Passage of Digital Security Act could impose further restrictions on freedom of expression

Expression

On 29th January 2018, Bangladesh's cabinet approved the draft Digital Security Act 2018 which would replace certain sections of the existing Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, namely sections 54, 55, 56, 57 and 66. According to the government, the new law was needed to strengthen the authorities’ ability to tackle cyber crime and protect national security in Bangladesh. It will now go before parliament for consideration, possibly in the next month. The draft Digital Security Act was initially introduced in 2015, but was met with strong resistance from media workers and human rights lawyers in Bangladesh who feared it could be used to stifle legitimate criticism and public debate online.

Critics have continued to raise concerns that the draft Digital Security Act contains provisions that are broad and vague as well as disproportionate sentences that impinge on freedom of expression. It criminalises the use of electronic devices to “cause deterioration to law and order”, harm "religious sentiments”, cause incitement "against another person or organization”, and carry out “acts of defamation” - all of which have been incorporated from section 57 of the ICT Act. The government has also added the crime of “carrying out negative propaganda" against the Liberation War (1971 War of Independence) or the Father of the Nation (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country's first president) that carries a maximum sentence of up to 14 years' in jail or a fine of up to Tk 50 lakh (60,000 USD) or both. Furthermore, concerns have been raised that section 32 of the draft law related to "espionage” could be used to against journalists, online activists and lawyers who investigate and expose controversy or illegality within the government. The draft law also stipulates some crimes are “non-bailable”, and allows police to search or arrest anyone without a warrant in some circumstances.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the Bangladesh Manobadhikar Sangbadik Forum have expressed serious concerns over the provisions curtailing the freedom of expression in the draft Digital Security Act 2018, declaring that:

“...if implemented, [the Act] will not only curb the freedom of speech and expression but also impede independent journalism. Section 57 of the ICT Act was used arbitrarily to target journalists and curtain freedom of speech, and the IFJ believes the proposed act provides more grounds to grossly misuse the provisions to harass journalists and restrict freedom of expression. The IFJ urges the Bangladesh government and parliament to hold multi-stakeholder discussions and amend the draft to meet international standards before implementing it”.

Other reactions reported in the Dhaka Tribune are detailed below:

According to reports, though the new law is under consideration in parliament, cases filed under section 57 will continue to be investigated and if necessary, prosecuted.

According to Amnesty International, the ICT Act has been frequently cited as perhaps the single piece of legislation most responsible for restricting freedom of expression in Bangladesh since 2013, and section 57 of the ICT Act has been the provision most frequently used to bring charges against government critics, activists and other dissenting voices.

Section 57 violates the right to freedom of expression by both criminalising legitimate forms of expression and through its vague wording that allows the authorities to arbitrarily and abusively apply the law. According to Heiner Bielefeldt - United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief:

“[The ICT Act] undoubtedly has a chilling effect on civil society organizations, human rights activists and members of religious minority communities. It much contributes to the perception of a shrinking space for frank public discourse”.

Scores of journalists have been arrested under section 57 of the law for their reporting; around 700 cases have been filed under this section since 2013. The provision has also been described as a “de facto blasphemy law”, as it criminalises hurting or causing harm to religious beliefs. For example, persons found to have published “offensive” remarks about Islam online have often faced charges under the law.