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OP-ED: Are we confusing hatred with freedom of speech?

  • Published at 08:32 pm July 6th, 2020
hate speech
Protect citizens against the negative impacts of social media BIGSTOCK

Misinformation and rumours have led to many unnecessary atrocities in Bangladesh

Bengalis love to talk, this cannot be disputed. In the age of social media, our talk has moved to the digital sphere in the form of comments, tweets, and posts. But now the question arises: Where do we draw the line? Today, when no topic is off-limits, how do we become accountable?

Let’s look at the negativity towards the famous Rabindra Sangeet singer Rizwana Choudhury Bannya who was recently diagnosed with coronavirus. When this news came to light a section of people on social media rejoiced by posting derogatory comments and pouring out hatred towards the singer. 

Her crime? She is a woman and a singer. The renowned theatre activist and film director, Nasiruddin Yousuff, on his Facebook, condemned this personal attack towards Bannya. 

He termed it inhumane and a punishable crime and demanded that these vulgar people be brought to justice while urging the civilians of the country to unite against online and social media harassment.

For the unversed, in Bangladesh, it is illegal to attack or abuse people on the world wide web. Yet, no one really takes notice of such behaviour online, let alone take any action against them. Nasiruddin demanded that the government take action against perpetrators who abuse others on the internet.

Using social media to harass people, spread rumours, and incite conflict is a common practice in current times. Individuals, organizations, and even governments have not been spared. There are many accounts of people facing such attacks on a daily basis, including myself. 

I face mindless abuse on the internet every day, just on the account of being a woman and having a different point of view from my abusers. 

As an author and journalist, I publish plenty of work regularly on a variety of issues. Any writing I publish on any news portal attracts a guaranteed group of haters who adorn the comments section with a multitude of abusive language targeting my gender, my political stance, or my right to an opinion. 

Like any professional, I always welcome constructive criticism which helps me hone my skills and improve my practice. But, what is one to do with these kinds of vulgar and savage attacks on one’s existence? 

Whether it is me or Rizwana Choudhury or Munni Saha or even Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the scrutiny online is the same -- gender-based. It has nothing to do with our respective professions. 

For instance, Sheikh Hasina, the PM of Bangladesh, should most certainly be scrutinized for her governance and her policies. This is democracy. Yet, it is evident that, quite often, the criticism and discrimination she faces revolves around her gender. Her haters have filled social media with images that outrage the modesty of a woman, which is a punishable crime internationally. 

Additionally, online platforms are a hotspot for spreading false information. There are many examples where riots and mayhem ensued just on the basis of rumours and misinformation. One such example is the London riots in 2011 which were sparked because of a singular tweet. Five days of rioting took place, killing five people and injuring 205, including policemen. 

Similarly, in August 2019, two men in a small town in central Mexico were burnt alive because of a rumour circulated on facebook that these men were killing children and stealing their organs. India is another country where rumours proved fatal to innocent lives. 

Supporting this claim, BBC reported that 31 fatal attacks took place as a result of misinformation in just two years, in India -- more alarmingly, 20 violent mob attacks erupted just between April and July of 2018 also causing 31 fatalities. Even in France, the Roma community continues to be persecuted because of vicious rumours spread against them.

Putting the spotlight back on Bangladesh -- the situation here is no better. Misinformation exists in every country. The impact of this misinformation, however, is grave in countries like Bangladesh because of the existence of division in society on factors such as religion, gender equality, nepotism, poverty, and so on. 

From Bhola to Brahmanbaria, Cox’s Bazar to Comilla, Khulna to Noakhali, or Rajshahi to Rajbari -- the fatal impact of rumours is evident. 

Who can forget the Padma Bridge incident? Senseless rumours snowballed into mob hysteria, who then persecuted random innocent people. Even the capital is not free from such “rumourdemic.”

Recalling the incidents of May 5, 2013 -- Dhaka saw one of the worst gatherings of violent mobs at the time, demanding the arrests of the so-called “atheist-bloggers.” Rumours became rampant on that night, throughout social media, that thousands of Madrassa students were killed by the police. This incident became a major talking point in national and international media. Of course, no evidence was ever found for any of these claims.

Following this, Dhaka became a host for a number of other mob incidents on various accounts based on just rumours. One such crucial incident that cannot be ignored was the July 2018 “road safety movement.” 

School-going students started this movement asking for safer roads after two of their peers were killed by a reckless bus driver. Sadly, this soon turned political and became international news. Allegations and misinformation got passed around like sweets at a child’s party. 

Soon false rumours spread like wildfire throughout social media, sometimes by responsible people in society, about students being raped and tortured at the ruling party headquarters.

It cannot be denied that the government’s forces were at times harsh when trying to control the violence during the unrest; however, gross misrepresentation of facts and falsifying statements by important public figures about this incident resulted in more chaos. The entire episode ended with Bangladesh being presented in a very negative light around the world.

All these examples prove that social media has been a key medium to harass people, spread rumours, and even incite conflict among the various factions in society. It seems like the only parties raising their voice against personal abuse on social media are the victims, with no real justice being served.

Addressing this, the UN has urged governments to tackle the “infodemic” of misinformation and cybercrime in the Covid-19 crisis. The Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, highlights the danger of misinformation and calls for an “all-out effort” to tackle hate, especially on social media. So, how does this fit into the context of Bangladesh? 

We need to ask the questions: Where do we draw the line with freedom of speech? How long can hatred and discrimination be passed off as freedom of speech? Misinformation and rumours have been responsible for many unnecessary atrocities in Bangladesh. Our government needs to take a stand. 

It needs to protect citizens against the negative impacts of social media; implement laws to deter the spread of hate, discrimination, and misinformation on the world wide web. 

People, everywhere, are subjected to sheer vulgarity on various accounts, in the name of freedom of speech through social media. In the 21st century -- an age of information, education, and technological advancement, such barbarism should be annihilated.

Masuda Bhatti is the Editor-in-Charge of the daily Amader Notun Shomoy, writing from Rochester, Kent. She can be reached at [email protected]

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