Despite protests from different quarters, especially journalists, Bangladesh on Monday turned its much debated Digital Security Bill into an act with the president’s signature.
On September 19, the parliament of Bangladesh passed the bill unanimously. Soon after, the Editors Council of Bangladesh — a platform for the editors of the national dailies — sat with the top ministers on September 29 demanding some sections of the Bill be changed before President Abdul Hamid signed it into an act.
Anisul Haq, the country’s law minister, promised that he would discuss the issues, but in the end Hamid signed the bill without waiting.
The Digital Security Act contains provisions to give heavy jail sentences of up to 14 years for secretly recording government officials or spreading “negative propaganda” about the country’s liberation war or about Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who is known as the “father of the nation.”
Journalists fear that these provisions of the act will work against conducting investigative journalistic work and will compromise the quality of journalism in the country. Those provisions could also be used against the people whom the government deems as dissenters.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, however, in a press briefing last week said those who practice honest journalism and have no “criminal mindset” or “any plan to commit an offense” need not to worry about “any provisions of the act.”
The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition party of the country and the arch-rival of the ruling Awami League, termed this Act as a “Black Law.” BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir called the Awami League-led government a “hypocrite” as it had assured the Editors’ Council steps would be taken to amend some “controversial” sections of the Digital Security Bill, but it was made law without any amendment.
What’s in the Act?
The act was passed without addressing journalists’ concern over sections 21, 25, 28, 31, 32, and 43, which journalists and the media rights activists believe would go against the freedom of speech and independent journalism if passed.
Section 21 of the Digital Security Act says anyone spreading or instigating negative propaganda against the Liberation War or the Father of the Nation Sheikh Mujibur Rahman using digital devices will risk being sentenced to up to 14 years in jail or a fine of up to 10 million Bangladeshi taka (roughly $120,000) or both.
Section 25 says a person may face up to three years in jail or Tk 300,000 in fines or both if found to have deliberately published or broadcast on a website or in electronic form something to tarnish the image of the state or to spread rumors.
Section 28 says a person may face up to seven years in jail or Tk 1,000,000 in fines or both if found to have deliberately published or broadcast something on a website or in electronic form to hurt religious sentiment and values.
Section 31 says a person may face up to seven years in jail or Tk 500,000 lakh in fines or both if found to have deliberately published or broadcast something on a website or in electronic form which can spread hatred and create enmity among different groups and communities and can cause deterioration of law and order.
Section 32 says a person may face up to 14 years in jail or Tk 2,500,000 in fines or both on charges of computer spying or digital spying if he or she illegally enters the offices of a government, semi-government, autonomous, or statutory body and collects, preserves, or sends any top secret or secret documents through a computer, digital device, computer network, digital network, or any electronic form and help others to do that.
Section 43 says a police official can search or arrest anyone without a warrant issued by a court.
Why the Concern?
Those provisions listed above are in part intended to replace Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act of 2006, which has been censured by different local and international rights organizations for silencing the voice of dissenters and curbing the freedom of expressions in the country.
Hundreds of people, including several journalists, have already been accused under Section 57 for criticizing the government, political leaders, and others. On August 5 this year, internationally acclaimed Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam was arrested under Section 57 of the ICT Act for “spreading misinformation and propaganda” against the government.
Alam was voicing support for a student-led protest demanding safer roads in Bangladesh. During an interview with Al Jazeera, he claimed the broader context of the protest in Bangladesh was pent-up anger at government corruption and misuse of power.
A detailed report prepared by the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that members and supporters of the ruling Awami League party have exploited Section 57 of the ICT Act to file numerous complaints alleging that online speech has defamed or prejudiced the prime minister, other government officials, or the ruling party.
As for the new Digital Security Act, the HRW said, the new law “replaces the much-criticized ICT Act, retains the most problematic provisions of that law, and adds more provisions criminalizing peaceful speech.”
“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,” said Brad Adam, Asia Director of HRW. “With at least five provisions criminalizing vaguely defined types of speech, the law is a license for wide-ranging suppression of critical voices.”
Criticizing the act, Dr. Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of the Bangladesh chapter of Berlin-based Transparency International (TI), said that giving recognition to the Official Secrecy Act of the British colonial era under Section 32 of the Digital Security Act “is a backward-looking move.”
“The law will pose a big threat and create a sense of insecurity among journalists, particularly among investigative journalists,” he said.
Mahfuz Anam, secretary general of the Editor’s Council, termed the passing of this law as a “sad event for freedom of expression and independent journalism and as such for democracy.”
“This law is incongruent with the intellectual environment of digital age. The growth of digital Bangladesh will be stifled by this Digital Security Act,” said Anam, who is also the editor and publisher of The Daily Star, Bangladesh’s largest English daily.
Faisal Mahmud is a Dhaka-based journalist.