By Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Bangladesh will reduce internet broadband speeds to block “fake news and propaganda” during parliamentary elections on Dec. 30, a spokesman said Thursday, in a move that journalists criticized as a government attempt to gag social media.
The decision came after the Election Commission met with chiefs of police districts and officials from security and intelligence agencies in Dhaka, S.M. Asaduzzaman, the commission’s public relations chief, told BenarNews.
“It was decided at today’s meeting that the existing 4G mobile network would be reduced to 2G level on the day of election, Dec. 30,” Asaduzzaman said, emphasizing that officials were aiming at “stopping fake news and propaganda” related to the balloting.
The Election Commission also decided to block mobile banking services from Dec. 28 through Dec. 30 to prevent unidentified groups from using financial transactions to “sabotage” the elections, Asaduzzaman said. He did not elaborate.
In addition, law enforcement officials during the meeting suggested “regulating” the access of journalists and election observers at polling stations.
“They also opposed allowing journalists in the polling station with mobile phones,” he said. “They think live telecasts create problems.”
Muhammad Zahidul Islam, president of Telecom Reporters Forum of Bangladesh, told BenarNews on Wednesday that reducing internet services to 2G would effectively become “a secondary way to regulate social media.”
“So, uploading videos and photos in social media and YouTube will be impossible with 2G service,” he said. “Even attaching a photo will take a long time.”
Rights groups and media organizations have criticized Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government for recently intensifying attempts to curb press freedom. But Hasina, who is seeking a third consecutive term as PM, has denied the accusations.
“The government firmly believes in freedom of press, but attention needs to be given so that no one can use this with a childish attitude,” she told journalists at her office in September. “No one can say we ever gagged anyone; we never did that, and we don’t do that either.”
But in October, less than a month after she made that statement, her government proposed another piece of legislation, the Broadcast Act 2018, which was aimed at regulating broadcast news portals.
Hundreds of people, including journalists, have already been arrested or charged for defamation under an earlier law, the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act of 2006, which rights groups say has been used to silence government critics.
The government lately strengthened the nation’s defamation laws with a new Digital Security Act (DSA), which Human Rights Watch and other groups slammed for allegedly retaining the most problematic provisions of the previous law.
According to former election commissioner Shakhawat Hossain, election officials must not obstruct journalists from doing their job.
During the 2008 general election, the commission allowed reporters to broadcast their reports live from the polling stations, he said.
“The voters were not permitted to take mobile phones, but the journalists were exempted,” Hossain told BenarNews. “Mobile phones are necessary for discharging their professional duties.”
Self-censorship on rise
Meanwhile, dozens of reporters and editors across print, digital and broadcast media in Bangladesh recently told Reuters that they had engaged in self-censorship, as Dhaka began cracking down on free speech through tighter media laws, arresting dozens of journalists.
Matiur Rahman Chowdhury, editor-in-chief of Manab Zamin, a popular Bengali-language daily, said self-censorship was becoming common.
“As an editor, I feel sad when I kill a report that was the outcome of several days of exhaustive work by a reporter. But I take the decision purely to save the reporter, because I know the risks involved in publishing it,” he told Reuters. “I fight every moment with myself and with my shadow.”
The official campaigning season for the election kicked off on Monday, but at least two people have been killed and scores injured in election-related violence, police said.
A news release distributed by the government’s public relations agency in Washington blamed poll-related violence on the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Its leader, Khaleda Zia, is serving a prison term after a pair of corruption convictions this year, which her aides said were politically motivated.
The BNP boycotted national polls five years ago, but party members are fielding candidates this time, despite a recent ruling from the Election Commission that effectively threw out Zia’s candidacy papers submitted by the BNP on her behalf.
Election officials disqualified her, saying laws prohibited anyone sentenced to more than two years in prison from running for public office.
Ruling party leaders praised that decision, describing it as proof that a level playing field was prevailing in the country.
“This proves that all are equal in the eyes of the law,” Faruk Khan, a senior Awami League leader told reporters early this month after meeting with election officials. “The law will not be different for any person no matter he or she is the chief of a political party.”
Officials said 1,846 candidates representing 39 registered political parties would be vying for a five-year term for 300 seats in Bangladesh’s unicameral parliament.