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ZAFAR SOBHAN
DATELINE DHAKA

Zafar Sobhan is editor of the Dhaka Tribune, a daily newspaper.

YouTube is still banned in Bangla

The government is happy to continue to use the film 'Innocence of Muslims' as an excuse to block the site.

t has now been over one month that YouTube has been blocked in Bangladesh, following the posting of the laughable Innocence of Muslims video. The blocking of YouTube by the Bangladeshi government was a pre-emptive strike to stave off any unrest that might have been caused by the video.

As it happens, there had been no unrest prior to the blocking of YouTube on 17 September, but the week after access to the site was blocked, there were demonstrations, aimed against whom precisely it is unclear. But the fact that there were demonstrations, which did get violent until the police intervened to restore peace, suggests that had the video remained accessible to the Bangladeshi public, things might have been a lot worse.

I am not one who thinks that the Bangladesh government does not have the right to reasonably restrict freedom of expression in the interests of public order. Maintaining public order and preserving our rights is a delicate balance, and I do not envy the government its responsibilities, nor am I entirely unsympathetic to the impossible situations in which it is often placed.

We should never forget that Bangladesh is a country where people can and do riot on the smallest provocation, where communal friction and tension is always high, and it is the government's (many would argue) primary job to ensure public order and to protect people and property from harm.

This does not mean that the government should give rioters a free pass, or that there should not be legal consequences for crimes committed during riots, or that provocation should ever be considered any kind of legal or moral defence for arson and violence.

But any reasonable steps the government can take to ensure that such riots do not occur in the first place, if they do not place an undue burden on the citizenry, or curtail our rights to an unacceptable level, should be on the table, and, in this instance, it is quite possible that prompt government action was instrumental in minimising the fallout from the posting of the offending video on YouTube.

But the longer that YouTube remains blocked, the less convincing the government's position is, and the more it seems as though it is using the video as an excuse to restrict our access to the site for its own political purposes.

The thing is, it would have been perfectly possible for the government to petition Google to simply block access to the offending video in Bangladesh. Following the posting of Innocence of Muslims, the company has done this in a dozen countries with predominantly Muslim populations, including Libya, Egypt, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

The standard is simple: the petitioning country has to demonstrate that the video it wants blocked would: (a) contribute to serious public disorder and (b) would be unlawful under the laws of the petitioning country.

Bangladesh meets both these criteria. There is in fact concrete evidence that the viewing of the video would contribute to public disorder, and the video itself contravenes our laws against publications that "hurt religious sentiments."

Now, I don't want to get into a discussion as to whether this is a good law or a bad law and whether it can and has been misused. That is a conversation for a different day. But it remains incontrovertible that the law exists, and thus the Bangladesh government has watertight grounds for demanding that the Innocence of Muslims video be blocked in Bangladesh.

It has chosen not to do so. YouTube remains blocked in Bangladesh. Other countries with easily-provoked Muslim populations have successfully petitioned Google to block the video so that the entire site need not remain blocked. The Bangladesh government has not done so. Why?

It could be that the government is simply incompetent, and that it does not know that this avenue of redress is available to it, or it has somehow botched its petition to Google. This wouldn't say much for the tech-savvy image that the government of Digital Bangladesh is trying to project, nor is it a very credible line of defence.

No, the inescapable conclusion is that the government is perfectly happy to continue to use the video as an excuse to block the site, as this is a government that is not comfortable with criticism, and it is fearful that videos posted on YouTube could be used as a mobilizing tool against it in the coming months.

With elections just around the corner, closing down a potent avenue of potentially devastating critiques may well be just what the YouTube ban is all about. It most certainly isn't about maintaining public order or ensuring that people's religious sentiments do not get hurt.

 
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