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Whither Digital Bangladesh?

“Digital Bangladesh” is a very widely used term in public policy and IT circles in Bangladesh. Some associate it with sweeping changes in the society, a factor that helped the current government in Bangladesh come to power back in 2008. However, a majority of the people have differing explanations as to what it constitutes. Last month, Hasanul Haq Inu, the Information Minister, while clicking on a link to launch a news website for children, was elated to find an image of the inauguration ceremony already on it. “This is Digital Bangladesh”, he said. At a rally last September, opposition leader and BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia alleged that the incumbent government was committing “digital corruption in the name of building Digital Bangladesh”. Confusing, right? Let us move on.

The Background

Digital Bangladesh was a concept coined by Mustafa Jabbar, a prominent ICT expert in Bangladesh. He later explained his vision and concept in his book, “Digital Bangladesh”, which was published in May 2009. The current ruling Awami League (AL) party in Bangladesh used the concept in its 2008 election manifesto. The impact of this was a perceived call for change, similar to the successful election campaign run by Barack Obama in 2008. The philosophy of “Digital Bangladesh” in its “Charter for Change” manifesto was all about “good governance”, and comprised of ensuring people’s democracy and rights, transparency, accountability, establishing justice and ensuring delivery of government services with maximum use of technology. The ultimate stated goal being to improve the daily lifestyle of general people.

The general people perceive Digital Bangladesh to be a concept resulting in an increased use of computers, better connectivity and access to online services that would decrease paperwork. However, as we have seen above, Digital Bangladesh is much more than that.

At its core, it is the free and uninterrupted flow of information.

 

A dismal reality

As comments and rhetoric by various members of the present government have piled up over the past four and the half years, a common trend has emerged. The word ‘digital’ used by the ruling government seemingly refers to doing work in any relevant sector easily and rapidly using computation. This raises concerns of whether it is a goal or a slogan. Although some scope exists for employment and income generation sectors like outsourcing, online retail and offering different public-private hybrid services through Union Information Service Centres have been implemented, the economy at large has remained stagnant (See Bangladesh Economic Update, February 2013).

Although the number of internet users has increased, internet infrastructure has woefully lagged behind.  Internet’s speed in Bangladesh is amongst the slowest in the world and  is ranked 174th out of 176 countries in the Household Download Index published by Net Index. In mid 2012, an internet penetration of 5 % was reported, shamefully low compared to that of India (11.4%) or Pakistan (15.3 %). If you thought that was bad news, you will be in for more, as we shall explore in the coming paragraphs.

 

Growth of telecommunications did not lead to economic growth

An opinion report on bdnews24 examined the problem and made some worrisome observations. Back in 2001, less than 1 in 10,000 Bangladeshi people had access to a telephone; in 2011, that figure grew by a factor more than 65 times when 53 people per 10,000 had access. However, over the same period, the power generation capacity of the country increased by a factor of 1.5 times from 4000MW to 6000MW. The GDP per capita income went up from around US$ 370 to US$ 750 or a factor of 2, discarding decade-old claims that increased tele-density would result in a significant, even exponential, growth of the economy.

Instead, the facts show that in the case of Bangladesh, the influence of the telecom sector on growth is almost insignificant compared to that of the power sector. The lack of significant investment in the local financial market needed to build an adequate telecom infrastructure means that foreign technology and services are now sold to millions of local consumers in a way that behind little or no added direct economic value for Bangladeshis.

 

Increasingly corrupt administration

Theoretically, Digital Bangladesh was supposed to translate into a more transparent society. Transparency in activities and dealings should have mitigated corruption in government and society. However, according to the recently published Transparency International (TI) Global Corruption Perceptions Index, compared with the 2011 index, Bangladesh slipped 24 steps from 120th to 144th position in good-to-bad order and retained 13th position in bad-to-good order among 176 countries, indicating a deterioration of graft situation in the country. TI also published a report which showed Bangladesh to be the most corrupt among the top 10 clothing exporters in Bangladesh, drawing a relation to the tragic building collapse at Savar in which so many lives with lost and destroyed, an incident which was attributed to violations of building codes and faulty inspections. The downhill trend demonstrates a negative progress towards realising the goal of a corruption free Bangladesh through digitisation.

 

Periodic restrictions on the internet

The government has repeatedly reneged on promises of freeing the flow of information. In March 2009, YouTube was blocked in Bangladesh after a recording of a meeting between PM Hasina and army officers revealed their outrage at her handling of the Dhaka Pilkhana mutiny in which 74 people were killed, including officers of the Bangladesh Rifles and their family members. Although the block was lifted on the 21st of March, it was again imposed on 17 September 2012, following the controversial promotional videos for the film “Innocence of Muslims”.

Although lifted early in 2013, users regularly complain of low speeds and erratic accessibility to the video sharing website, which in the context of an increasingly desperate government and unchallenging media, is doubly worrying. On 19th May, following the Motijheel Incident and manning of the TV channels covering it, regulatory authorities, in the face of heavy criticism from internet activists, were forced to rescind a policy of throttling upload speeds by up to 75%. This was seen by many as a measure to curtail the upload of videos and related content on the excesses committed by the government forces against opposition activists.  In a recent move, in the context of increasing international scrutiny the YouTube ban was ceremoniously lifted, although internet surveillance remains an issue for opposition, as it has historically during periods of political change potential.

Throttling the free press

There is no better way to ensure the free flow of information than by having a free press. The government has shown an exceptional degree of intolerance in this regard. Action by the government has led to the closure of Channel 1(27 April, 2010), Sheershanews (21 August,2011), Amardesh (twice, in conjunction with the arrest of its editor, Mahmudur Rahman, on 1 June 2010 and again, since 11 April 2013), as well as, Islamic TV and Diganta TV (both since 6th May 2013). Social media pages were unable to contain their rage at the impact it would have on their privileged rights of expression and conscience. Several blogs and websites had faced closure due to their expression of differing opinions critical of the government. Of these pages, facebook pages such as Basherkella and Media Watch deserve a special mention. Additionally, a recent report on press freedom by the Economist and the slipping Freedom of Press index high a worrisome picture in Bangladesh.

In 2008 the 14 party Alliance came to power in Bangladesh on a ticket promising change through the realisation of a vision called Digital Bangladesh. Much of this vision has still to be realised. Contrary to its tenets however, recent developments such as bringing social media under government supervision, and enforcing a month’s ban on public rallies point towards a rapidly deteriorating situation in the country.  In conclusion,  I note change has occurred largely to big speeches, like the recent 2013-14 parliamentary budget. Stirred, the audience applauded ‘Digital’ achievements, but as usual forgot about Bangladesh.

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