Bangladesh Maintains Block on Facebook, Other Social Media

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
2015.12.08
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151208-BD-facebook-620 Bangladesh has blocked local internet users from accessing Facebook, Viber and WhatsApp.
AFP

A Bangladeshi government shutdown of Facebook and other social media sites is in place almost three weeks after authorities blocked online access to them on security grounds.

On Tuesday – 20 days after the government shut down Facebook, Viber and WhatsApp – government officials had yet to give a specific date for when they might lift the ban.

“We do understand the problems that the closure of Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber is causing. I cannot give you an exact date, but what I can say is the ban will go soon,” Shahjahan Mahmood, chairman of the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, told BenarNews on Tuesday, citing “security reasons” for why the ban remained in effect.

Mahmood conveyed a similar message back on Nov. 23 – a day after a pair of senior opposition leaders were executed in Dhaka for war crimes allegedly committed during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971.

Five days earlier, the government had ordered a shut-down of Facebook, Viber and WhatsApp, after the Supreme Court upheld death sentences for the men delivered by the country’s International Criminal Court.

Government officials justified the move then as necessary to stop trouble makers from fomenting violence, or disseminating anti-government propaganda, in the lead-up to and aftermath of the Nov. 22 executions of Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojahid.

“The situation seems to have improved now after the executions. Hopefully, we will open the social media soon, subject to security clearance,” Mahmood told BenarNews on Nov 23.

Growing frustration

According to Bangladesh information technology and communications officials, there are some 18 million users of Facebook in the country, but the 20-day-old ban has left many business people who rely on the social networking platform for their commerce reeling.

“Every day, Facebook fetched at least three sale orders. But now, my shop is closed and I have been facing economic hardship,” said Afsana Shumi, a 27-year-old businesswoman who quit her job to start an online shop that sells ornaments.

“Facebook is not only the platform for uploading photos and making comments. It has widened job opportunities for many people not having enough money to start a traditional business,” she told BenarNews.

The shut-down has hit the business community hard, because thousands of Facebook accounts are used for online trading in Bangladesh, said E-Commerce Association of Bangladesh President Razib Ahmed.

“We are really in trouble. All the online shops are closed [because of the Facebook shut-down],” Ahmed told BenarNews.

“But the government, by this time, should have devised a policy to contain the misuse of social media. We appeal to the government to open Facebook as soon as possible for the sake of our existence,” said Ahmed, who runs an online software company, Currysoft.

Last week, the U.S.-based Columbia Journalism Review published a story that noted the irony of the situation in Bangladesh.

“In a country where the ruling party once offered a transformative vision for media (its slogan in 2008 was "Digital Bangladesh"), and Facebook dominates online activity in a way that doesn’t happen in the [U.S.], the shutdown is a frustrating, unsettling setback for those who have come to depend on the site for news and information,” the magazine reported on Dec. 2.

Meetings with Facebook

Meanwhile, Bangladeshi officials on Sunday met in Dhaka with two South Asian representatives of Facebook to convey the government’s concerns about how the online platform could be used for nefarious purposes, the Daily Star reported.

The government asked the Facebook representatives to take measures to filter local content that could be deemed as provoking religious sentiment, promoting cruelty against women and conspiracies against the state, according to the newspaper.

Facebook officials could not be reached for comment afterward.

On Jan. 4, State Minister for Telecommunications Tarana Halim is scheduled to meet in Singapore with Facebook officials to discuss cyber security issues, according to a letter seen by BenarNews.

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