Bangladesh police said they detained 97 people last week “for violence and incitement on social media” during protests for better road safety that began after two school children were killed by a speeding bus in Dhaka.

The police cybercrime chief said more than 1,000 Facebook accounts were investigated for spreading “rumors” during the nine days of unrest, when supporters of the ruling Awami League party and police allegedly assaulted protesters.

Matters are tense in the country that is due to hold a general election in a few months. Sheikh Hasina, the current prime minister, has been in power for 10 years, and the last election in January 2014 was marred by a boycott by the main opposition parties. Bangladesh is at a critical juncture; Hasina has international support for another term but is losing support at home.

“We heard about sexual assault and killing of protesters,” Nishat, a student at BRAC University, alleged [name changed]. But nearly 48 hours after the violence, an internet blackout was implemented across Dhaka. When connectivity was restored, videos on the protests were found to have disappeared.

Set to face an election at the end of this year, the government also sent out text messages saying that reports of sexual assaults and killings were rumors.

Evidence or rumors?

A student at Dhaka’s University of Asia Pacific, Afreen [name changed] said the first few days of the protest were devoid of violence, as students had made people aware of traffic rules, created lanes and checked drivers’ licenses. They even garnered praise from the public for their work. “Then protesters in Jhigatola were attacked. [And] we still have no official record of what happened,” Afreen said.

“There is no way for us to tell what is true and what isn’t,” Nishat said. She shared video posts with a friend, of a girl crying about protesters being taken to a particular area and sexually assaulted, a boy being apparently beaten to death and people in civilian clothes beating student protesters, to dissuade her from joining protests. But the videos disappeared after the internet shutdown was lifted.

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Screengrabs of Nishat’s messages to her friend during the protests, which show that videos she sent earlier are now ‘unavailable’. Photo: Suryatapa Mukherjee

Nishat alleged that student protesters at East West University were assaulted by people in civilian clothes, wearing helmets and carrying sticks. Even rubber bullets and tear gas were used, she said. Protesters had shared videos of the incident with students at Nishat’s university (BRAC), through Facebook Live, to ask for help.

Richard Sambrook, a former British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) executive and head of the Centre for Journalism at Cardiff University, said shutting down independent communication was one of the first tactics governments adopt when a protest becomes a threat to political stability. “This has been true in China, Iran, the Middle East – and it seems Bangladesh is adopting the same approach,” he said.

Padmini Ray Murray, a professor of Digital Humanities at India’s Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, said: “If there is any violence, the government uses that to shut down the internet”, adding that the primary reason given for the shutdown was that online rumors fuel violence. “Technology is incredibly creative and there is no way a government can stop messages from getting out apart from a blanket ban. Even in China, people use blocked social media services with VPN,” Murray said.

Curbing internet freedom

“Communicating on a broad scale, independent of government or major communication companies, is facilitated by social media, mobile phones and the internet. Therefore social media, or services like WhatsApp or Telegram, can be extremely powerful tools for political resistance and protest,” Sambrook said.

In 2015, Bangladesh’s neighbor India struck down a law that allowed police to make discretionary arrests of people making “offensive” posts. Police had used that provision, Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, to arrest several people, including a cartoonist, a professor, students and industrialists, especially when their posts were seen as critical of politicians.

After 66A was taken down, however, an expert committee appointed by the Narendra Modi-led government proposed amendments to a cocktail of laws to curb hate speech online. With this, Murray said, the Indian government was largely trying to make it easier to arrest people for “disruptive social media content.”

Similarly, Bangladesh’s Information and Communication Technology Act, used for scores of arrests since 2013, has been widely criticized for restricting freedom of expression online. Members and supporters of the ruling Awami League party have exploited the law to file numerous complaints against people critical of prime minister Hasina, other government officials, or the ruling party on the internet.

The law is also being used to detain people like acclaimed photographer Shahidul Alam and actress Quazi Nawshaba Ahmed, for comments made during the protests. Alam was also accused of making false and provocative statements on Al Jazeera and in a Facebook Live stream.

“It’s an unelected government, so they do not really have the mandate to rule but they have been clinging on by brute force,” Alam had told Al Jazeera. He was referring to Awami League’s controversial 2014 election victory, following the opposition boycott. More than half the seats were left uncontested and voter turnout was just 22%.

“They have misruled for so long that if they do lose [the election], they will be torn apart. So they have to hang on by any means. And that’s exactly what they are doing,” Alam said.

Afreen said she was not receiving verification codes on her phone anymore, which prevented her from using messaging and social media app WeChat, during the protests. She claims she was also locked out of Twitter, after using the platform to exchange protest-related information with fellow students.

Call for help

“Mainstream media in Bangladesh are all biased towards the government. Journalists are sharing videos of the violence on their social media but they are not covering it on their news channels,” Nishat said. “So, we are thinking… maybe we can get some result by garnering international media attention,” she said.

Popular global vloggers Nas Daily and Drew Binksy covered the protests and the subsequent violence in their videos. They said they received many appeals from Bangladeshis, asking them to talk about the issue. Their videos remain outside the Bangladeshi government’s jurisdiction.

Murray said it’s hard to regulate the internet precisely because it is a global media forum. “Different countries have different laws and different understandings of democratic freedom. That is why China has cut itself off completely in terms of the internet. It has its own web sphere that it uses,” she said.

“If a government is not receptive or repressive then seeking support – either financial or political – from outside the country’s borders can be a source of strength and leverage,” Sambrook said.

But it remains to be seen if international attention will lead to actual change for Bangladeshi citizens. For now, protesters have gone quiet, and more arrests are expected.