Archive for the 'Censorship' Category

Statement on Bangladesh Blocking YouTube

One week ago, in the face of the violence that killed over 60 people, I praised the Government of Bangladesh. Why? Because they showed a measured,  fair, and just response and (equally important) the Government of Bangladesh did not resort to censoring the internet. People were free and clear to use whatever site they wished… until now.

As reported by many people on Twitter, some Bangladesh-based blogs, and as personally verified by me over a 24 hour period from two different cities and various ISPs, Bangladesh appears to be blocking access to YouTube. If you are tech savvy, there are (legal) ways you can bypass this, but for the average person with an internet connection – YouTube is more or less blocked.

I still hold out hope that this is some weird, multi-city, multi-ISP glitch that has caused this. Because I still hold hope that Bangladesh will not pursue the route that many of its neighbors in this region have pursued by blocking the free flow of information. Yes, I realize that such a free flow of information will always be a security risk. But, it has also done a lot of good – and this project is a testament to that.

Using nothing but a laptop, a camcorder, and access to YouTube – I have been able to show first hand the struggles of those who survived Cyclone Sidr, I have been able to break stereotypes by showing that the poorest of the poor (especially in Bangladesh) are some of the hardest working people on the planet, and, most importantly, we’ve been able to touch and help a great many people.

I’ve seen how YouTube can be used as a force for good. If this indeed an official government position to block YouTube, Bangladesh will ultimately lose more than it will gain.

A Day of Stress

If you’ve been following me on Twitter, you know these past few days have been rather stressful. Here’s why:

First, now that a site has been selected for the Pond Sand Filter (which is what you guys voted for by leaving comments and video responses on the video I made called “Challenge Poverty”), the task is now to get this done on-time and on-budget. Save the Children is trying their best of course – but Murphy’s Law is always in-effect for this kind of work 🙁

The other big thing I’m stressing about is that it appears that YouTube is now blocked in Bangladesh. This isn’t the first time that Google services have been inaccessible from Bangladesh. I’m not going to jump the gun and say it’s government censorship. But, thus far, I’ve confirmed that YouTube is inaccessible in two different cities in Bangladesh through numerous internet service providers includingL the ISP I use while in Dhaka, GrameenPhone which I use while in the field, and even the internet service that Save the Children uses for its offices here in Bangladesh.

This could be a glitch or a temporary block. But, if indeed the government is restricting access to YouTube, this definitely puts a kink in this project. There are still tons of (legal) ways to make sure I can get new videos onto the UnculturedProject YouTube channel, but this makes everything harder. And YouTube is more than just a place to upload or watch videos – it’s about access to a community. And it’s that community that has been a huge source of support for this work.

Finally, I’ve been stressed a lot lately because, even if everything goes according to plan – there is no such thing as “perfect”. When it comes to providing safe and clean drinking water to rural villages, verything has its pros and cons. A deep tube well has the risk of arsenic, iron, and (depending on where you are in the country) of salt water. A pond sand filter, on the other hand, only works as well as the community that is maintaining it. If they don’t maintain it – it will just gather dust. And even if they do maintain it, they are only designed to last 3 or so years at normal use.

Hopefully I’ll catch a break somewhere: be it restoring access to YouTube or getting this Pond Sand Filter done on-time and/or within-budget.

“No Good Deed…” – The Trouble of Raising Awareness in Bangladesh

As soon as I saw the look on his face, I knew something was wrong. I was in a DHL shipping office in Dhaka City. Just outside was a dusty back-alley full of the pungent aroma that can only be caused by the mixture of open sewers and rotting garbage. Inside, however, was an office that wouldn’t seem out of place in any major modern city – complete with porcelain white walls, fancy computers, and various scanning equipment. The contrast was quite surreal. It was only the look on the DHL guy’s face that reminded me just exactly where I was.

“Umm…. what is this?” he asked as he picked up and examined what I had just put on the counter. Now, I was the one with a confused look. Even across the counter, I could still see the object – clearly labeled: ‘SONY DV Tape’.

“It’s a tape”
I answered.

“A tape of what?”
the DHL guy asked. Taken somewhat aback by the question, I answered, “an interview”.

“An interview of what?”
the DHL guy asked. This exchange continued back and forth in ever increasing personal questions (what’s it for? why are you sending this? what’s it going to be used for?) until finally the DHL guy said “Sorry, we can’t ship this”. In hindsight, I probably would have got hassled less if I had been asking to ship a pound of cocaine and a loaded gun. Because, in this small South Asian country, one of the most controlled and restricted items for export is video footage.

For the average visitor to this country, Bangladesh seems like a fairly open country. Most people can come off a plane, go through customs, and vacation in places like Cox’s Bazar (the world’s longest unbroken beach) with relatively little hassle (and take their tourist videos back home with them). But, for those trying to make a difference here – whether it be helping the poor or raising awareness about poverty – the government of Bangladesh makes it as hard as possible. The only reason I’ve been able to do what I’m doing without interference – for the most part – is because I’ve been able to be small scale enough to stay under the radar.

But this was one of those times I had bumped into some hurdles. It all started with my recent trip to Jalchatra, Bangladesh where I encountered a Catholic priest who got infected by malaria. He got infected not once, not twice… but nearly forty times during an eleven year period. Two of those infections were cerebral malaria – a disease so dangerous it can cause death in just under a week. I interviewed him on camera (which I’ll put on YouTube in the future) but I also thought this might be footage worth sharing on a global scale for World Malaria Day this coming April. A contact of mine in Switzerland, was more than willing to take a copy of the raw footage and use it as part of their global awareness campaign.

Unfortunately, getting this footage to him is proving to be next to impossible. Unless I can pass this tape onto someone who is flying out of the country (so they can put it in their carry-on as tourist footage) than this tape will never reach Switzerland. I’d like to say that this problem is just an unintended consequence of a draconian law. But, in reality, it’s footage like this that the Bangladesh government wishes to stop. Journalists and aid workers are among the most scrutinized people in the country. While poverty in Bangladesh is no secret, some of the regions with the most suffering (such as the Chittagong Hill-Tracts, where this priest was repeatedly infected by malaria) are closed off to foreigners without express written permission.

This also isn’t the first time I’ve run into trouble with customs while trying to do my independent aid work. In one of my YouTube videos, I briefly touch upon the fact that some of my aid items were being held in customs despite being legal items of shipment. I eventually was able to retrieve these items after giving over $100 USD in bribes (aka “commissions” as the bureaucrats call them). The more time I spend on the ground in Bangladesh, the more I am convinced that ending poverty not only requires mobilizing governments abroad into action – but also ending the intentional immobilization caused by the local governments right here in the developing world.

Google Blocked? An Update.

There is a good reason I have a link to the blog called “The Third World View“. The author of that blog (Rezwan) is one of the hardest working bloggers I know. When it comes to issues about Bangladesh the guy never seems to sleep. And, when it comes to his investigative journalism, he often puts the mainstream media to shame. In fact, his recent investigation has lifted a weight off my chest.

About a week ago, I broke the story that Bangladesh was blocking access to Google and its related web services (like GMail, Blogspot, Blogger, and so on). This ended up becoming the most linked to story I have ever written in my life. But many local Bangladeshis decided to take a “if it’s not true for me – it must be false” approach and contradicted my report both on this site and elsewhere. When access to Google was restored a day or so later – I apologized for being so alarmist and wrote the whole problem off as a technical glitch.

While I was busy apologizing, Rezwan was busy fact-checking my story. First, he was able to get independent confirmation of Google being blocked from other Bangladeshi internet users during the same time. Second, he was also able to verify that this problem existed on even more ISPs than I had originally reported. Finally, he was also able to get independent confirmation that access to some Google services were restored with tools like OpenDNS (which bypass Bangladesh DNS servers) and TOR (which bypasses censorship and filtering).

But what really shows off Rezwan’s investigative acumen is his analysis of why there were conflicting reports about Google being blocked in Bangladesh and why this might in fact have been intentional censorship instead of a technical glitch.

A summary of his analysis after the jump….. Continue reading ‘Google Blocked? An Update.’

Living with Censorship

Coming to Bangladesh has given me a greater appreciation for all the freedoms we enjoy in America and elsewhere in the Western World. Sometimes I think we forget just how free things are over there. In the United States, if my cellphone wasn’t working and if I couldn’t get online with my computer, I would just assume that I wasn’t getting any reception and that I had a bad internet connection. I could never imagine, as did actually happen here in Bangladesh, that the government would order the shutdown of cellphone networks and internet access gateways.

In America, when I watch 24-hour news programs like CNN, MSNBC or Fox News, I know they can each have their own bias – but they are allowed to say what they want. I could never imagine that the government would forcibly shut down any one of these stations because one of them said something the government didn’t like. But that’s exactly what happened to CSB – Bangladesh’s only 24-hour news network. After airing footage of anti-government protests, the government shut down the station. (I am linking to the CSB entry in Wikipedia because the government not only took the station off the air, but also shutdown their website as well)

Eventually, I’m sad to say, this kind of censorship changes how you react. So, when I and others were consistently unable to access many Bangladeshi blogs hosted on Blogspot – my first reaction was to assume that this was a new form of government censorship. Blocking blogs is not something new – Pakistan and Turkey do it presently for WordPress.com (and, previously, were also blocking Blogspot.com). But, sometimes – as it seems to be in this case – this was just a technical glitch that affected multiple users on multiple ISPs. Unfortunately, governments that choose to limit free speech usually don’t make press releases stating that they are going to be doing so.

Life would be much easier if every government that wanted to censor or limit free speech would make a press release saying “Oh hai! Im in ur internetz – censorinz ur speech” (and if the press release was worded like that, life would also be much cuter).