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Six Months in Jail For an 'Offensive' Facebook Status Update

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Last August, Muhammad Ruhul Amin Khandaker, a lecturer of the Department of Information and Technology at Jahangirnagar University in Bangladesh, updated his Facebook status to comment on a series of fatal road traffic accidents.

A well-known local filmmaker had recently died, so had a well-known journalist. With a heavy dose of irony the lecturer asked on his Facebook profile why the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, couldn't suffer a similar fate.

Maybe it wasn't clever or very funny, but expressing the wish that a political leader could vanish is the kind of thing stated all over the internet on a daily basis. Clearly there is a line to be drawn between people just wishing they did not have to endure politicians in their life and people who are directly making a threat to the life of an elected leader.

That line is called common sense. But in this case the Bangladeshi government doesn't seem to possess a great deal of it as the High Court just sentenced Khandaker to six months in jail. He was absent from the court, on a visit to Australia, and is clearly not in a hurry to return home as the Bangladeshi authorities are now exploring how to extradite him so he can serve out his sentence.

The Bangladeshi government has something of a track record with Facebook - which is by far the most popular social network in the country. In May 2010 they blocked Facebook access because of satirical images of the prophet Muhammad.

At least this is the official story - I was in Dhaka recently and sitting next to a Member of Parliament, Dr Akram Chowdhury, just as a group of bloggers decided to give him a hard time over the Facebook ban. Dr Chowdhury's main bone of contention was that pornographic images had been uploaded to Facebook featuring the superimposed heads of political leaders.

At that time the government didn't know how to stop it. They panicked and shut down access to the entire network across the entire nation. Dr Chowdhury vowed that the government was now more mature in their attitude to social networks and as Chair of the centre for e-Parliament research he should be in the know.

But if this is the case then how can a university lecturer who makes a crass joke about the prime minister deserve a jail sentence?

There are many governments across the world that are going to have to learn about how to deal with citizens that can talk, share information, and self-broadcast far more easily than ever before. If a politician takes a bribe in one small town, the citizens can now broadcast it to the entire nation. If a politician gets drunk and tries driving his car home the citizens can broadcast photos to the entire nation.

Shutting access to the Internet and individual social networks, such as Facebook, is not possible without resorting to the totalitarian political control of a state like China.

If a government wants to be seen as democratic in this new era of online social discourse then they need to realise, you can't jail everyone who is critical of the prime minister - the jails would be full by tomorrow afternoon.

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