Another gag on media, free speech?
Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission has drafted a regulation to clamp down on what it deems the ugly side of social media and streaming services.
However, certain sections of the regulation are almost identical to the Digital Security Act and could be used to gag voices of dissent.
If the regulation is adopted, social media "intermediaries" cannot host or publish, upload any information that threatens the "unity, integrity, defence, security, or sovereignty of Bangladesh, [and its] friendly relations with foreign States".
The draft defines "intermediaries" as any person who on behalf of another "receives, stores or transmits electronic records or provides any service with respect to such records".
Intermediaries also cannot disseminate anything that "is against the Liberation War of Bangladesh, the spirit of the Liberation War, the father of the nation, the national anthem, or the national flag" or "threatens the secrecy of the government".
Furthermore, they cannot publish any information that "creates unrest or disorder or deteriorates or advances to deteriorate law and order situation"; or "is offensive, false or threatening and insulting or humiliating to a person".
These are identical or strikingly similar to sections 21, 25, 29, 31 and 32 of the Digital Security Act 2018, which are routinely abused to target journalists and opposition voices.
The DSA sections have received considerable backlash from proponents of freedom of expression, who allege that the law is being weaponised to muzzle dissent.
The draft regulation is applicable to all "publishers of online news/current affairs online content/ publishers of online curated content or web-based programs/films/series", said the draft.
"Online curated content" is defined in the draft regulation as "any curated catalogue of audio-visual content other than news and current affairs content … made available on-demand, including but not limited to subscription, over the internet, or computer networks, and includes films, audiovisual programmes, documentaries, television programmes, serials, podcasts and other such content."
This definition groups together social media handles of media organisations, IPTV and Over The Top media services.
Furthermore, it states that such publishers should have a no-objection certificate from the Ministry of Information and a registration.
This regulation comes less than three weeks after Information Minister Hasan Mahmud remarked during the DCs Conference that newspapers cannot stream news or talk shows online or via YouTube.
The minister said the government approved newspapers' online portals and that there was a stipulation that only content published in print could be made available online.
"There's no way to go beyond that. Adding a YouTube channel, and streaming news or talk shows are not to be done," the minister said, adding, "Since they are not approved, we will take action against them."
Dewan Hanif Mahmud, acting secretary general of Editors' Council (Sampadak Parishad) and editor of Bonik Barta, told The Daily Star, "The Editor's Council and media workers are concerned about certain sections of the DSA, and the law minister himself had said that this law is being misused and certain sections need to be amended. Instead of amending those sections, we are seeing that they are being included in the draft social media regulation.
"The implementation of the draft regulation will cause the same problems being caused by the DSA. The concern expressed by the Editor's Council regarding the DSA stands in the case of this draft regulation."
Shyamal Dutta, editor of Bhorer Kagoj, said in this digital era it was not possible to practice democracy by stifling the free media.
About the sections of the draft regulation that restricts the broadcast of content allegedly harmful to the image of the nation, Dutta said, "Who will decide what is beneficial and what is harmful?"
"It is not possible to regulate anything in this digital era with laws. Instead, free-thinking must be encouraged to change the mindset of society," he said, adding that no law should contradict the spirit of the Liberation War.
Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury, editor of The Daily Observer, said the country needs discipline in the media industry.
"We do not want any control over media. The law cannot infringe upon individual rights nor can social media content that hurts sentiments be disseminated," he said.
He said the regulation was still in a draft stage and there was room for amendments and the government was welcoming public feedback.
PROTECTIVE MEASURES WITH CAVEATS
The draft also contains certain measures intended to make social media a safer space. It outlaws content containing rape or sexual crimes.
"A social media intermediary shall endeavour to deploy technology-based measures, including automated tools or other mechanisms to proactively identify information that depicts any act or simulation in any form depicting rape, sexually explicit material or child sexual abuse," it states.
The regulation also states that social media intermediaries shall enable the identification of the "originator" of the information.
All social media intermediaries will be required to have a resident complaint officer, a compliance officer to ensure due diligence, and an agent to liaison with law enforcement agencies and the BTRC.
All are to be residents of Bangladesh.
The resident complaint officer will be in charge of dealing with complaints of victims of cyber sexual abuse. The compliance officer will be in charge of taking measures to remove or disable access to such content within 72 hours.