The censor has no clothes, in Digital Bangladesh

Thursday, November 2nd, 2017
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Our ruling establishment is stuck in the Bronze Age while society has gone digital. The result is a clash of eras, epochs even, that has spilled over into the media space.  The best example of this is the unwritten and  written censor codes. Legally speaking, the vanguard of this process is the ICT Act, particularly Section 57 where draconian measures exist for intimidation and harassment. It has become so notorious that even the powers that be had to decide that it has become a bully tool without any leash which was making the government unpopular with the media community. Since that carries a political cost the government has put a coma on its application, but it can be revived at any time should the need arise. It reflects an uneasy and anxious mind.


The fact that the same offense in the digital and the non-digital media carries different degrees of punishment illustrates the ancient mindset of our censoring powers that be. The fear about the digital expresses the anger born of dealing with the unknown.  The attempts to rein in online media are so out of date that one fears the purpose of censoring, which is protection, has become completely misplaced and close to being absurd.


Three news items and what they mean


The first news item was on the ‘assassination bid’, no less, supposedly by a section of the armed forces which was foiled. It created a lot of furore, and many media outlets carried it, particularly from the pro-AL world as the said item said the BNP was planning a power grab. However, this was shot down and denied by the PMO. It left many red faces in media.


The second item concerned Justice Sinha and his alleged discussion at a party in Japan which was about another coup attempt of sorts. This was not carried by mainstream media, but the drama over Justice Sinha’s exit was so overwhelming that it left everyone confused about who did what and why. Media’s performance has been criticized also as it didn’t appear less confused than the consumer.


The third item came out recently, alleging that a meeting took place attended by serving and retired army officers on a sensitive issue which was ‘nipped in the bud.  This item too has been shot down by the ISPR.


The point is, none of the media sources are Bangladeshi in origin and all the items originated in Indian media. And these items have been consumed by almost everyone who matters and courtesy of social media shared by millions. In that case, what exactly is the role of censors? Or can censorship work in a digital media world?


If censors are supposed to protect, including from speculations that can cause harm, how effective has such censoring been in case of news on Bangladesh originating from abroad? Since anyone can read anything published anywhere, is censorship actually possible given the spread of the internet?


Who benefits from censoring?


Censoring is justified on the ground that sensitive issues need hiding, but how can the net be hidden? The three news items are obviously supplied by Indian intelligence services. So clearly, at some level, some inter-country politics is on, which we don’t know of. But once such news breaks, speculation mounts even more and since a foreign country is involved, it creates more confusion.


But the point is, how did it affect our life hence the justification for censoring? After all, no one who read the said items- all harmless and powerless people- did anything or were involved in any of the alleged assassination bids, takeover bids or sensitive issues discussing meetings that have been denied. Nobody rushed out to the street in anger or fear or anything.  They have nothing to do with power grabs and couldn’t even if they wanted to as they have no power. Yet it’s they, the consumers of news and its producers in Bangladesh, who were and are censored.


So what exactly does the censoring policy achieve when it’s freely available to everyone?


Perhaps the purpose of censoring is no longer about filtering news since that is not possible anymore. It may well be to let anyone that some have power, however ineffectual that is and most have none at all.

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