DHAKA–The Bangladesh government says it’s moving to temporarily block the messaging and calling apps Viber and Whatsappin an effort to curb militant activities and terrorist attacks inside the country. It’s also likely to monitor popular social media like Facebook
The moves follow attacks on secular publishers and at least three attacks on law enforcement officials in Bangladesh over the last several weeks.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made the announcement in parliament on Wednesday evening. She cited how some individuals are conducting criminal activities by misusing these social media apps. “Therefore, I will suspend operation of these apps for some days, when needed, in order to arrest the perpetrators,” she said.
The PM made the comments while responding to the query of a ruling party lawmaker. But the premier didn’t mention when the government will move to block the apps.
Law enforcement agencies have concluded that the messaging apps are being used to coordinate attacks on security personnel. The most recent attack was directed at a jail guard in Faridpur district of the country on Wednesday afternoon.
Inspector General of Prisons Brig Gen Syed Iftekhar Uddin told a press briefing at the Department of Prisons in Dhaka on Wednesday that jail guard Asaduzzaman and a colleague were on their way to Faridpur district post office on a motorcycle during the afternoon to drop off some official letters.
Around this time, “a man slashed at the prison guard (Asaduzzaman), who was sitting at the back of the motorcycle, with a straight razor and fled,” he said.
Prior to this, there were three other machete attacks on uniformed men. A military policeman was injured in a similar attack on Tuesday near the Dhaka Cantonment.
Before this, two policemen including an assistant sub-inspector and a constable were killed on Oct. 22 and Nov. 4. Islamic State (IS) had allegedly claimed responsibility for the attack on Nov. 4, according to jihadist activity monitoring platform SITE.
SITE was also the first to report that had IS claimed responsibility for the murders of Italian national Cesare Tavella in Dhaka and Japanese national Hoshi Kunio in the Rangpur area of Bangladesh. IS has also claimed credit for a bomb attack on a Shia gathering in Dhaka on Oct. 24.
Between these two attacks, the offices of two publishing houses, which had published books by US-Bangladeshi blogger Avijit Roy, suffered attacks within hours of each other on Oct. 31. Faisal Arefin Dipan, publisher of Jagriti Prokashoni, was murdered in one attack. In the other attack, publisher Ahmedur Rashid Tutul of Sudhhaswar, along with two others, were critically injured.
Al Qaeda In the Subcontinent (AQIS) had claimed responsibility for these two attacks. The same group had earlier claimed responsibility for the murder of four secular bloggers.
Roy, a secular blogger whose writings on religion apparently angered Islamist hardliners, was among those killed. He was hacked to death in February as he walked back from a book fair with his wife, who was also hurt in the attack.
Investigators have claimed that the attacks were coordinated with the help of messaging apps like Viber and Whatsapp. Posts were later made through Twitter claiming responsibility for some of these attacks.
When asked when the government is likely to block the messaging apps, Zakir Hossain Khan, Assistant Director of Media & Publications at Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) told Asia Times, “We have not received any official orders yet. But we will have to block the apps as soon as we receive the instruction.”
As social media is also being used by the militants, Bangladesh’s State Minister for Post and Telecommunication Tarana Halim told the nation’s parliament on Thursday evening that the process of procuring so-called Internet Safety Solutions is already underway. She pointed out that, once implemented, the system will help in curbing all forms of cyber crimes and also monitor social media platforms, especially Facebook.
“We are also trying to combine the efforts of a number of different cyber monitoring cells under BTRC and other law enforcing agencies in Bangladesh,” said a top official within the BTRC to Asia Times.
Facebook also said this week that it had turned down the Bangladesh government’s requests to share data on users inside the country from January till July this year. Facebook disclosed this in its Global Government Requests Report on Wednesday.
Facebook in its report notes a general global increase in content restrictions and government requests for data.
“Facebook does not provide any government with “back doors” or direct access to people’s data,” the company said in the report.
If the latest app restrictions are implemented, this will be the second time that the government has temporarily blocked Viber and Whatsapp this year. Officials had earlier blocked apps like Viber, WhatsApp, Tango, Mypeople and Line for security reasons in January.
At the time, the country was experiencing a violent nationwide transport blockade called by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) to protest controversial parliamentary elections in 2014 .
The apps were unblocked four days later under instructions from the BTRC.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina earlier shrugged off the IS angle in the various attacks and has blamed the political alliance between the opposition of BNP and Jamaat for the killings of foreigners Tavella and Kunio.
Syed Tashfin Chowdhury is a Dhaka, Bangladesh-based freelance journalist and the editor of Xtra, the weekend magazine of New Age, a leading English daily in Bangladesh.
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