ME and Ophelia

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

With up to half a million people still waiting to be connected - there are not that many telephones and emails to bug

Alistair Lawson, BBC Dhaka correspondent reports:

Plans to allow the authorities in Bangladesh to monitor emails and telephone conversations have provoked outrage among human rights experts and telecoms analysts.

The Bangladeshi government says the suggested proposals, which are expected to come shortly before parliament, are crucial in the battle against terrorism and lawlessness.

Telecoms analyst Abu Sayed Khan told BBC News Online, "Bangladesh already has some of the most restrictive laws in relation to internet and telephone access in the whole of Asia".

Mr Khan said that the situation has deteriorated in recent days, and that Bangladesh is one of the few countries in Asia where the right to communicate is being so systematically violated.

"The worrying thing for businessmen in particular is that these regulations make them far more vulnerable to industrial espionage and blackmail," he said.

The campaigning group, Reporters Without Borders, has also criticised the plans, arguing they would legalise invasion of privacy and undermine free expression.

"Respect for confidentiality of personal information obtained from internet service providers or through email messages, must be an unshakeable principal of any democratic society," it said in a statement.

The proposals are the latest in a long line of state supported restrictions on personal communication over the last two decades.

In the 1980's, the government tried to curtail the sale of fax machines and photocopiers, arguing that they were being used by criminal syndicates.

Members of the public complained at the time it was easier to get a gun license than a fax.

Likewise when the first mobile telephones were introduced in the late 1980's, it was necessary for subscribers to obtain "security clearance" from the authorities before they could be used.

Bangladesh has one of the lowest ratios of landline telephones per head of population in the world. It is estimated to be around seven phones for every 1000 people.

It is not uncommon for landline customers of the Bangladesh Telegraph and Telecommunications Board to wait years before they get a connection.

Earlier this year Dhaka resident Mohammed Ismail hit the headlines when he received a phone after waiting 27 years.

With up to half a million people still waiting to be connected, there are not that many telephones and emails to bug.

"The right of people to be free from the fear of crime and terrorism is more important than this small infringement of individual liberties," said a Bangladeshi Home Ministry spokesman.

# posted by Ingrid J. Jones @ 9/23/2003
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