When the Bangladesh military took power in a bloody coup in 1975 the takeover was trumpeted as a positive event for the country. The leading English language newspaper in Bangladesh editorialized in sycophantic glory:
Corruption and nepotism inevitably led to continuously increasing prices and the economic misery of the masses that left no alternative for them but to languish and perish. In this suffocating situation the Armed Forces could not be true to their conscience and the nation except by coming forward to bring about a change in the corrupt and oppressive government.
From all accounts the people are convinced of the government’s crusading determination to obliterate the last traces of corruption, nepotism, and all other social vices and therefore they are ready to co-operate with the government in facing the great challenge thrown by history. With the infinite mercy of Allah the Government and the nation will overcome all obstacles and resolutely march towards the cherished goal.
It was not until much later that the true brutality of the coup became clear. However, at the time, the military rulers of Bangladesh were successful in pushing their propaganda to the people. They did so by controlling four principal media outlets – Bangladesh Betar (the state-run radio), state-run Bangladesh Television, the English language newspaper Bangladesh Observer, and the Bengali language newspaper Daily Ittefaq. With all media outlets within the country suppressed or controlled, the people turned to external sources such as the BBC and the Voice of America for accurate information about events within their own country. The foreign sources in turn relied on sources on the ground in Bangladesh to get information out via telephone or land routes – it was a difficult environment and often information was late or incomplete. An essential component of dictatorial rule, monopoly of information, was easy to achieve in the mid 1970s.
Today dictators and thuggish regimes are finding it much harder to manage their populations. They are fast losing control of information. As recent events in Burma demonstrate, with the advent of the internet and cell phone technology controlling the message has become near impossible. When the Burmese junta began its crackdown against its own citizens , it shut down the internet and cell phones. But it was too late. News of the protests had already been broadcast around the world, and even after the crackdown began, YouTube videos of the beatings filtered out of Burma and onto the computer screens of the world. Even after cleaning the blood from the streets of Rangoon and disappearing the monks in preparation for UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari’s visit, the junta could not cover up its atrocities. Burma, which is ranked as one of the worst suppressors of Internet freedom in the world, failed to control its vast reach.
Days after the Bangladesh military took power in a coup last January, the editor of the leading English language newspaper in Bangladesh, The Daily Star, received a call from the military government reminding him of who was in charge. The editor, Mahfuz Anam, one of the most respected journalists in the country, responded with an angry editorial entitled "We can be repressed but not silenced":
Most regrettably, the newly formed caretaker government headed by Dr. Fakruddin Ahmed seems to be headed in the direction of a confrontation with the independent media, both electronic and print. For the first time in 16 years this writer received a call from the press information officer of the ministry of information very gently, saying: “I hope you are aware that we are in an emergency.” I asked him what he meant and under what authority and on whose directive was he calling me. He avoided my questions and I told him never to call me again with anything that has to do with restricting press freedom.
Obviously this official was not calling me on his own. So who are pushing the just-born caretaker government towards an inevitable clash with the independent media? Let us make it unambiguously clear and say with as much forthrightness as possible that we will never accept censorship or any attempt to restrict the media. The media in Bangladesh will not allow even an iota of restriction imposed on them.
That was then. Since then through threats, intimidation, and censorship the media in Bangladesh, including Mr. Anam’s Daily Star, have been muzzled. The newspaper whose tag line is "Journalism without fear or favour" has been both repressed and silenced. Bangladesh’s only 24-hour news channel, CSB, has been shut down for allegedly filing a "forged" document last year; other major television channels and newspapers have been threatened for reporting "provocative" news; editors of leading newspapers have been summoned to military intelligence headquarters for questioning; and reporters have been mercilessly beaten for reporting the news. Most recently the leading Bengali language newspaper, Prothom Alo, was forced to apologize multiple times to the Islamists for publishing a harmless cartoon. Now there is news that the owner of The Daily Star and the Prothom Alo is on the military government’s latest list of "corrupt people".
With the Bangladesh media silenced, Bangladeshi bloggers, both inside and outside the country, have filled the void. Via SMS and the Internet Bangladeshi bloggers have been both reporting on events within the country and protesting the military government’s suppression of human rights. The power of the Internet and the ability of the Bangladeshi blogs to quickly broadcast news of atrocities and to organize in protest became evident last May with the detention and release of journalist Tasneem Khalil. Within twenty-four hours the Bangladeshi blogosphere, with assistance from bloggers around the world, mounted a global campaign that resulted in Tasneem’s release from military detention. News quickly traveled from the bloggers to human rights organizations to the international media. The world took notice, and so did the Bangladesh military. Soon thereafter, anonymous threats began to appear on Bangladeshi blogs.
The military government has recognized the threat the Internet poses to its hold on power. After mass protests broke out last August, the Bangladesh military government shut down cell phone networks and the Internet as it began its crackdown. It then embarked on a campaign of intimidation against bloggers and protesters outside the country. Now the military government has taken its battle against the Internet one step further.
The military government in Bangladesh has ordered ISPs in Bangladesh to furnish identifying details and usage patterns of all their subscribers. The military government also intends to monitor private correspondence and other activities of Bangladeshi internet users in the name of "national security". Security forces have also begun door-to-door searches of homes of Internet users in major Bangladeshi cities. The general secretary of the Internet Service Providers Association of Bangladesh explained the military government’s order in an interview to the BBC:
The most important thing is security. You know that people are threatening with emails, using email for various things. If these are not controlled from a central point you cannot trace them. The whole thing is to establish a control mechanism. We ISPs have corporate clients as well as individual clients. They [BTRC] have expected the details of these clients from us. How much bandwidth they use, what are their IPs, what are their usage patterns? These are basically the requirements from us. What we can fathom is that this is to monitor and prevent people from doing anything outside the legal boundary with bandwidth purchased from ISPs.
The irony in this report is that none of the newspapers in Bangladesh have reported on this action against Internet use. The only reports have come from Bangladeshi blogs, which obtained a leaked copy of the government order, and the BBC.
The goal of the military government appears to be both to monitor Internet activity in Bangladesh and to intimidate Internet users and bloggers into silence. It is yet another step in the slow descent of Bangladesh into a police state. Many in Bangladesh’s "civil society" have argued that Bangladeshis must give up some rights in the short term so that the military can lead Bangladesh to a more democratic future. The editor of a newspaper closely connected to the DGFI recently dismissed the loss of due process and rights in favor of "progress" during his recent trip to Australia to drum up support for the military. He quoted General Moeen U Ahmed, Bangladesh’s current strongman, as saying "If we don’t do it this way, nothing will get done, and the nation can’t afford it." Bangladesh’s "civil society" and the backers of this military government should keep in mind that once citizens give up their rights to the state, those rights become very difficult to recover.
Bangladesh’s military rulers came to power in January and claimed as their mandate the holding of a free and fair election. They promised a swift return to democracy. Instead, today they rule by fear. Having consolidated their grip on the traditional media, they have now set their sights on the Internet and the blogosphere. It remains to be seen whether they will be able to silence the decentralized medium of the Internet. The military has justified their attack on fundamental freedoms by declaring that Bangladesh is under a "state of emergency". The "state of emergency" was invoked by Bangladesh’s civilian frontman, Fakhruddin Ahmed, in New York last week. At a gathering at the Asia Society the unelected pitchman for the military opined:
“You don’t realize that things could be a lot worse. We would have been within our rights to have much tighter controls on media, not that we have any controls at all – press is totally free. I understand that “some journalist may have been apprehended” and often this is for his own protection. But this is nothing that would not have happened at another time as well”.
Bangladesh’s military rulers, and their civilian water carriers, have the concept of "rights" backward.
More alarmingly, Bangladesh’s military has been able to sell this climate of fear to the Bush administration. Last week at the Heritage Foundation, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia John Gastright (the man who oversees US policy toward Bangladesh and Pakistan) offered the Bush administration’s most extensive public support of Bangladesh’s military government. In his 20 minute speech he downplayed the human rights violations of the military government and offered full support for the military’s "roadmap" to democracy. During the question and answer session I was able to ask him a question about the legitimacy of the military government in Bangladesh that the Bush administration, defender of democracy, was supporting. Mr. Gastright’s answer spoke volumes (question and answer begins at 4:35 into the video):
Question: In August you were testifying in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Congressman Ackerman had asked you what the constitutional basis was for this government to continue in power beyond the 90 days and also to extend the state of emergency beyond the 120 days. At the time you didn’t have an answer readily available and you said you would get back to him. I was wondering if you’ve been able to find the answer.
John Gastright: Well, Congressman Ackerman was a very persistent questioner that day. And, you know, my staff has explored the constitutional basis. The caretaker has the 90 days. It appears to rest on the emergency powers. So, that’s the best I can give you right now. And again my staff has the full details on that though, which we have replied in writing to Congressman Ackerman as quickly as we could so that I didn’t get in trouble with him. [Emphasis added.]
It appears that in its descent into a police state, the Bangladeshi military has the full support of the Bush administration. With the local media silenced and the world’s only superpower providing support, the military has only to shut down the opposition on the Internet to make the capitulation complete.