Bangladesh unbans Facebook; Viber and WhatsApp remain blocked

Following a 21-day blackout, the government of Bangladesh has lifted the ban on social network Facebook, however mobile messaging applications WhatsApp and Viber continue to remain blocked by the country’s internet service providers.

Tweets began to pour in from internet users in Bangladesh on Thursday, displaying relief that the country-wide censorship of the world’s second most visited website had ended. For the last three weeks, many users had resorted to VPN services and other geo-unblock tools to cirvumvent the restrictions.

According to a statement by the Telecoms minister Tarana Halim, Facebook is now once again accessible in Bangladesh, however restrictions on Viber and WhatsApp will remain in place for an indefinite period, on the grounds that the messengers are being used by parties harmful to national security.

The minister stated at a press-conference in the country’s capital Dhaka – “As per recommendation from the home ministry, we have given directives to all the telecom service providers to unblock Facebook immediately”.

On 18th November, 2015, the government of Bangladesh had ordered national ISPs to block Facebook, Viber and WhatsApp after two opposition leaders lost their appeals against the death penalty. Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and Ali Ahsan Mujahid were convicted of war crimes commited during the turbulent independence conflict in 1971. Their executions raised fears of social unrest, prompting the government to impose censorship measures in a bid to halt the spread of opposition agenda among the country’s youth.

In 2013, Bangladesh experienced deadly clashes between opposition activists and the police. The uprising was sparked by similar convictions and resulted in over 500 deaths – an outcome that the current government is desparate to avoid.

Furthermore, recent murders of foreigners and secular publishers, both of which were claimed by the so-called Islamic State, have put the country on edge, leaving little surprise as to why the government had decided to block access to popular methods of online communication.

Temporary censorship has become a common move by governments, intended to stifle the flow of information online, in particular, criticism of the national government as well as debate. Similar initiatives are frequently observed in countries including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the People’s Republic of China, where elections or controversial events often trigger a wave of public discussion and dissent on popular websites, forums and instant messengers. Due to this, governments are often quick to impose firewalls, fully blocking access to certain forums, deemed to be harmful to national stability.

In the meantime, there has been no indication on whether WhatsApp or Viber will become accessible any time soon. And with the encryption heating up in Western Europe and the United States, it’s looking unlikely that the applications will become available without the help of geo-unblock resources.

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