The limits of analog censorship in a digital era

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Censorship is a big reality in many places including in Bangladesh. There are several levels of internal and external censorship. Many factors influence this including the nature of media ownership, the nature and policy of the government, consumer demand etc.

Usually, both external and internal forces interact to produce the censorship regime. However, this scenario changed with the emergence of social media caused by the rise of digital media. There is a huge commercial and professional digital media that is increasingly proving to be beyond the conventional capacity of usual censors and even consumer choices.

Ways of censorship

Laws, fear, intimidation, jail, interrogation, bans, even physical attacks are all part of enforcing censorship in different forms and shapes in many places. But with every day, this older form of censorship is proving less equal to the task. The limits are also set by many factors which are beyond the control of the censor.

In a print media world, censorship was a realistic proposition but with the advent of digital media, technology has left the analog world behind. The result is a world beyond censorship literally though within its own limits. People also need to be technologically very adept to give the censor violators a run for the money. However, in most developing countries, that is not the case. The result is failure of the censorship model as the digital space overwhelms the analog surveillance ideology.

This has become a prominent subject of debate in Bangladesh where censorship exists in several forms. One of the pillars is the Digital Security Act (DSA) under which just about anyone can be prosecuted by anyone for any cause. In most cases, it’s not the Government who is the accuser but its supporters and it is used quite prolifically. It has led to many complaints, some charges, a few trials but a great deal of self-censorship. The objective was therefore achieved.

However, this applies only to matters within the media shores of Bangladesh and not beyond. And that is from where the Government is trashed and the powers that be find they can do little about it. The recent Al-Jazeera documentary titled “All the PM’s men” shows that such products can be made and uploaded which reach all inside Bangladesh. And in a digital era, this can be done with impunity. No DSA applies and that is why the older censorship version has obvious limits in a digital era.

The non-resident media

With a large non-resident population, an NR media has been in place for long. However, over time this has become quite strong and as net reach increased, more vocal and listened to. The big difference of course is social media and other outlets such as Youtube, FB live etc which has spread it everywhere. Of course there are pioneers and Sefu da was one such character, he was immensely popular for his colorful language and taboo topics. His topics were mostly personal but the power of the medium was itself on display too. The Government did try to shut him up and he has since faded away for whatever reasons – not GOB pressure- but several other voices have popped in.

Opposition politics and media are both very thin in Bangladesh due to many reasons. But with no TV and no activism to reach large numbers, it’s all but invisible. However, that is not the case with the voices from abroad. Kanak Sarwar, Elias, Maj. Delawar and others who are anti-AL, anti- India and anti-current leadership of the armed forces have a huge viewership.

Several times a week they are on screen and tear into the Government party politics and its supporters. Their viewership is higher than many TV shows and they not only have a captive audience of pro-BNP and JI but many anti AL person tune in. A couple of press notes condemning them have been issued but not much else because nothing can be done.

Netra News is based in Sweden and is edited by Tasneem Khalil, a journalist who suffered in Bangladesh at the hands of security agencies and had to flee. David Bergman, also a British journalist with a record of having lived and worked in Bangladesh, whose entry back to Bangladesh was barred. Together they are with Netra News and the Al-Jazeera product is part of their work.

The ISPR and GOB’s press release after the doc was aired was weak compared to the media hype that was on. Saying they are all BNP-JI supporters and enemy of the state doesn’t cut much ice. Millions have seen it and several more such products are coming, it is said. And it’s beyond the reach of the Bangladesh authorities to censor them.

The Government has declared that it is considering legal action against the broadcaster but that’s another matter. Aimed at this regime, the propaganda damage has been done and little could be done about it. It’s a reality check for such a powerful government that while most are aware that they can be censored at any time, the limits of censorship in this age are obvious also. It is form, not content- based.

The physical boundaries of the state are limited and state censorship is limited within that too. Digitally produced internationally media products are not affected by that. If censorship points to the challenge of media, that the limits of censorship exist within the same space is also a reality. It’s not the politics or content that is intriguing but the digital form that is slowly overtaking all other analog realities.

  • The limits of analog censorship in a digital era

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