Internet freedom deteriorated significantly last year in Bangladesh and four other countries compared with the previous year, an independent watchdog group said Tuesday in a report while noting that Malaysia was one of a few countries to show improvement.
Freedom House pointed to Bangladesh, Sudan, Kazakhstan, Brazil and Zimbabwe as a cluster that showed the biggest score declines in its annual “Freedom on the Net” report.
Bangladesh, which held a general election in December 2018 that saw Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina return to office for a record fourth term, fell to 44 from 49 in 2018 out of a top score of 100, the Washington-based democracy monitor said in its report.
“Many governments are finding that on social media, propaganda works better than censorship,” Mike Abramowitz, Freedom House’s president, said in a news release announcing the report, which surveyed internet freedom in 65 countries.
“Authoritarians and populists around the globe are exploiting both human nature and computer algorithms to conquer the ballot box, running roughshod over rules designed to ensure free and fair elections,” he said.
Analysts in all 65 countries monitored 21 questions to address internet access, freedom of expression and privacy issues for the year ending on May 31.
Malaysia, one of 16 countries to show improvement, saw its score increase by two, to 57, while Thailand held steady at 35, the Philippines fell from 69 to 66, and Indonesia dropped from 55 to 51.
Freedom House ranked Bangladesh, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia as “partly free,” meaning their scores ranged between 40 and 69, while it rated Thailand as “not free” for the sixth straight year. In March 2019, Thailand staged its first general election after five years of junta rule. Presidential and legislative also took place this year in Indonesia, and the Philippines held mid-term elections.
Freedom House pointed out that in Bangladesh, citizens ordered mass protests for better road safety and other reforms in mid-2018 while elections later that year were marred by irregularities and violence.
“To maintain control over the population and limit the spread of unfavorable information, the government resorted to blocking independent news websites, restricting mobile networks and arresting journalists and ordinary users,” the report stated.
On Tuesday, Bangladesh Telecommunications Minister Mustafa Jabbar challenged Freedom House’s findings.
“I do not know where they get the information that we have curtailed internet freedom. I vehemently reject this report,” he told BenarNews. “We have not had any measures that would infringe on internet freedom. Here in Bangladesh, people have been writing on social media whatever they like.”
Freedom House’s list of key developments in Bangladesh included mobile service being restricted frequently in the lead-up to the December election. During protests for road safety four months earlier, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission cut back on service to limit protesters’ ability to live stream and share video content.
The watchdog noted that the nation’s Digital Security Act went into effect in September 2018, bringing harsh prison sentences for online defamation, insulting a person’s religion and other offenses.
“Some people have been criticizing the law without understanding the law properly,” Jabbar said in refuting the report. “The Digital Security Act in no way infringes people’s internet freedom. This law is for digital security of the state and its citizens.”
In seeing its score rise, Malaysia received credit for decreasing the cost of broadband internet by between 30 percent and 65 percent.
“Unlike in previous years, there were no documented politically motivated cyberattacks during the coverage period,” Freedom House said.
After elections in May 2018, a new government took office after defeating a coalition that had ruled Malaysia for decades. The Pakatan Harapan alliance came to power just days before the report’s accounting period began.
Freedom House credited the alliance for unblocking websites that had been deemed as critical of the government by the previous leadership. But the watchdog noted that some LGBTQ-linked sites remain blocked.
Key developments for the Philippines included denial of service against alternative news sites critical of the government. Libel charges continued to be filed against journalists and bloggers, culminating with the arrest of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa in February.
In addition, “content management tactics grew more insidious and entrenched within campaign strategies surrounding the May 2019 midterm elections, while hyperpartisan news outlets plagued the online environment,” the report said.
In Indonesia, authorities restricted social media and other communications platforms for two days after the April polls, Freedom House noted. Before the vote, disinformation and manipulated content were issues as candidates apparently paid commentators and set up automated accounts to spread political messages.
In Thailand “manipulated, false, or misleading online content proliferated during the 2019 election campaign,” Freedom House said, adding that the Election Commission imposed vague and restrictive rules that limited the use of online media during political campaigning.
Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka contributed to this report.