The country was shocked to learn about a transnational sex trafficking ring that operated via the Tik Tok app.
In late May, a video clip of a 22-year-old Bangladeshi woman surfaced on social media in which she was being tortured and sexually assaulted in the Indian city of Bengaluru. The Indian police arrested a Bangladeshi person named Rifadul Islam alias TikTok Ridoy, along with five other Bangladeshis from Bengaluru, all of whom were allegedly involved in recording the video.
A few days later, another Bangladeshi woman trafficked to India fled and returned home after 77 days and filed a case under the country’s Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act.
These two incidents prompted Bangladesh’s police to conduct an extensive investigation, which led to the unearthing of a sinister network of human trafficking operating within the country. Turns out the social networking platform TikTok was used as a medium to lure young, gullible teenaged girls and force them into sex work in India.
Transnational sex trafficking is not new to Bangladesh. Around 500,000 Bangladeshi women and children aged between 12-30 years have been illegally sent to India over the last decade, according to anti-human trafficking NGOs. But this is likely the first known instance of trafficking on such a large scale occurring via TikTok.
Bangladesh’s police also found a Facebook group where the young people meeting on TikTok were later added. After befriending the victims, gang members offered them 'well-paid' jobs in India and eventually trafficked them via border districts.
A possible ban
Following such findings, the Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies have increased the surveillance on TikTok and other platforms like Likee. They are also considering banning those platforms.
Khandakar Al Moin, the spokesperson of Bangladesh’s elite police force Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), told TRT World that they are set to submit a proposal for banning TikTok and Likee.
“Apps like these have an adverse effect on youths. Besides, we have recently unearthed some human trafficking rings who use TikTok and lured young girls over the app by promising well-paid jobs across the border and, later on, sold them as sex workers in India,” said Moin.
The RAB official said, the transnational gang comprises at least 50 members and has smuggled some 500 girls aged between 18-22 to India in the last five years.
“This has only been discovered in recent times. We have already increased our surveillance in TikTok and Likee but we believe this is the right time to ban these platforms in Bangladesh,” he said.
Moin however said the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) would have the final say on the issue of banning TikTok and Likee. “We can only send them the proposal.”
Mostafa Jabaar, Bangladesh’s telecommunication minister whose ministry looks after BTRC told TRT World that he hasn’t received any formal proposal for banning TikTok or Likee.
Jabbar, who earlier declared war against pornography and blocked over 20,000 porn sites in Bangladesh, said social media platforms like TikTok does more harm than good. “Young people are going astray because of these types of platforms.”
Not for the first time
This is not Bangladesh’s first brush with TikTok. In November 2018, the Bangladesh government blocked access to TikTok, and in August 2020, the authorities requested the service to remove 10 videos that were uploaded from the country.
The fast-paced mashups propelled the growth of Tik Tok. The Chinese video-sharing platform has almost 700 million users worldwide as of 2021 and its business model has inspired other apps to emulate its features. The Likee app has also garnered a significant worldwide following of over 150 million users.
In December last year, a Bangladeshi Supreme Court lawyer filed a writ petition at the High Court seeking a ban on platforms like TikTok, Likee and Bigo Live, stating that these apps were hurting the younger generation.
TikTok has been banned in a number of countries, including Indonesia, India and Pakistan, for varying periods.
Indonesia had temporarily banned TikTok in July 2018 after the government accused it of promulgating “pornography, inappropriate content and blasphemy”. The ban was lifted eight days later after the social media service had pledged to task 20 staffers with censoring content in the country.
The service was temporarily banned in Pakistan, too. The order was later reversed after TikTok pledged that they would remove objectionable content.
The TikTok ban in India continues to be in effect since June 29, 2020, however.
Will a ban work in Bangladesh?
Bangladeshi social media analyst Asruf Ul Jubair told TRT World that in this era of “short attention spans,” platforms like Tiktok or Likee have become indispensable.
“TikTok contents need very minimal-set ups, only a smart-phone with an internet connection would do, contrary to the professional level equipment used by many popular Youtubers, thus allowing access to the economically marginalized people to take part in the cyber-entertainment world and create contents,” said Jubair.
Analyst Jubair said these rather minimal set-ups and skills required by TikTok and similar platforms have prompted a lot of young girls to upload video content and later become victims of sex trafficking.
Besides, he said, TikTok is on the 2020 dirty dozen list for various reasons that include the app's default public account setting and lack of in-app reporting systems for sexually explicit content.
“While TikTok does have reporting options and guidelines, sexually suggestive content is still uploaded and shared on the app,” he said.
Jubair however believes a blanket ban of TikTok or Likee will not work now. “People can easily access those with the help of VPN (virtual private networks). Such a ban would fail to rein in the usage of those apps,” he said.
Salma Ali, president of Bangladesh National Woman Lawyers' Association and an adviser to the Human Trafficking Monitoring Cell under the home ministry told TRT World that the trafficking of Dhaka-based girls to India should be considered a "terrible crime and a huge failure" of the law enforcement agencies.
“The easy access of this trafficking network to its victims— the gang targeted school and college students, and sometimes young housewives — demonstrates a glaring gap in digital literacy and digital safety in Bangladesh,” she said.
“Instead of putting a ban on platforms like TikTok and Likee, the government should find a better way to monitor these platforms so that such crimes can’t take place using these platforms”.