How Digital Advocacy Helped Build the Dhaka Student Movement

In early August 2018, a wave of protests seized Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Angered over the deaths of two young school children by a speeding bus, the city’s students, mostly attending high school or university, thronged the streets demanding that the government improve road safety. For about a week, Dhaka, home to over 18 million people, found itself in a gridlock. Youths were seen sloganeering, creating human chain links, addressing student unions on university campuses or stopping buses, trucks and other vehicles to check whether they were in roadworthy conditions, as in this video filmed by the Daily Star:

Violations of media freedom

Inspiring widespread anger on social media, a nationwide youth-led movement for road safety began to emerge. A few days into the protests in Dhaka, the peaceful demonstrations devolved into bloody violence. The brutality was reportedly meted out by state-sponsored groups such as the Chhatra League which is said to be linked to the ruling Awami League party. The police too used violence against protestors in the form of tear gas, rubber bullets, violent beatings and worse, not just against students but also journalists. According to media reports, journalists were beaten for covering the protests, their phones and cameras destroyed and their lives threatened if they did not delete recorded footage.

Veteran photojournalist, writer, activist and human rights defender, Shahidul Alam, spoke out against the government clamp down on Al-Jazeera during the week of protests. Inspired by the youth of his country, Alam took to the streets to document the students. However, he has since been arrested, interrogated and jailed under Section 57 of Bangladesh’s infamous Information and Communication Technology Act, which could see him jailed for up to 14 years. The government has accused him of “spreading propaganda” but Amnesty International has declared Alam “a prisoner of conscience”.

Shahidul Alam’s arrest set off alarm bells across the world. Credit: @freeshahidulalam/Instagram

The right to record

Alam has witnessed many pivotal moments in Bangladesh’s history, starting with 1984’s people’s resistance against the then President Ershad’s military junta, and in 1990 when people forced him to step down. In 1991, the country saw its first free elections and Alam’s photography became an important record of Bangladesh’s democratic history. Currently, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, who has ruled the country since 2009, has repeatedly curbed dissenting voices, sparking concerns and protests about democratic freedom in the country.

Telecommunications network shutdowns to silence voices against the state are becoming all too common in the South Asian region and not just Bangladesh. Witness has previously advocated against shutting down the internet with the intention of control, viewing it as a stifling of the freedom of expression. Witness has also emphasised the importance of demanding that tech companies be more transparent in how they make their decisions, in light of Facebook’s impact on political events in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, India and others.

The ‘Right to Record’, which we view as the “right to take out a camera or cell phone and film the military and law enforcement without fear of arrest, violence, or other retaliation” has been approved by the United Nations Human Rights Council, an inter-governmental body Bangladesh has recently joined in October 2018.

Occupying the internet

With the help of cyber activists in Bangladesh and abroad, students were able to mobilise on the internet and air their message through multiple streams. As news of the protests broke into international terrain, Hasina’s government sped up the approval of a draft Road Transport Act. The Dhaka Tribune reported that the expediting of the Act, which includes the death penalty for wilfully fatal road accidents, came about due to the students’ protests.

In its trainings across the Asia Pacific region, and worldwide, Witness advocates for the use of encrypted, low bandwidth, secure messaging apps during crisis situations. In this case too, as mobile networks began to slow down and were eventually jammed, calls for using secure messaging apps like Signal and FireChat were not uncommon. Trending hashtags #RoadSafetyBD and #WeWantJustice further helped amplify student voices on social media, helping the movement gather momentum on Twitter, Instagram and beyond.

While mainstream media held back from covering the violence, videos of students desperately pleading for help and eyewitness’ recordings of state actors using violence against protestors quickly spread across social media. Facebook was also used by students and citizen journalists for live streaming videos and scheduling meetings during the protests. Meanwhile, Twitter helped grab the attention of international media:

A top tweet, according to Trendmaps

In situations where disinformation abounds, it can be a difficult task to find authentic digital evidence, and that too without endangering individuals’ lives. Over the years, Witness has shared many resources, guidelines, and tools for those curating online videos. Among these, a brief four-step guide titled ‘How to Verify Footage of Human Rights Abuse’ outlines some important techniques to determine, to the highest degree possible, whether a video is documenting something true and can be trusted.

In this manner, Witness’ Asia-Pacific team was able to collaborate with a group of students in Dhaka to publish their verified video. The students were able to verify the video’s contents by relying on accurate metadata, ensuring valuable security information remained protected but also ensuring that the  crucial information was disseminated:

Videos that are authenticated and are kept intact through an organised archiving effort thus tend to be more trustworthy. They also prove useful in a lengthier advocacy campaign or, in a courtroom. Such efforts by cyber activists operating on Reddit, a popular social news aggregation and discussion site, should be applauded. Reddit contributors continued to upload evidence on GoogleDrive, including video evidence, sidestepping the media censorship enforced by the Bangladeshi government. Live updates of the protests and the arrest of Alam was made available on the site as well as a valuable archive of digital video evidence containing testimonies.

The curation and collation of all information pertaining to the situation in Dhaka in a single, secure, recorded space safeguards valuable evidence that may come to greater use, especially in situations like the current scenario where where videos uploaded have mysteriously disappeared after the telecommunications ban was lifted. Not only that, digital archiving serves to preserve a capsule of the moment, recorded for posterity.

Eyes on Bangladesh

The government’s treatment of protestors has been appalling. The Bangladeshi government has been looking into further controlling social media by installing a body to monitor cyber threats. It has recently deployed security agencies to assist in this crackdown against dissent, already arresting individuals for allegedly posting anti-state videos. It has also looked to Facebook for cooperation in this endeavour.

The new Digital Security Act, the draft of which has been slammed by the country’s journalists, is set to further stifle freedom of expression and will see Bangladesh violate its obligations to several international covenants. The government has also recently endorsed a Broadcasting Bill with new restrictions and approved a Mass Media Employees Bill which will governing working hours and leave.

International human rights organisations and media institutions such as Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, World Press Photo, the Pulitzer Center, the International Federation of Journalists, amongst others, continue to highlight Alam’s unjust imprisonment. Worldwide, condemnation for his incarceration has been growing, with eminent public intellectuals including Arundhati Roy, Vijay Prasad, Eve Ensler, Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky issuing a joint statement about Alam. In NepalIndia and Sri Lanka too, journalists, artists and activists have been demanding Alam’s release, showing no signs of giving up.

A movement that started with calls for road safety has, indeed, shown the world that there is a lot more at stake here – the future of a nation and its youths’ fundamental freedoms. Will it chart a course towards meaningful change, away from a long history of subduing student-led dissent? All eyes are now on Bangladesh.

Meghana Bahar is a communication consultant For Witness Asia-Pacific. This article originally appeared on the Witness blog. You can read the original here

Featured image credit: Reuters