The recent arrest of Refayet Ahmed, admin of Facebook troll page “Moja Losss?” perpetuates the hostile environment that is festering in Bangladesh around freedom of expression. According to government statements, Refayet was arrested for spreading “anti-state propaganda through his Facebook page Moja losss?”
Given that no other charges were brought as of yet, it is safe to assume that Refayet was arrested for his open and public postings in Moja Losss? -- all of which are still open for the world to see and frame an opinion on as to what the government considers as anti-state.
Wikipedia defines a troll as a “person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion, often for their own amusement.”
Troll pages in the cyber-world serve the hybrid purpose of court jesters, circus clowns, comics, and provocateurs.
However annoying, disrespectful, and insular these pages may appear to be, it is quite a stretch to make the claim that such a page’s scope, reach, and utility are grandiose enough to constitute significant threats to a modern nation state.
Like most troll pages, Moja Losss? must not have been kind to some of the human subjects it covered. The page featured numerous crude jokes and skits on BNP’s elderly leader Khaleda Zia.
Although the page usually treaded carefully on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, given the sanctity of her position, Moja Losss? was hardly kind to many of the current ministers.
For example, late Social Welfare Minister Mohsin Ali and his uncanny passion for singing was a constant staple of Moja Losss?’s trolling.
Moja Losss? has published brutal caricatures of film stars, media personalities, public figures, and sportsmen. But again, the page did all of these from the humble objective of arousing giggles from 20-something, socially aware, politically curious Bangladeshi youth growing up in today’s digital age.
Given their target audience, being crass and careless are necessary ingredients that make troll pages tick, generate clicks, and prosper. And you know what? Such activities are globally accepted as healthy, civil, and in fact, desirable in most modern societies and tolerant democracies.
Moja Losss? is not new to controversy and risk-taking, given Bangladesh’s realities. When a number of women were molested in this year’s Pohela Boishakh celebrations, triggering a major multi-party blame game, Moja Losss? published clear images of the perpetrators, with their Facebook profiles. Many of the men identified by Moja Losss? were allegedly involved in politics of the ruling party.
This struck a chord somewhere, and Moja Losss? found itself in considerable trouble back then.
A month ago, when four poor pedestrians were injured in a hit-and-run incident involving the 16-year-old intoxicated nephew of a powerful ex-minister, Moja Losss? gathered a group of pro-bono lawyers to move the case on behalf of the injured. Police were forced to arrest the 16-year-old perpetrator. Moja Losss? took credit for what we may now call “benevolent trolling.”
During recently imposed restrictions on Facebook, Moja Losss? furiously went after the ban, blazing all its guns (read: humor and lampoons).
Its comics donned Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in a Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib attire, and gave Telecom Minister Tarana Halim a pair of binoculars, as if she were keeping an eye on kids using Facebook via alternative means.
Moja Losss? enthusiastically trolled the Facebook pages of various government ministries and ministers which remained super active even while the rest of the population had their Facebook access denied.
When some government officials, rather over-enthusiastically, announced that users would be required to provide National ID cards to open a Facebook account, Moja Losss? cracked a question asking whether blood group, fingerprints, and stool samples would be required as well.
From an old school view of the society, the government has all the reasons to take hurt at the apparent lack of control and respect emanating from a Facebook page like Moja Losss?.
However, the government must understand that a troll page gives the aggrieved youth a chance to vent all their frustrations online.
As such, it is not a stretch to assert that pages like Moja Losss? may actually have prevented some kids from taking to the streets and pelting bricks while demanding an open Facebook.
From a socio-psychological standpoint, humour and caricatures provide the society some precious breathing room, bring folks back to their senses, encourage people to laugh off some of their collective pains -- all of which eventually facilitate a civil pacification of societal anger.
Therefore, in a world that suffers from extremism and violence, a troll page should be the first necessary “annoyance” that a modern state should willingly tolerate.
The timing of Moja Losss? admin’s arrest is quite thought-provoking. It took place on the same day when the government just lifted the ban on Facebook.
It is noteworthy that during the Facebook ban, we all figured out a few realities of modern day state-craft around technology. Firstly, we learnt that enforcing a ban on Facebook is not easy, and definitely not popular even for the taste of the most ardent government supporters.
Secondly, it may have also become apparent that the chances of the government getting desirable co-operation from Facebook’s global administration around the government’s desire for enhanced control is a rather complicated proposition, if not outright unlikely.
Under such a backdrop, the arrest of the admin of a popular Facebook page may have been ordered just to send the people a signal that Facebook will be open, so long as the users understand what happens if/when they transgress.
However effective the arrest may be in achieving whatever the government wants to achieve, such heavy-handed, coercive handling of media matters doesn’t bode well for a tolerant and vibrant democratic Bangladesh -- if that is indeed what the government wants the country to be.
When the powerful state machinery throws into jail its jesters, jokers, and comics, what it is often left are the grumpy, the depressed, and the cynics. And that ought to be a disturbing situation to be in.