Bangladesh's 'death squad' security agency to scan social media
The Bangladeshi government is looking to task a controversial paramilitary force with monitoring social media as the country gears up for a general election in December 2018. Many fear the move will further muzzle free speech. By Arafatul Islam
Tarnished reputation: the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) was formed in 2004 to fight growing Islamism in Bangladesh. Initially it did manage to arrest and even kill a number of top terrorists. But it did not take long for RAB's good reputation to become tarnished as it slowly became a symbol of fear. It is now seen as an all-powerful "death squad" unit that acts on the fringes of the law and imposes its own brand of justice
Facebook and YouTube under scrutiny: the South Asian nation's government is been planning to spend about 1.21 billion Bangladeshi taka (€12 million) on the monitoring project. The project will allow RAB to monitor activities like anti-state propaganda, rumours and provocations on Facebook, YouTube, Viber, as well as other means of Internet communication
Calls for international pressure: Tasneem Khalil, a Swedish-Bangladeshi journalist, points out that RAB has already been used for detaining government critics for their comments on Facebook. "Now such cases will multiply," he said, adding: ''International actors, especially the EU, must take concrete action and sanction this force, which is a tool for curtailing the freedoms and liberties of ordinary Bangladeshi citizens"
New law to curtail press freedom: the Bangladeshi government has recently come up with a new law, the Digital Security Act, which contains provisions mandating long prison sentences of up to seven years or harsh fines for any statement posted online that might disrupt law and order, hurt religious feelings or ruin communal harmony. Experts consider the law as part of a broader campaign to silence government critics
Media protest: in a rare move, prominent newspaper editors of the Muslim-majority country recently formed a human chain in front of the national press club in the capital Dhaka demanding amendments to nine sections of the Digital Security Act. They say these sections pose a threat to independent journalism and freedom of expression. But the government has yet to respond to their demands
Journalism can be viewed as 'espionage': a journalist could be convicted of espionage for entering a government office and gathering information secretly using any electronic device, an offence that would carry a 14-year jail sentence, according to the new law. Mahfuz Anam, a prominent editor, said, "This law will not only deal with cybercrime, but also gag the independent media"
Harsh treatment: despite global condemnation, Bangladesh, which ranked 146th among 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index 2018, has kept prominent activist Shahidul Alam behind bars. He was arrested in August following his criticism of the government for using excessive force against peaceful student protesters. Activists view his arrest as a sign of the government's harsh treatment of its critics