A three-year old “fake news” law in Bangladesh is reminiscent of the colonial period when the rulers punished people to suppress inconvenient truths. The country’s Digital Security Act (DSA) – a draconian law introduced in October 2018 that contains overbroad and vague provisions granting the authorities extensive powers to police the online space – has been used to arrest more than 1,000 people.
Bangladesh is not alone in this race to introduce such “fake news” laws, which are increasingly being used to suppress the right to freedom of expression. U.N. member states that have raised concerns over a global trend against freedom of expression must get their acts together and hold those who are failing to meet their human rights obligations to account. We are at a time of urgency, when authorities in many countries around the world are indulging in unlawful actions and even weaponizing laws to stifle dissent. A prime example is the deteriorating situation unfolding in Bangladesh.
In February this year, writer Mushtaq Ahmed died in prison, where he had been languishing without trial for 10 months solely for criticizing on Facebook the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Bangladeshi authorities argue that his death was natural and due to a heart attack, but it is beyond shocking that the authorities kept a 53-year-old man in prison solely for criticizing the government in a social media post.
The European Union and a dozen countries, including the United States and United Kingdom, expressed grave concern over his death and pledged to continue to engage with the government of Bangladesh to share their wider concerns about the DSA.
Despite those concerns, more people continue to be implicated under the draconian law. When labor rights activist Ruhul Amin posted on Facebook a call to protest against the death of writer Mushtaq Ahmed in prison, police arrested him on charges of “attempting to deteriorate law and order” under the DSA. He faces up to seven years in prison if convicted.
Amnesty International’s new briefing “No Space for Dissent” – released on July 26 – documents cases against 10 individuals and finds a concerning pattern in which the Digital Security Act is being used to stifle freedom of expression online in Bangladesh.
There are more people imprisoned under the law than those who have been released. Bangladesh had at least 433 prisoners under the DSA as of July 11, 2021 with the longest serving prisoner being detained since December 24, 2018, according to the country’s Department of Prisons. There were 358 prisoners under the law exactly one year ago.
The most commonly used grounds for detaining people under the DSA are “publishing false, offensive” and “defamatory” information online with an “attempt to deteriorate law and order,” which include satire and criticism of authorities and other powerful people. Yet, international human rights law is clear that criticism of the authorities can never be legitimately punished.
The Act allows a maximum punishment of life imprisonment under Section 21 of the law for campaigns that could be interpreted as propaganda against Bangladesh’s Liberation War, the founding president of the country, the national anthem, and the national flag using digital devices. There were at least 13 prisoners charged under Section 21 as of July 2021.
Under international human rights law, the threshold for restricting the right to freedom of expression is very high, requiring states to ensure that any restriction meets the test of legality, necessity, and proportionality, and they must show the direct and immediate connection between expression and the threat. While the authorities must investigate and prosecute acts of violence that constitute a recognizable criminal offense, this must not be in any way a justification to trample over people’s right to freedom of expression.
The provisions in the DSA are incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that Bangladesh acceded 21 years ago. In 2018, to obtain membership of the U.N. Human Rights Council, Bangladesh made a voluntary pledge to preserve freedom of the press and promote a constructive role for civil society and print, electronic, and social media in the promotion of human rights at all levels. It also supported recommendations from several U.N. member states at the country’s last Universal Periodic Review in May 2018 about protecting the right to freedom of expression and bringing its legislation in line with the ICCPR.
Arresting journalists, photojournalists, cartoonists, and other critical voices for reporting on corruption and other irregularities is certainly not the best way of living up to those commitments.
Cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore was forcibly disappeared, tortured, and eventually imprisoned for 10 months until March this year for drawing cartoons critical of the government and other powerful people. He still feels “suffocating and unsafe.”
“In this era of internet and social media, we got some space to share our individual thoughts and notions. But the Digital Security Act is designed to keep our mouths shut,” he said. Charged under the DSA, Kishore faces up to life in prison.
He isn’t the only individual who is afraid. The effects of the online crackdown that the authorities are pursuing are also being felt offline, amid a prevailing fear of reprisals for speaking out against those in power. There is an increasing practice of self-restraint and self-censorship by individuals, including newspaper editors and human rights activists. This isn’t healthy.
The right to freedom of expression is critical to ensure transparency and accountability of the state and is an indispensable condition for the full development of a person. By criminalizing legitimate forms of expression and cracking down on people for expressing dissent on the internet and social media, Bangladeshi authorities are withholding a fundamental right of the people.
Bangladesh can truly live up to its international commitments by repealing the Digital Security Act or bringing all legislations in line with the ICCPR. The crackdown on freedom of expression must end now. The international community must take a proactive approach and live up to their human rights commitment by encouraging Bangladesh to uphold their human rights obligations.