Tuesday’s High Court ruling that the Bangladesh government should take steps to block US-based Kanak Sarwar’s Facebook and YouTube channels for publishing allegedly “anti-state distorted content” has serious implications for freedom of expression in Bangladesh.
To understand how serious this could be, one needs to appreciate how successful the government has been at restricting significant criticism of the government by those living in Bangladesh.
It does so through a range of techniques with the most successful including the blocking of websites and use of the Digital Security Act to arrest anyone who publishes online news articles or social media posts which the government or its supporters take a dislike to or finds inconvenient.
With critical commentary within Bangladesh so restricted, many Bangladeshis have to rely on journalistic material produced abroad. This has now become the new battle ground of freedom of expression. In seeking to surpress this, the government tries to use similar coercive powers that it uses within the country. But these are not as effective against people living outside of its borders.
Take the example of Netra News. The police have filed a DSA case against its Editor-in Chief Tasneem Khalil and the government has blocked access to the organisation’s official website. Khalil can avoid arrest only because he lives in Sweden, and Netra News is accessible from Bangladesh because it has set up a mirror site.
However, these are not pain free for Netra News. Khalil cannot return to Bangladesh if he wants to stay out of prison, and Netra News likely gets fewer readers as a result of its main website being blocked.
The government could technically block the mirror Netra News site, as it has indeed done in the past year for limited periods. But doing so has downsides, because the mirror site is hosted on a Google cloud platform and there is no way for the government to block it without blocking important Google services that are used by many people within Bangladesh. The government has, at least for now, decided it would rather safeguard the Google services than block Netra News’ mirror site.
And this takes us to Kanak Sarwar.
A journalist, now living in the United States, Sarwar produces very popular videos on Facebook and YouTube, primarily involving interviews with government critics, many of which are very embarrassing to the Bangladesh government. If he was in the country, there is no doubt that he would by now have been arrested — or otherwise forced to stop producing the videos.
So, why doesn’t the government block his videos? The reason is similar to why it does not block the Netra News mirror site — it would come with negative consequences. The only way the government could stop Sarwar’s videos is to block the whole of YouTube or Facebook. This is something unimaginable in Bangladesh. Millions of people use these services, and indeed thousands of businesses rely on them.
The government, however, has used another ploy to try and stop dissemination of the videos — getting Facebook and YouTube themselves to block Kanak Sarwar’s pages. Bangladesh’s state intelligence agencies spend a lot of time making false complaints about copyright or other alleged breaches of terms of conditions to get these two social media sites to suspend accounts of dissidents, including people like Sarwar.
And they often succeed — at least in causing serious inconvenience. Indeed, due to false complaints of copyright, YouTube suspended Sarwar’s account earlier this year and as a result he had to create a new one. However, the government action did not result in the permanent blocking of his videos
This is why the High Court decision could matter. The social media sites might feel they are under an obligation to respond to a High Court order. Although the order came as a result of a complaint made by a private person, we can be certain that the government will use it as forcefully as possible to get the social media and video hosting sites to act against Sarwar.
And if they succeed at that, then the Bangladesh government will use the courts, over which it has significant influence, to block many other similar YouTube and Facebook accounts which belong to Bangladeshi expat dissidents of many political stripes.
As Sarwar himself says: “If the government is successful at blocking my channel, it will stop each and every other YouTube channel critical of the government. It is a Test case.”
We can only hope that Facebook and YouTube understand the implications and do not respond positively to any attempt to get them block videos and material that otherwise do not breach community standards of these platforms — but only breach the government’s thin line of toleration.