Bangladesh: a far cry from open government

7 August 2015

Today in Dhaka, Niloy Chakrabarti, or “Niloy-Neel” as he was known online, was murdered in his home. He is the fourth blogger to be murdered this year in Dhaka - all in a brutal way, with machetes, leading the media to report it with the unthinkable phrase - they were “hacked to death”.

There have been, and there will be, many more articles calling for changes in Bangladesh. For the government to respond in an appropriate way (Chowdhury had reportedly asked for police protection just three weeks ago, and had it denied). For Bangladeshi media to support the blogger community.

But I’m writing to a different audience: the international open government community. Just a couple of weeks ago, I saw the agenda for a planned workshop run by UNDESA in Dhaka to be held at the end of the month. Its theme: “Open Government Data Sensitization, Gap Assessment, and Strategic Planning”. It made me laugh at the time - a ‘gap assessment’? Seriously?

But I don’t think it’s so funny anymore.

Bangladesh is in a terrible situation right now - for all of the above reasons, and more. Freedom of expression isn’t simply at risk, it’s disappearing before our very eyes, and the government are playing an active role in this erosion of rights. They’ve strengthened their brutal secret police - a group that Human Rights Watch has nicknamed the ‘Death Squad’- and attempted to purchase mass surveillance equipment. They passed, and enforce, draconian laws that limit the work of activists and journalists, such as the new ICT Law, which gives the government the mandate to arrest any person without warrant for spreading ‘false’ information, and put them in jail for a maximum of 14 years. In just the first three months of 2014, Article 19 reports that up to 54 people “disappeared”.

I have worked within and alongside the open government movement for years now, and I agree with many of their goals and aims. But there are some situations in which “open government” is not simply unhelpful, it’s actually harmful - and, in my opinion, this is one of them. For open government data to play a role, there are certain “building blocks” that need to be in place. Freedom of expression, for example - how is ‘data’ to help in government accountability if civil society is terrified of being put in jail for speaking up against government? Or, let’s go back to basics: how about a democratic society? Democratic elections haven’t happened for years in the country; last year, the elections took place “amidst a whirl of apprehensions, tension and violence” and a majority of seats were won in constituencies with no opposition running. How is this government being ‘open’ to help in legitimising their position?

And finally - most importantly - trust. Let’s say, best case scenario, the government goes ahead and puts their data online. In the current climate, nobody would trust that data, and nobody would use it. It is a pointless endeavour, one that wastes time, effort and resources in an already poor country, with many other problems to deal with. I understand the strength and tactics behind a multi-pronged advocacy strategy, but open government data depends at its very core upon a democracy, and that is sorely lacking here.

Giving the Bangladeshi government the opportunity to point to this internationally run, UN-supported workshop, does nothing apart from give them a possibility to hide all the bad governance they have done in recent months and years. It provides an opportunity for the worst kind of “open washing” - allowing a corrupt government to hide behind the open government movement. There are no concrete commitments being made here, as far as I know - rather, lip service to a movement that provides them with credibility, and seemingly international approval for their activities until now.

This is the exact opposite of what the international community should be doing. We should be condemning the government’s activities, not giving them credibility.

Bangladesh and its citizens don’t need open government data - they need democracy, freedom of expression, and an accountable and trusted government, and pushing for these must take priority. Pretending that the country is ready for open government data to play a role in the country’s governance is irrelevant and naive.


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