Let’s work towards the digital dream while also safeguarding people’s rights
Ten years after the Awami League introduced the spirit of a Digital Bangladesh -- we look back with pride and gratitude at the efforts made by the state in revolutionizing our ICT industry.
By imprinting a brand of rigorous technological change, the government of Bangladesh is successfully enhancing the diversification of the political economy. Nevertheless, whilst we are working towards a positive economization of the digital sector, we are falling behind in realizing the full and unyielding powers of technology, especially in the arena of civic empowerment.
We must understand that technology in its various forms has indeed reached a wider demographic, above and beyond the upper strata of our society. There are many young citizens in Bangladesh who use social media as a means to be politically active. Economically speaking, Bangladesh is home to approximately 16.8% of outsourced online workers in the world. Our education system is rapidly focusing on the use of ICT in classrooms.
All of these developments have contributed to Bangladesh’s transformation into a high-performing economy. Nevertheless, because we are born, bred and, as some may say, spoilt, in the age of technology, it becomes our duty to hold even those who have given this country a technological revolution, a reminder of the things we still need to accomplish in order to be a sustainable knowledge-based economy.
The natural path followed by Western democracies towards socio-economic progress tends to look something like this on a macro level -- independence or birth, economic enhancement, technological change captured in economic progress, social development, and finally, the nationwide establishment of fundamental rights.
It is from this logic that some in our country say: Development first and democracy later. However, Bangladesh has been fortunate in some respects -- our constitutional architects were aware of the severe maltreatment towards the people of this region from colonial and imperialist forces prior to 1971 and as such, enshrined the supremacy of fundamental rights in the constitution.
Therefore, if any actions of the state diminish the supremacy of fundamental rights, it is our duty to speak up -- not as supporters of the ruling or opposition party, but as citizens who believe in the spirit of our liberation movement.
The spirit of Digital Bangladesh
The discussion around fundamental rights versus the frequently-used national security clause has sadly become a key discussion point in the context of Digital Bangladesh.
The spirit of Digital Bangladesh promises the establishment of people’s democratic and human rights. The spirit of Digital Bangladesh prioritizes transparency and accountability. The spirit of Digital Bangladesh shares the dream of a country where justice is equal for all.
The use of technology is a means to support these goals -- but when laws and norms which surround technology are used as a medium of suppressing dissent, then this spirit withers.
Today, we see the state clamping down on online dissent through a rigid monitoring scheme. From Facebook to Viber, national security concerns have dictated a wide array of legal architectures designed to control the use of social media.
And simultaneously, the spreading of so-called fake news in the online world does not help the situation either. Section 57 of the contentious ICT Act has been abused by state authorities as a means to prosecute journalists and those criticizing the government on social media.
Yet, it was the Awami League, under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which led efforts to institutionalize the fundamental rights of citizens in the original constitution of independent Bangladesh -- including the right to criticize, the right to express, and the right to speak up against oppressive mechanisms.
What is concerning is the tacit use of democratic laws and norms to suppress any and all forms of opposition -- that too in technological forums which are aimed at liberating the masses.
In essence, while citizens have access to more advanced technology, we question whether such is at the cost of certain fundamental rights. There is a difference between illegal acts and differing viewpoints -- and we need to be able to differentiate between these if we truly want the spirit of democracy to flourish.
In simpler terms, ask yourselves this: How many times have our parents, family members, or friends asked us to refrain from posting anything political on Facebook? How many times have our eminent citizens referred to a Facebook post by a random student, when discussing the quota movement?
Whilst we may have differing opinions about Tarique Rahman’s conversation with a Dhaka University professor regarding the quota movement, did we for once question how personal conversations can so easily be recorded and released to the media? Do we even believe in the idea of technological privacy?
These are questions that we, as citizens, have to ask. Unless we do so, Digital Bangladesh will allow Bangladesh to grow economically, but may infringe some of the basic rights that we have as citizens.
We do not want our media to go into self-censorship mode, we do not want our citizens to have to think twice about expressing opinions, and we do not want a government to descend into authoritarianism.
We cannot and do not expect this from a party of AL’s stature. As we move forward, we ask our political actors: Do we truly want accountability, transparency, and democracy to flourish? We have to make a choice between total freedom of speech or no freedom of speech, because in my opinion, there is very little in between.
Yes, there are legitimate national security concerns in Bangladesh, but national security concerns should not be made a tool to curb dissent. And as history has shown, unless and until the fundamental rights of citizens are established, societies are unable to sustain their hard-earned development.
One hopes that the call for such a society is not taken as an attack on the current regime -- we are well-wishers of our state, we make up the state, and it is our duty to hold the state to account at each and every forum possible.
Digital Bangladesh is a dream which we all share. Let us work towards achieving all its tenets in the spirit of democracy, and with the aim of promoting, protecting, and preserving the fundamental rights of citizens.
Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a graduate of Economics and International Relations from the University of Toronto.