct access” to their systems and users’ data. 

Internet access in the far-eastern Papua region, where a separatist insurgency has simmered for decades, continues to be disrupted repeatedly, Freedom House said, noting that some of the disruptions coincided with events related to Papuan independence. 

It also noted that critics of the government, journalists, and ordinary users continued to face criminal charges and offline violence in retaliation for their online activity and harassment, including death threats. 

The worlds most populous Muslim-majority nation “has made impressive democratic gains since the fall of an authoritarian regime in 1998, establishing significant pluralism in politics and the media and undergoing multiple, peaceful transfers of power between parties,” Freedom House said. 

But Indonesian continues to struggle with challenges including systemic corruption, discrimination, and violence against marginalized groups, and the politicized use of laws against defamation and blasphemy, the report said.

Malaysia

Malaysia’s score in this years Freedom House report stayed the same as in 2020 – 58 out of 100, with internet freedom “restricted,” the report said.

“Criminal prosecutions and investigations for social media posts and other forms of online expression also continued to pose threats to internet freedom,” it said.

The watchdog also said users – particularly from the more vulnerable LGBTQ community – increasingly face online and offline harassment in retaliation for their online posts. 

The Malaysian government initiated legal proceedings against popular news portal Malaysiakini after readers posted comments that were allegedly critical of the judiciary. 

The Federal Court found the news website guilty of contempt in February and imposed fines of 500,000 ringgits ($115,000).

Philippines

Digital freedom in the Philippines remained under threat, though the countrys score improved by one point, to 65.

According to Freedom House, the government’s passage last year of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 bolstered the ability of authorities “to criminalize online speech.”

The new law expanded the definition of terrorism and enabled the government to detain individuals without a warrant, while extending the time limits on government surveillance. 

The report said “red-tagging” – a practice among Philippine military and police personnel of accusing individual people or groups of being communist rebels or sympathizers has continued, as well as physical side assaults on government critics. 

The countrys decline in internet freedom has occurred amid an erosion of political and civil rights under President Rodrigo Duterte, the report said. His administration’s unrelenting crackdown against illegal drugs, a bloody legacy of his six-year term ending next year, has led to thousands of extrajudicial killings since he took power in mid-2016. 

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