Around 30 academics, journalists, lawyers, feminist and LGBT rights organisers, and other human and digital rights activists gathered in Lalmatia, Dhaka to meet their fellow rights advocates at the Bangladesh solidarity event of the Asia-Pacific Digital Rights Forum last January 14, 2023.
EngageMedia co-hosted the convening in partnership with Digitally Right. It coincided with four other solidarity events happening simultaneously in Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, and Manila that aimed to provide spaces for changemakers to meet each other and build stronger regional solidarity.
The Dhaka event featured sessions on online media freedom, hate speech, online gender-based violence (OGBV), and a focus group discussion (FGD) on the use of open and secure technology. Towards the end of the day, the group shared their learnings with their peers in the four other solidarity events through a virtual video call.
Freedom of speech in Bangladesh’s online spaces
The event started with a session on online media freedom and censorship, which tackled issues ranging from the key actors involved in restricting free speech to discussions on reasonable restrictions to speech without hindering fundamental rights.
Md. Saimum Reza Talukder, Senior Lecturer at the BRAC University’s School of Law, discussed freedom of expression, mass surveillance, Big Tech platforms, and the responsibilities of users and the state in ensuring freedom of speech in Bangladesh. He stressed that there should not be any differentiation between online and offline rights. “All rights that are ensured offline should also be extended online”, he said.
Lawyer and human rights activist Rezaur Rahman Lenin followed up with examples of internet restrictions in Bangladesh, noting the ongoing trend of self-censoring and the role of state and non-state actors in attacking critical voices online. He also discussed the guiding principles to maintain the delicate balance between restricting harmful content versus allowing space for critical and contested narratives.
Discussing feminist politics and online gender-based violence
The second session on online hate speech and OGBV opened discussions on feminist politics, social justice movements, and backlash against gender equality in the digital space. Participants also talked about the reality and impact of online hate speech and gender-based violence in the Global South, especially in Bangladesh. According to a November 2021 survey, cases of OGBV increased during the pandemic, with 63.51 per cent of 359 respondents saying they faced online violence.
The session brought together three activists from Meye Network, a feminist grassroots organising platform, to shed light on their volunteerism and independent professional practice in working with Bangladeshi women. Trishia Nashtaran, the Network’s founder and founding president of OGNIE Foundation Bangladesh, explained how the network was formed a decade ago around a Facebook group and provided a safe space for women to share their lived experiences. From this, the network evolved to become the OGNIE Foundation which also covers work on intersectional feminism and movements around LGBTQI and other identities.
Iffat Jahan Antara, Senior Research Associate at the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, talked about her research on hate speech and online harassment and her work with UN Women to create a training module to combat gender-based violence. Meanwhile, Nafisa Tanjeem, Associate Professor at Worcester State University, discussed how capitalist schemes behind Big Tech platforms and the culture of impunity and anonymity online are related to cases of OGBV.
The solidarity event concluded with an FGD to assess the awareness of civil society organisations, human rights defenders, and digital rights advocates in Bangladesh regarding online threats and surveillance. Participants discussed their understanding of ways to mitigate these threats using open and secure technology – such as by using virtual private networks, encrypted password managers, and secure messaging apps. The discussions also scrutinised the reasons behind the use or non-use of such technologies and how changemakers can work in more secure, ethical, and sustainable ways.