Censorship by economics: Bangladesh demands high licensing fees from online media
10:19am | 21 September 2012 | by Peter Micek, English
The often-rumored death of print media produces strong reactions, both in favor of traditional media and against it. But change is assured: globally, online advertising spending will surpass print ad dollars in 2012. Global newspaper ad spending will decline by about 2.8 percent this year (even though newspapers are thriving in some regions without quality internet access, like rural Australia).
In Bangladesh, officials cite the changing media landscape to justify a strict new regulation on news portals and similar websites. However, a look at the law reveals ulterior motives, namely the government’s efforts to control free expression. Bangladeshi lawmakers propose requiring online news portals to register and pay a hefty license fee to publish. According to the regulation, “unexpected developments in the technology of speech and expression” have led to “increased demand for online news and events.” The law calls attention to the “important” need for clear rules and policies regulating online news, and for safeguarding “values” such as “social protection” online.
Perhaps lawmakers believe that the cure for threatened newspapers is not more speech, but strong print media monopolies and fewer online alternatives. To greater control the blossoming online media space, some countries pass laws criminalizing certain speech online -- see the wave of “computer crimes” laws in Peru, Ecuador, Jordan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Conversely, a high licensing fee -- a sort of government-mandated “paywall” to starting a news website -- is the way Bangladeshi lawmakers chose to impose the “important” rules and values. Effectively, it’s censorship by economics.
Global Voices blogger Pantha (translation by Rezwan) writes that the regulation “stipulates that a onetime payment of Bangladeshi Taka 500,000 (USD $6,100) should be deposited with the Ministry of Information to get a license for an online news portal. Each year this license should be renewed by paying 50,000 Taka (USD $610). The license fee can be revised by the government at anytime.”
To put those numbers in context, the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in Bangladesh, when adjusted for purchasing power parity, is roughly USD $1,700 per year. That ranks 196th in the world, right near the bottom. The high licensing fee, equal to several times the per capita gross national income, seems designed for more than simply generating tax revenue. Controlling privacy and free expression -- human rights recognized in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Bangladesh acceded to in 2000 -- is a more plausible explanation, as Global Voices notes. And while an exisiting media corporation may be able to afford to pay the fee, steep as it may be, what is most startling is that this proposal could wipe out self-publishing sites. How could a blogger, start-up news site, or an artist be able to afford such a license?
On press freedom broadly, Bangladesh ranks 129 out of 179 countries listed on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index for 2011-12. (The higher the number, the less free your media is). Its constitution provides for freedom of expression subject to “reasonable restrictions.”
Print media are favored in Bangladesh, according to Freedom House, operating with fewer restrictions than broadcast and new media. A law aimed at controlling private broadcast television went into effect last year. Regarding that law, a Guardian blogger wrote, “Aside from prohibiting political, religious and (so-called) sexual material, it also bans the transmission of stories that hold power to account.” An anonymous writer on Weekly Blitz drew an apt comparison: “Imposing a strict censorship on the existing vibrant private television media in Bangladesh, the law contains several clauses... [only] seen in countries governed under dictatorial regimes.”
The new regulation of online media appears to have similarly authoritarian and xenophobic aims. Some of the law’s ulterior purposes are found in the law itself: Section 11 begins, “The applicant organization must be able to manage the professional and technical quality.” Of course, regulators will decide the definition of “quality” journalism, a concept susceptible to bias. Section 11(f) requires editors to have at least a college degree, yet another restriction on Bangladeshis’ right to free expression, masquerading as a quality control measure.
The decree proposes technical limitations, including that, “All online news media portals should be hosted in a location inside Bangladesh.” The DNS and IP information of the servers is to be provided to the Ministry of Information under article 11(g), a dangerous practice that threatens user privacy and destroys anonymity online. Anonymity has been a cornerstone of the internet, enabling it to become a beacon of free expression and democratic information sharing. Any store of IP and DNS information will enable government surveillance, be a magnet for malicious hackers, and a risk for inadvertent data breach, resulting in a lack of privacy and security for those online speakers who need it most.
The regulation even governs hyperlinks, stating “No local online portal should link to other local and international news portals.” (11(j)). No justification is given for this blanket technical restriction on speech, which clearly bleeds into a content restriction. Clearly, the Bangladeshi government doesn’t understand how the internet works. Websites do not exist in a vaccum, especially news portals, which often aggregate and syndicate articles and photos. Modern websites depend on services and information from many different sites and servers. Without hyperlinks to the open internet, news sites will be nearly impossible to find on search engines, and likely devoid of useful content and functionalities.
As far as blatant content restrictions, the regulation contains an extensive list of banned subjects in section 14: “The following program/news should not be published/broadcast: … (b) Any news/program that is violating the main principles of the state and the governance; … (e) Any indecent or provocative satire/music/advertisement/news or any program with subtitles that may pollute, corrupt or hurt peoples' feeling and morality. … (k) Any news/program that may hurt the feeling of any friendly country.”
These vague and overbroad provisions are ripe for abuse, and will create a chilling effect on free expression and democratic speech in Bangladesh. The regulation is unreasonable, in that ordinary citizens and users cannot interpret the bounds of legal and illegal speech under its provisions, with language like “hurt the feeling of any friendly country”. Thus, the regulation does not constitute a “reasonable restriction” on speech under its own constitution.
Moreover, none of the prohibited content falls into one of the categories of permissibly restricted speech per the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression: (a) child pornography; (b) direct and public incitement to commit genocide; (c) advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence; and (d) incitement to terrorism. Therefore, it runs afoul of Bangladesh’s obligations under the ICCPR.
Regarding licensing of online media in general, the Special Rapporteur found that “unlike the broadcasting sector, for which registration or licensing has been necessary to allow States to distribute limited frequencies, such requirements cannot be justified in the case of the Internet, as it can accommodate an unlimited number of points of entry and an essentially unlimited number of users.” Simply citing “increased demand” for online media and an “important” need for rules, as the Regulation does, cannot validate a restrictive licensing scheme for online media. See Access guide, "To Regulate or not to Regulate, is That the Question?: A Roadmap to Smart Regulation of the Internet," for more on licensing of online media.
The regulation’s specific licensing scheme also fails to comport with General Comment 34, the latest official interpretation of Article 19 of the ICCPR. Speaking of broadcast media, where licensing fees are generally imposed, GC34 maintains, “States parties must avoid imposing onerous licensing conditions and fees.” The criteria for applying the fees must “be reasonable and objective, clear, transparent, non-discriminatory and otherwise in compliance with the Covenant.” Access believes these statements in GC34 apply equally to licensing of online media outlets as well as broadcast media. The Bangladeshi regulation does not meet this standard, as the $6100 USD fee is clearly onerous to the average Bangladeshi citizen and no clear reason is given for the high cost.
Bangladesh has a very high bar to justify this regulation under international human rights laws and norms, and has not made its case to date. Access urges lawmakers to oppose the Regulation, and to work with the Bangladesh NGOs Network for Radio and Communication (BNNRC) to reform the country’s Online Policy and communications laws. Regulators must meaningfully consult all stakeholders affected by the proposed law and listen to the “global voices” of Bangladeshi users.