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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 September, 2003, 09:05 GMT 10:05 UK
Anger at Bangladeshi snooping plans

By Alastair Lawson
BBC Dhaka correspondent

Plans to allow the authorities in Bangladesh to monitor e-mails and telephone conversations have provoked outrage among human rights experts and telecoms analysts.

Mobile phone in Bangladesh
Mobiles phones are taking telecoms into rural areas
The Bangladeshi cabinet is considering changes to the 2001 Telecommunications Act that would make bugged phone calls and intercepted e-mails permissible in legal proceedings.

The government says the suggested changes are crucial in the battle against terrorism and lawlessness.

But human rights experts and telecom specialists have expressed disquiet over the proposals.

Stern measures

"They represent a fundamental breach of our right to communicate," said telecoms expert Abu Sayed Khan.

"If they are enacted it will be a devastating blow for freedom of speech and will turn the country into a police state.

"Bangladesh already has some of the most restrictive laws in relation to internet and telephone access in the whole of Asia," Mr Khan told BBC News Online.

Bangladeshi village
Many parts of Bangladesh are out of reach of telephone landlines
"In the south eastern Chittagong Hill tracts for example, the authorities have made it impossible to use mobile telephones because of what they say is the deteriorating law and order situation.

"Such stern measures have not even been taken in Kashmir of the insurgency riddled north-eastern Indian states, even though both these areas have far bigger security problems."

The campaigning group, Reporters Without Borders, has also criticised the plans, arguing they would legalise invasion of privacy and undermine free expression.

"Respect for confidentiality of personal information obtained from internet service providers or through e-mail messages must be an unshakeable principal of any democratic society," it said in a statement.

"New information technology allows greater monitoring of personal messages and the Bangladesh Government must respect the privacy of its citizens and their right to communicate freely."

Communications controls

The proposals are the latest in a long line of state supported restrictions on personal communication over the last two decades.

In the 1980s, the government tried to curtail the sale of fax machines and photocopiers, arguing that they were being used by criminal syndicates.

The right of people to be free from the fear of crime and terrorism is more important than this small infringement of individual liberties
Bangladeshi Home Ministry spokesman
Members of the public complained at the time it was easier to get a gun license than a fax.

Likewise when the first mobile telephones were introduced in the late 1980s, it was necessary for subscribers to obtain "security clearance" from the authorities before they could be used.

Mr Khan said the situation has deteriorated in recent days, and that Bangladesh is one of the few countries in Asia where the right to communicate is being so systematically violated.

"The worrying thing for businessmen in particular is that these regulations make them far more vulnerable to industrial espionage and blackmail," he said.

"For them the only consolation appears to be that the authorities here do not seem to have the know-how to monitor calls made by roaming cellphones or satellite telephones.

"But it is only a question of time before they do."

Fear of crime

The government has defended the proposals by arguing that crime has soared so much in recent years that drastic action is necessary.

Bangladeshi internet cafe
Internet cafes provide one way of going online in Bangladesh
The Home Minister, Altaf Hossain Chowdhury, has said that improving law and order was one of the government's top priorities and that no stone would be left unturned in the fight against crime.

Ultimately only a relatively small number of people will be affected by the proposals which are expected to come shortly before parliament.

Bangladesh has one of the lowest ratios of landline telephones per head of population in the world. It is estimated to be around seven phones for every 1000 people.

It is not uncommon for landline customers of the Bangladesh Telegraph and Telecommunications Board to wait years before they get a connection.

Earlier this year Dhaka resident Mohammed Ismail hit the headlines when he received a phone after waiting 27 years.

With up to half a million people still waiting to be connected, there are not that many telephones and e-mails to bug.

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