Twelve cases filed and 22 arrested in cybercrime crackdown over past two months
Repeated crackdowns and strict surveillance by government agencies are disheartening many of Bangladesh’s social media users. They now question whether they have freedom of expression.
Many social media users have been arrested for allegedly spreading anti-state rumours and circulating doctored pictures of prominent figures of state.
Although the constitution guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and speech, arrests of social media users have increased since the protests for quota reforms and road safety last year. The two movements had been largely mobilised via social media.
In the last two months – preceding and following the election – the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit (CTTC) has filed 12 cases and arrested 22 people in social media cases.
According to a top CTTC official, all these people were arrested because of “spreading: rumours, propaganda, misdeeds, and lies on social media.”
“Law enforcement agencies and intelligence units have always monitored social media, since their formation. However, monitoring increased after the protest for quota reforms and the road safety movement,” said CTTC’s Cyber Security and Crime Division’s Additional Deputy Commissioner Md Najmul Islam.
Monitoring is a two-step process involving hard and soft approaches.
In the soft approach, the CTTC writes to the authorities concerned, including Facebook and the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC), about fake news portals and posts that are harmful or threatening to individuals or the state, in order to stop the activity of those users, he explained.
“The hard approach is arresting them and taking legal action,” added the CTTC official.
The counterterrorism official, however, rejected allegations that the CTTC was interfering with anyone’s personal freedom or free speech.
“No one is arrested for expressing their opinions publicly. Rather, their arrests are the ultimate step when we find they are involved in disrupting the state machinery, hurting the state and country's democracy and its values,” said Najmul.
Recently, on January 17, five people were arrested by the elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) force for their reported involvement in committing fraud on Facebook, using the name of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her family members.
The arrestees reportedly opened 36 fake Facebook accounts in the names of the prime minister, her family members, and other distinguished persons. They used the accounts to misappropriate money from people, RAB claims.
Prior to this, from January 8-9, seven other people were arrested across the country by the elite force.
The general accused, as well as renowned and reputed people, are being arrested for spreading rumours or commenting on Facebook. RAB detained actress Nawshaba from the capital’s Uttara in August last year, allegedly for spreading rumours on Facebook during clashes between students, police, and reported ruling party affiliate organization activists at Jigatola.
In another incident, Chittagong University Sociology Department's Assistant Professor Maidul Islam was arrested in September last year on charges of defaming Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Facebook.
Will holding different opinions be an offence?
According to some cases analysed, allegedly spreading false information and rumours¬– in the name of cabinet members, the chief election commissioner, the army chief, the inspector general of police, the director general of RAB and the DMP commissioner¬– is grounds for arrest.
But there are instances of when people have been made to suffer on filmsy grounds. Sometime back a journalist was arrested and put behind bars for sharing a news report about death of a goat – and that was no dales information or rumour.
Since its inception till January 9, RAB, a wing of Bangladesh Police, has arrested 192 people for their alleged involvement in cybercrime. Additionally, police and other law enforcement agencies have reportedly also arrested people for these reasons. However, the Dhaka Tribune has not been able to independently verify the allegations.
Monitoring agencies define cybercrime as: sedition or terrorist activities, spreading rumours, slandering individuals, spreading propaganda, and harassing people using pictures on social media.
However, many social media users think members of the public are only arrested when their opinion goes against the government stance.
Although security forces say they are working to prevent the spread of rumours on social media, users think it is only to silence opinions expressed against the government.
For human rights campaigner and former director of Ain O Salish Kendra Nur Khan Liton, the latest moves are explained as: “The sword of the digital act hanging over people’s heads.”
“Regardless of the rights guaranteed by the constitution, reports that these rights have been curtailed by different laws have been on the rise. Security agencies which are responsible for keeping people’s lives safe are causing people to suffer,” he added.
Despite constitutional guarantees, people are losing their freedom of speech via the application of new laws. This is creating a culture of fear and hatred among people, explained Liton.
When opinions incite violence
If an opinion is expressed to provoke violent activity, a crime has been committed.
During the recent movements seeking quota reforms and road safety, pictures and comments in provocative posts surfaced on social media.
Some people tried to circulate rumours via social media, inciting further violence.
For example, thousands of social media users shared news about the murder of two to four protesting students, and the rape of three or four female protesters by Chhatra League men inside the Awami League office in Dhanmondi. However, those were later found to be rumours.
Since that day, the government became more aware of, and concerned with, preventing rumours. At that time, social media surveillance was increased.
Also, law enforcement agencies and relevant departments worked jointly ahead of the 11th parliamentary elections, held on December 30, to prevent election-related rumours from spreading.
Is the government involved?
Facebook authorities, in mid December, announced that it had removed nine Facebook pages and six Facebook accounts for "coordinated inauthentic behaviour" on the social media platform in Bangladesh.
According to a post on the social media platform's "newsroom," the pages and accounts mimicked independent news outlets and posted pro-government, as well as anti-opposition, content.
According to Facebook’s investigation, activity on the pages and accounts were linked to individuals associated with Bangladesh’s government.
In November, clones of several popular news websites in Bangladesh appeared, disseminating false political news.
Are netizens living in fear?
Supreme Court lawyer Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua thinks people nowadays cannot talk openly without fear because of the recently-introduced Digital Security Act.
“Sections of different laws that have created fear among people need to be changed, even annulled if required,” he opined.
“We barely received political criticism in the past. Not only media surveillance, but also pre-election arrests and cases, and cases under the Digital Security Act and section 57 of the previous Information and Communication Technology Act, are a barrier to freedom among the people,” he said.
Barua thinks the digital laws will be used to create a digital space for people, not to violate their rights to free speech and expression.