Repressive laws and tactics used to silence critics as Bangladesh elected to UN Human Rights body

Civic space continues to be restricted in Bangladesh and civil society activists fears new legislation such the Digital Security Act as well as the proposed Broadcast law will further squeeze the limited space that remains. Over the last month, government critics have continued to be criminalised, while the authorities have embarked upon intensive and intrusive surveillance and monitoring of social media ahead of national elections due in Bangladesh by January 2019

Despite this, on 12th October 2018, Bangladesh was elected to the Human Rights Council for the 2019-2021 term. The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and its member organisation Odhikar said that “the government’s blatant misrepresentation of the country’s human rights situation in its candidature to the UN Human Rights Council underscores Dhaka’s duplicity and lack of political will to address the existing human rights challenges."

The organisations said that despite the government's pledge to “preserve freedom of the press and promote the constructive role of civil society and print, electronic and social media in the promotion of human rights”, authorities have increasingly limited the right to freedom of expression and the space for Bangladeshi civil society to operate. Further, they said that while the government claims that it “encourages the contribution of civil society and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to national socio-economic development, as well as to the promotion and protection of human rights”, some prominent Bangladeshi human rights NGOs continue to face harassment and restrictions.


Repressive Digital Security Act passed

On 19th September 2018, the Digital Security Act was put in front of the 350-member Bangladeshi parliament and passed with only 11 lawmakers opposing the bill, despite strong opposition from journalists and human rights campaigners.

The Digital Security Act is intended to replace certain sections of the much-criticised Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT) Act which has restricted freedom of expression in Bangladesh since 2013, and Section 57 of the law has been the provision most frequently used to bring charges against critics, activists and other dissenting voices. Scores of journalists have been arbitrarily arrested under Section 57 for their reporting. The provision has also been described as a “de facto blasphemy law”, as it criminalises anyone who “causes to hurt or may hurt religious belief”.

The new law incorporates Section 57 of the ICT Act and contains other measures that are overly broad and vague, and that impose disproportionate sentences and lengthy prison terms for offenders.

On 16 September, the Bangladesh Editors' Council in a statement rejected the bill stating that Sections 8, 21, 25, 28, 29, 31, 32 and 43 of the bill posed serious threats to freedom of expression and media. Section 21, 28, 31 and 32 are classified as non-bailable offenses.

  • Section 8 includes provisions about blocking or removing any information in the digital media over any content deemed hampering harmony, public order, or creating communal hatred, among other things;
  • Section 21 states anyone 'spreading negative propaganda against the Liberation War or the Father of the Nation, National Anthem and national flag' using digital devices or instigating to do so would be punished with imprisonment for up to life term;
  • According to Section 25, a person may be jailed up to five years for 'deliberately publishing or broadcast on a website something which is attacking or intimidating or which can make someone feel disgruntled or knowingly publishing or broadcasting false or distorted information';
  • Section 28 states if anyone hurts religious sentiments, they may face jail up to 10 years;
  • Section 29 states a person may face up to three years if they defame someone as stipulated in section 499 of the Penal Code through a website;
  • Section 31 states a person may face up to seven years in prison if they are found to have deliberately published or broadcast something on a website which can spread hatred and create enmity;
  • Section 32 states that if a person commits any crime or assists anyone in committing crimes under colonial era Official Secrets Act, 1923, through electronic medium, he or she may face a maximum 14 years in jail;
  • Section 43 allows a police officer to search or arrest anyone without any arrest warrant.

Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights watch said:

“The new Digital Security Act is a tool ripe for abuse and a clear violation of the country’s obligations under international law to protect free speech. With at least five provisions criminalising vaguely defined types of speech, the law is a license for wide-ranging suppression of critical voices.”
New Broadcast law proposed could be used to muzzle government critics

On 16th October 2018, the Bangladesh cabinet approved proposals seeking to enact a new law to regulate broadcasting media and news portals with provisions for stringent punishments like cancellation of licence and jail terms of up to seven years.

According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), under the draft legislation, media outlets that publish material deemed to be "harmful to the country’s history and image, public interest or law and order" will be punished with a maximum of seven years’ jail and a fine of BDT 50 million (USD 588,000).

Further, a broadcasting commission would also be established to help ‘regulate the electronic media in keeping with the international practices and standard for ensuring objectivity, neutrality and accountability of mass media’. The broadcasting commission would be responsible for licenses of private media outlets, and under the proposed bill, airing materials that may pose threat to national security and sovereignty or may appear satirical to national ideology will be prohibited.

The IFJ said:

“The restrictive provisions under the draft Broadcasting Bill will only work to further curtail press freedom and independent journalism in Bangladesh. We urge the Bangladesh Government to hold extensive consultations with the media community to ensure the laws do not impede on press freedom and independent journalism.”

Journalists in Bangladesh, speaking to media have criticised the draft legislation with some saying it was aimed at protecting corrupt officials. Most asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.

Crackdown on Social Media

On 19th October 2018, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the Bangladesh government has embarked upon "intensive and intrusive surveillance and monitoring of social media" ahead of national elections. According to HRW, police in Bangladesh have registered hundreds of complaints under the Information and Communication Technology Act, including against authors of social media posts and journalists criticising the political leadership and the ruling Awami League party.

The organisation said that ahead of national elections due in Bangladesh by January 2019, opposition parties and independent observers fear that the increasing crackdown on privacy and free expression is an attempt to limit speech and criticism of the government in the election period.

HRW also reported that the government, on 9 October, announced the formation of a nine-member monitoring cell to “detect rumours” on social media, including Facebook. The state minister for post and telecommunication, Tarana Halim, said that content that threatens communal harmony, disturbs state security, or embarrasses the state would be considered rumors and sent to the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission for filtering or blocking.

Bangladesh has 28 million Facebook users. Since social media emerged as a key tool to express dissent and organise protests, the authorities have monitored various platforms and internet-based communication. This has already led to arrests for using social media to criticise the government.

Government critic facing defamation charge

On 22nd October, police arrested a prominent critic of the government, Moinul Hosein on defamation charges under the new Digital Security Act. He was detained from Dhaka's Uttara neighbourhood hours after Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina slammed him for his comments against a pro-government female journalist.

Hosein, 78, was a key organiser of the recently formed alliance between the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and other centrist parties. The Prime Minister attacked Hosein for his comments against the woman journalist whom he described as "characterless", accusing him of collaborating with Pakistan during Bangladesh's war of independence. The Prime Minister asked female journalists to protest Hosein's remark and urge them to file cases against him. Hosein has since apologised for the remarks. Moinul Hosein is now facing nine defamation cases filed against him for his remarks.

Photojournalist Shahidul Alam still being denied bail

As previously documented by the CIVICUS Monitor, 63 year-old Shahidul Alam, a well-known photojournalist and activist was detained by on 5th August 2018, hours after giving an interview to Al-Jazeera English on student protests in Dhaka. He was charged a day later under Section 57 of the ICT Act for making "false" and "provocative" statements.

Since the arrest, his lawyers have submitted five formal bail requests. On 7th October the High Court issued a one-week deadline for the government to explain why it is holding Shahidul Alam indefinitely without bail. However, state prosecutor, Bashir Ullah, said the government was “not bound” to submit a written response to the High Court ruling but would give an oral reply at the next hearing that was scheduled on 21 October. This was again delayed and its uncertain when the next hearing is going to be held.


Health rights activist facing charges

Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury, a prominent health rights activist and Right Livelihood laureate (widely referred to as the 'Alternative Nobel Prize',) is facing numerous charges. On 15th October, the Bangladesh government ordered the police to investigate him on charges of treason. The country’s military has accused Zafrullah Chowdhury of making false statements against the Bangladeshi Army chief in a television show aired on 9thOctober 2018. The military claimed Chowdhury had made “sudden and irrelevant” comments that were “targeted, motivated and plotted to spread stir among the armed forces and [were] tantamount to treason”. Since then other charges have been filed against him including cases related to land grabbing and extortion. Zafrullah Chowdhury has denied the allegations against him. It is believed that the charges have been brought against him due to his role in unifying the new opposition coalition ahead of the elections.

Opposition party activities disrupted

According to human rights group Odhikar, police arrested leaders and members of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), a day before they a planned public meeting at Suhrawardy Udyan in Dhaka on 30th September 2018. In one incident, police stopped a vehicle carrying BNP members near Birulia Bridge in Savar and arrested 13 individuals who were traveling to Dhaka city to join the meeting. The party also claimed that at least 250 members were arrested on the way home after attending the meeting.

In a separate incident, on 10th September 2018, Odhikar reported that a group of plainclothes police arrested BNP leaders in front of the National Press Club, Dhaka while they were attending a peaceful human chain organised by BNP, demanding better treatment and release of BNP‟s imprisoned chairperson Khaleda Zia. Among them, 53 were reportedly arrested.

Peaceful Assembly

Student protesters arbitrarily detained outside the law for six days

On 5th September 2018, 38 students from the Mohakhali, Tejkunipara and BG Press areas of Dhaka were arrested for allegedly being involved in the ‘quota reform‟ and road safety’ protests. Police informed their guardians that they had been taken to Tejgaon Police Station but when they contacted the station the police told the students were at the Detective Branch (DB) office. When they then contacted the DB office, they were not provided any information.

On 6th September 2018, 26 of those arrested were released but 12 remained detained. According to their guardians those released were allegedly tortured during interrogation about their involvement in the protests. The 12 students include Saifullah, Al Amin, Jahirul Islam Hasib, Mujahidul Islam, Jahangir Alam, Gazi M Borhan Uddin, Tarek Aziz, Mahfuz, Raihanul Abedin, Iftekhar Alam, Tarek Aziz and Mehedi Hasan Rajib.

The 12 were detained for another six days in violation of existing law, before they were brought to court and placed on a two-day remand on allegations of being involved in a police assault case, while one of the 12, Tarek Aziz was remanded for two more days in another case filed under the ICT Act.

Photographers demand release of Shahidul Alam

On 17th October 2018, around sixty photographers attended a demonstration at the base of the Raju memorial sculpture near Dhaka University to demand the immediate release of photojournalist Shahidul Alam, Addressing the demonstration, Munira Morshed Munni said: “Shahidul Alam has already been imprisoned for 70 days, merely for expressing his views. We demand his immediate release”. Taslima Akhter said: “Shahidul spoke out against irregularities and abuse of power by the government, but his speech has been labelled as conspiracy. He is still imprisoned under Section 57 of the infamous ICT Act, which was used to suppress voices of dissent”.

Editors’ Council protest to demand changes to Digital Security Act

On 15th October 2018, the Editors’ Council formed a human chain to demand changes to a number of sections of the Digital Security Act which it fears could be used to gag journalists. A total of 16 editors including Dhaka Tribune Editor Zafar Sobhan gathered in front of the National Press Club in Dhaka on Monday morning, forming the human chain and issuing seven demands in a statement. The statement said the council wants to see amendments passed in the last session of the current parliament to “ensure the freedom of the media and independent journalism”.