Thursday, June 2, 2011

So Much For Govt's Commitment To Freedom Of Speech

IN ANOTHER glaring example of contradiction with the Awami League-led government’s pre- election pledge to ensure freedom of speech and development of information technology, the home ministry on May 22 circulated a report to other ministries, suggesting that the government should monitor, round-the-clock, social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. According to a report front-paged in New Age on Wednesday, the report, titled ‘ Analysis of the impact of the political crisis in the Arab world on social and political situation of Bangladesh’, prepared by an intelligence agency, makes the suggestion ‘so that no evil axis can hatch conspiracies by campaigning against the government.’ If the government decides to act according to the report, then it can best be described as ominous. Firstly, trying to monitor the activities of individual citizens is a violation of the right to privacy as guaranteed by Article 43( b) of the constitution which states that ‘ Every citizen shall have the right to the privacy of his correspondence and other means of communication.’ Secondly, allowing state agencies to monitor the activities on the web goes against the very principles of the development of information technology, which, as its very history holds witness to, requires an unprecedented amount of freedom for it to grow rapidly through various forms of innovation. Facebook and Twitter are two social networking sites that have found incredible popularity around the world, as well as in Bangladesh, in which people, mostly the younger generation, not only exchange private correspondence, but use it as a platform to express views as well as branch out into numerous productive activities. A democratic government and its agencies cannot have any business snooping around such sites. Every good thing comes with its fair share of bad and social networking sites are no different, however, trying to monitor, regulate or censor them can have far worse consequences, and has the potential to stunt the development of information technology, as well as political and social awareness among the youth, in the country. Another revealing aspect of the report is the manner in which the government and intelligence agencies interpret the Arab Spring. True, the role of Facebook and Twitter in instigating the revolts has raised some eyebrows, but by and large, the world community remains in consensus that the uprisings were a result of years of economic deprivation, socioeconomic disparity and dictatorial rule. While the intelligence report rightly speculates that traffic congestion, price spirals, shortage of gas, power and water could be trigger points for public unrest, it shockingly describes them as ‘evil politics’. When these concerns are genuinely affecting millions in the country, how is that they can be described as evil politics? And moreover, why should citizens be held responsible for discussing problems facing their lives on Facebook and Twitter? Furthermore, we take exception to the use of the term ‘evil axis’ in the report, as quoted in the news item, because it is essentially a term coined by former US President George W Bush to describe forces, Muslim and others, who are opposed to global US hegemony, and which has now been swallowed up by our intelligence agencies. It further reflects how far our agencies have been contaminated by US imperialist propaganda. The intelligence report recommends the government to address issues plaguing ordinary people but, in certain cases, resort to suggestions, once again, that involve strong-arm tactics, such as making roads off-limits to rickshaws as well eviction of hawkers to reduce traffic congestions. If the government takes such reports seriously, as the circulation of the report to different ministries suggest, then it is indeed troubling. Trying to gag people’s rightful platforms to protest, instead of trying to address the genuine concerns for which they are voicing their protests, is indicative of disturbingly repressive tendencies. The government would be well- advised to abandon such tendencies, and take steps to address the ills plaguing people in general.