It’s Day Three of the Facebook ban in Bangladesh. I’ve not utilised the proxy links sent by friends enabling me to get around it, nor have I done as many others have and bought a VPN account for $28 a month. When I was in Iran for a month I also didn’t use Facebook, despite the fact that I eventually found a proxy that worked. Aside from the fear of being caught by authorities in an internet café, I wanted to experience first-hand what it’s like to be denied access to the world’s most popular social networking tool. It sucks.

I’ve never regarded Bangladesh as being one of “those” countries – as a journalist working here I have very seldom felt that the press was anything but healthy and robust, especially as compared with South East Asian countries such as Vietnam. I was shocked to hear the news on Saturday night, and deeply disappointed.

After all, Bangladesh has freedom of expression enshrined in its constitution, as per the following:

39 (1) Freedom of thought, speech and conscience is guaranteed;

39 (2) Subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law, as per the following: 

(a) Against the interest of security of the State

(b) Against  friendly relations with foreign states

(c) Violation of public order

(d) Violation of decency or morality

(e) Anything related to contempt of court

(f) Defamation or incitement to any offence

“Draw Mohammad Day” is presumably a violation of morality. Ironically though, it would seem that the Bangladeshi population, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, are being punished for acts they would find offensive, and that are likely being committed outside Bangladesh. Last Friday a large rally was held in Dhaka protesting the competition – and indeed, I first heard of “Draw Mohammad Day” because I noticed my Bangladeshi friends joining the opposition group. However now that Bangladeshis can’t use Facebook, they can’t stand up (virtually) to defend their religion. On a personal level, I’m annoyed that I can’t use Facebook to keep track of upcoming events and issues in Dhaka that I might otherwise have covered in the newspaper.  To punish all Facebook users is surely disproportionate to the value of freedom of expression, especially as many Muslims had already elected to delete their account until the offensive material was removed.  And arresting a young man for drawing unflattering cartoons of the prime minister and opposition leader seems a bit… Iranian. It also seems a case of double-standards when one considers all the nasty insults that the prime minister and opposition leader hurl at one another on an almost daily basis.

“Draw Mohammad Day” was a petty, spiteful event – something for which I had total disdain. For journalistic reasons I considered joining both groups on Facebook – the drawing competition and the anti-competition, but found I couldn’t stomach monitoring either after glancing at the competition page. The comments were so ignorant, disrespectful and hateful that I simply hoped the day would pass and its group members would one day direct their energies towards something more mature (doubtful). Why don’t people ever exercise their right to free speech by saying something positive? Drawing disrespectful images of a revered religious figure was always going to provoke a strongly negative reaction – why even go there, and for what? If these people are fighting for their right to draw disrespectful images of religious figures, why don’t they move on to Buddha or Christ?

Furthermore, Facebook itself is not driving the Draw Mohammad campaign. Yes, it facilitates it, but would it be sensible to ban the use of microphones if people were using them to make nasty, riot-inducing speeches? I think not.

If you’re outside Bangladesh and you’d like to join the group “Against Facebook Ban in Bangladesh”, click here. Incidentally, this group is now ranked second in a Google search if you type in “Facebook ban in Bangladesh”…