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Bangladesh Lifts Ban on Facebook

  • Shaikh Azizur Rahman

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Bangladesh on Thursday unblocked Facebook, 22 days after it imposed a ban on the social networking site, citing security reasons.

The government blocked Facebook, WhatsApp, Viber and some other social media sites soon after opposition Jamaat-e-Islami leader Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid and Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, convicted of committing crimes during the country’s 1971 war of independence, lost their appeals against their death penalties.

Although the country’s 18 million users of Facebook are happy because the ban on the site is lifted, many are disappointed that WhatsApp and Viber remain blocked.

Junior telecom minister Tarana Halim said Thursday that people of the country had been suffering in the absence of Facebook, so the government lifted the ban on it.

“The threat to public security reached such a height that we had to impose a ban on all of them. We have unblocked Facebook after the level of threat lowered to some extent in recent days. The ban on WhatsApp and Viber will continue for security-related reasons,” Halim said.

Between February and October, four secular bloggers and one publisher were hacked to death in Bangladesh. In recent weeks, gunmen also killed two foreigners. Bomb attacks on a Shi’ite procession led to the killing of two people. Last month, gunmen killed the muezzin of a Shi’ite mosque in the country.

Investigators reported that the attackers in most of the cases had used Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber to communicate among themselves during the operation. Soon afterward, the government decided to clamp down on the social media sites.

Authorities contend that some local militant groups — backed by the opposition alliance led by Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its ally, Jamaat-e-Islami — were the perpetrators of all the violence.

Sajeeb Wazed Joy, the information and technology adviser to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, said that during the days ahead of the November 22 hangings of Mujahid and Chowdhury, the government feared unrest by the supporters of Jamaat.

Some evaded ban

After the government blocked Facebook, WhatsApp, Viber and others on November 18, tech-savvy people kept accessing those sites via proxy or virtual private networks installed on their devices. However, the apps remained blocked to a large number of Internet users who didn’t know how to bypass the ban.

Many who did business using Facebook became frustrated during the 22-day ban.

“I was selling five to six pieces of salwar suits every day via Facebook. But during the ban my sell dropped to zero because from my home, Facebook had been the only mode to stay in touch with my customer base,” Farhana Akhter, 52, a Dhaka-based garment seller who sells Indian clothing, said to VOA.

“It’s a great relief now that the government has unblocked Facebook.”

Last week, when many business people took to the streets in Bangladesh demanding that Facebook be unblocked, Akhter was among the demonstrators in Dhaka.

Last Sunday, Bangladeshi officials met some Facebook representatives seeking measures to monitor or filter contents that could viewed as provoking religious sentiment and conspiracies against the government, Dhaka's Daily Star reported.

Local media reported that Facebook authorities agreed to cooperate with the Bangladesh government on the security issues.

“They listened to us,” Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said. "They have assured to cooperate with us to address our key concerns.”

This is not the first time that social networking sites have been banned in Bangladesh.

In 2009, Bangladesh blocked Facebook temporarily after a paramilitary revolt in the country left 57 army officers dead.

In 2010, Facebook was banned temporarily after satirical images of the Prophet Muhammad were uploaded on the site and shared.

Bangladesh temporarily blocked the messaging services of Viber and Tango in January after they became a popular way of mobilizing activists for anti-government protests.

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