The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, the nation’s top telecommunications regulator, has ordered mobile providers to shut down all 3G and 4G services until midnight on Dec. 30, effective immediately, Al Jazeera reported on Saturday.
The mobile blackout comes on the eve of a major national election on Sunday that has resulted in violence and crackdowns on protests, and follows on other temporary shutdowns of 3G and 4G services throughout Bangladesh earlier this week, per the Straits Times. Al Jazeera wrote that the elections have been “marred by allegations of mass arrests and jailing of activists and critics, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings” under the Bangladesh Awami League government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, which has held power for a decade.
“The decision has been taken to prevent rumours and propaganda surrounding the vote,” a spokesman for the regulator, Zakir Hussain Khan, told Al Jazeera. The news network added that opposition parties had called for a heavy security presence across the country:
The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led the campaign for the deployment of over 600,000 soldiers, border patrol, paramilitary and police officers who have fanned out across the country in advance of the elections.
A spokesman for the RAB, Bangladesh’s elite security force, said on Saturday they had arrested eight men for spreading rumours on social media before the poll.
The polls, the 11th since Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan in 1971, pit 71-year-old Hasina against a united opposition helmed by Kamal Hossain, 82, an Oxford-educated lawyer and former foreign minister.
Per the Straits Times:
The BNP said on Thursday that more than 8,200 opposition leaders and activists from a coalition of about 20 parties have been arrested since early last month. Four workers were killed and more than 12,300 injured, it said.
The Awami League has sought to portray opposition parties as composed of thugs and traitors, with particular focus on its 1971 war for independence from Pakistan, Reuters recently reported.
As CNN noted, members of the opposition have boycotted polls, with the nonprofit Human Rights Watch recently releasing a report alleging “authoritarian measures, including widespread surveillance and a crackdown on free speech, have contributed to a widely described climate of fear.” The report alleged that investigators had found credible evidence of “repeated instances of arbitrary security force arrest and detention of protesters and political opposition figures, and acts of violence and intimidation by members of the ruling party’s student and youth wings,” as well as that police forces were not acting impartially during the violence.
Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, Brad Adams, told CNN that “the police and election commission should not appear to be acting like extensions of the ruling party… The violence during the campaign that has mainly targeted the opposition bears out their misgivings about unfair treatment.”
In October, Bangladesh passed a law criminalizing publishing information that is “aggressive or frightening” or “ruins communal harmony or creates instability or disorder or disturbs or is about to disturb the law and order situation” using digital devices, resulting in widespread criticism from human rights groups.
Earlier this year, after student protesters took to the streets to demand safer roads, the government similarly shut down mobile internet access across large swathes of the country. In 2015, Bangladeshi authorities blocked messaging apps Tango and Viber during protests.