Social media censorship in Bangladesh hints at long-term problems for publishers

Two weeks have passed since the government in Bangladesh blocked access to Facebook, WhatsApp, Viber, and other social media sites. In Dhaka, some people have crowded into hotel lobbies to access private networks, while others are gaining access through proxy servers. The reason for the ban, according to the government, has to do with security, in light of the recent terrorist attacks and local political violence, but there is concern that it’s part of a creeping pattern of censorship that’s having a negative impact on publishers, especially after the temporary block in January and reports of journalists being harassed.

The facts so far are these: On November 18, the Bangladeshi government cut off access to the internet within the country’s borders following the Supreme Court of Bangladesh’s decision to uphold the death sentence of two men convicted of war crimes (the men, one of whom is an influential figure in Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party, were convicted during the struggle for independence against Pakistan in 1971). Seventy-five minutes later, the internet was back up and running, but Facebook, WhatsApp, Viber, and other social media networks were not. The government called the blackout “a mistake,” but then said the social media block would remain in place until the security threat had passed.

Fourteen days later, those sites are still down. Asked when access would be restored, the State Minister for Posts and Telecommunications said, “When the home ministry and law-enforcing agencies feel it’s safe.” 

In a country where the ruling party once offered a transformative vision for media (its slogan in 2008 was “Digital Bangladesh”), and Facebook dominates online activity in a way that doesn’t happen in the US, the shutdown is a frustrating, unsettling setback for those who have come to depend on the site for news and information.

From a business perspective, the shutdown should also be a red flag for Facebook, which just announced its plan to bring Instant Articles, a mobile service that allows media organizations to publish directly to Facebook at faster speeds, to more emerging markets in Asia, where social media and mobile use is booming. Facebook, which typically rolls out new features in developed markets well before emerging ones, isn’t wasting any time. After launching Instant Articles in the US in May, it introduced the service to India last week and posted new job openings in Singapore, calling for candidates who speak Thai and Vietnamese.

The move comes as other tech giants and upstarts—including Google, WhatsApp, and Viber—are vying to capture the market in Southeast Asia, the world’s most populous region, where billions of people don’t have internet access but do have mobile phones, and where demand for news is high. With growth that’s reportedly close to 10 new accounts every second, Facebook is winning that race (in many emerging Asian markets, it’s not just a primary source for news, but is moving towards becoming the go-to access point for all online activity). But social media bans like the one in Bangladesh underscore a key vulnerability. With Facebook racing to funnel users and the news into its walled-off mobile app, it’s leaving itself—as well as its publishing partners—increasingly exposed to governments that are inclined to shut it down.

 

The social media user is us. As we produce broadcast productions and try to engage with our audience, we use this platform. [The ban has] created a barrier for us to do our work.

 

Facebook has faced this problem before in Southeast Asia, where large populations of youth are hungry for news and social media, and where freedom of speech is wobbly. Shutdowns have been widely reported in Vietnam, where citizens are prohibited from posting anti-government content on the social network and scores of bloggers have been jailed. Most recently, Vietnam’s Prime Minister urged officials to embrace the social media site as a way to spread the government’s message. Similarly, in Thailand, the military issued a temporary ban on Facebook and other social media sites in May 2014 in exchange for future “cooperation” from the company. About a year later, Facebook opened an office in Bangkok.

For publishers who turn over distribution capabilities to Facebook and the invisible hand of its algorithm, the impact of such shutdowns will only become more immediate, disrupting content, the free flow of information, and ad revenue, especially in countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh, where Facebook is the internet. Even though broadband penetration in the country is still relatively low, in the past year alone, Bangladesh’s mobile and social growth has tripled, with 80 percent of internet users on Facebook, including government officials, who use the site to disseminate information. Even without Instant Articles, news organizations in Bangladesh are feeling the effects, as though a rug has been being yanked out from under them. 

“There’s underlying dissatisfaction of not being able to use technology,” says Fayaz Uddin, Project Director of the BBC’s Governance & Rights project in Bangladesh. “We all use the social media backbone. The social media user is us. As we produce broadcast productions and try to engage with our audience, we use this platform.” Speaking of the ban, Uddin says, “It’s created a barrier for us to do our work.”

While the government is to blame for this barrier, Facebook’s growing presence in the country may add other hurdles. For instance, after partnering with Internet.org, a Facebook-led initiative targeted at bringing  affordable access to internet services in less-developed countries, many content providers in India soon backed out, citing violations of net neutrality principles. Faced with criticism that the philanthropic service was functioning as “a walled garden” that gave preferential access to Facebook and a few select partners, Facebook opened the platform up to developers, expanded its services, and renamed the app FreeBasics, to distinguish it from the larger Internet.org effort. In partnership with the country’s third-largest mobile operator, the service arrived in Bangladesh in May, signaling Facebook’s ambitions in the country.

Facebook did not respond to CJR’s requests for comments on questions relating to the social media ban, or on how FreeBasics is faring in Bangladesh thus far.

Meanwhile, despite optimistic numbers on Bangladesh’s potential for digital growth, tensions around the shutdown continue to simmer. The country’s telecommunication authorities say they have written Facebook about drafting an agreement to prevent the posting of “objectionable” content; they also say intelligence agencies are running surveillance on anyone trying to access the site through proxy servers. Such servers, authorities say, will also soon be blocked.

Uddin, who used to work in community radio producing local debates on governance issues, says he’s watching the media closely. He described a climate of “self-censorship,” where “state-owned stations, including TV and radio, have become highly politicized, a medium of propaganda for the government.” In the wake of recent political violence, Uddin says there’s a growing sense, even among journalists, that security comes first and that in times of social unrest, such bans may be a necessary evil. “So long-term, they’re pushing not to shut down such platforms, but to increase tools and mechanisms of the government to monitor and patrol them.” As Facebook beefs up its presence in Bangladesh, and grows its publishing platform in other emerging markets, publishers may soon see their business and political interests collide.

Damaris Colhoun is CJR's digital correspondent covering the media business. A reporter at large in New York, Colhoun has also written for The Believer, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Atlas Obscura. Find her on Twitter @damarisdeere.