voice sept 29 2012[Dhaka, 29 September 2012] Speakers urged the government of Bangladesh to ensure that the right to freedom expression and opinion is upheld on the Internet in a public dialogue held at Dhaka's press club earlier today. Speakers included Afsan Chowdhury, executive editor of Bdnews24.com; Monjurul Ahsan Bulbul, editor in chief and CEO of Boishaki Television; Mostafa Jabber, IT specialist; Akhtaruzzaman Monju, chairman, ISP Association; Tahmina Rahman country director, Artcile-19; Seleem Samad, eminent journalist; and Golam Mortuza, editor, Saptahik. The dialogue on freedom of expression on the internet was organized by VOICE and Ahmed Swapan Mahmud, executive director of VOICE moderated the occasion.

Afsan Chowdhury stated that the internet is now a widespread medium of free expression and the State and other powers in society are increasingly fearful of the attention given to alternative views. He argued that internet freedom should not be restricted by any means whilst emphasizing that we must to educate all citizens to build a strong moral ground and respect for others in society. The proposed online media policy would hamper democratic practices and governance processes in the country, he concluded.

Monjurul Ahsan Bulbul said that although free speech is guaranteed by Constitution article 39, other policies and regulations undermine freedom of speech. Also criticizing the proposed online media policy he said that it would restrict expression and control voices online at large. He also emphasized the importance of raising public awareness about the moral dimensions of using the internet.

Mostafa Jabber criticized the draft online media policy for charging high fee amounted 5 hundred thousand BDT for licensing online news portal and yearly renewal fee of 50 thousand BDT while print media and its online version are free and do need renewal fee. He also added that the draft policy indicates for quality and educational degree for applicant which is authoritarian and repressive. The right to access, receive and publish online content should be free from all kinds of control and surveillance by the government and security agencies. The new regulation of online media appears to have authoritarian aims which will restrict the right to free expression on the internet, he added. He also urged to the government to withdraw the 15 per cent VAT from internet.

Golam Mortoza stated that the Internet offers a key means by which citizens can obtain information, assert their rights, and participate in public debates concerning social, economic and political changes to improve their situation. He urged the government not to put restrictions on bloggers and Facebook users who provide alternative views, opinions, and critical insights which help to build democracy in the society.

Aktaruzzaman Monju mentioned that the regulatory framework for internet providers is not favourable, for example they regularly receive requests to filter content and every month Internet service providers are required to submit call data records to the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regularity Authority which is clearly a threat to freedom of expression. He argued that the computer emergency response team has that started monitoring online content to combat cyber crime may also undermine alternative and different views and would impede free and open internet.

Tahmina Rahman said that the internet is playing a vital role in promoting human rights and democratic practices. Referring to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, she emphasized the need to ensure right to freedom of expression online and pluralism in society. She criticized the government's recent move to enact online media policy which is a threat to free speech and human rights defenders.

Saleem Samad Selim Samad, correspondent of Reporters San Frontiers said that no online media policy is necessary as online can easily be fit into existing media regulatory system. Any repressive policy will restrict free voices and impose fear among the users that will put dangerous consequences promoting democracy. Mentioning the provision to archive online news for 90 days only, he told that it's a damn failure of bureaucracy who doesn't understand how internet works. A number of blogs and news sites, written by young and activist bloggers, are active across the country. The new law will shut down their independent right to express and opinion. He stated that the government has not organized any consultation prior to making the draft law.

Ahmed Swapan Mahmud concluded that the Bangladesh should develop a concrete and effective policy – in consultation with individuals from all sections of society, including the private sector and relevant Government ministries – to make the Internet widely available, accessible and affordable to all segments of the population. He also urged the government not to restrict independent voices by blocking Facebook, YouTube or any other online medium of free expression. In the case of combating cybercrime, the government should take lawful measures through an independent body outside of political and power influence, he said.