Activists in Bangladesh hold placards and a banner during a protest against the Digital Security Act in Dhaka on February. Photo: AFP / Rehman Asad

Bangladesh passed its much-debated Digital Security law on Monday, with President Abdul Hamid signing off on the bill despite protests from different quarters. Journalists and rights activists fear that the new law will further curb press freedom in the South Asian nation.

The parliament in Dhaka passed the bill unanimously on September 19. But the Editors Council of Bangladesh — a platform for the heads of national dailies — met with top ministers on September 29 to demand that sections of the Bill be changed before it was signed into law.

The law, which incorporates the British colonial-era Official Secrets Act with new provisions empowering police to make arrests without a warrant, can be used against anyone deemed a dissenter.

Anisul Haq, the minister for law, promised that he would discuss the issues, but the president went ahead and signed the bill to create the Digital Security Act without waiting.

The Act carries provisions for heavy jail terms – up to 14 years – for secretly recording state officials, spreading “negative propaganda” about the country’s liberation war or about Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who is known as the “father of the nation”, among other things.

Journalists fear that these provisions will hinder investigative reporting. Mahfuz Anam, secretary-general of the Editor’s Council described the passing of the 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 the digital age. The growth of a digital Bangladesh will be stifled by this Digital Security Act,” said Anam, who is also editor and publisher of The Daily Star, the country’s largest English daily.

However, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, said in a press briefing last week, that people who practice honest journalism and have no “criminal mindset” or “any plan to commit an offense” need not  worry about “any provisions of the act.”

However, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition in the country and arch-rivals of the ruling Awami League, described the Act as a “Black Law.” Party secretary-general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir called the government had acted like a ‘hypocrite’ because it didn’t keep its promise to the Editors’ Council to change controversial sections in the bill.

Controversial provisions

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 will curb freedom of speech and independent journalism.

Section 21 of Act says anyone spreading negative propaganda against the Liberation War or Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, using digital devices or intending to do so, will risk being sentenced up to 14 years in jail or a fine of up to 10 million (1 crore) Taka (about $122,000) or both.

Section 25 says a person may face up to three years in jail or a fine of up to Tk 300,000 ($3,658) or both if he or she is found to have deliberately published or broadcast on a website or in electronic form as 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 a fine of up to Tk 1 million ($12,195) or both if he or she is found to have deliberately published or broadcast something on a website or in electronic form that harms one’s religious sentiment and values.

Section 31 says a person may face up to seven years in jail or a fine of up to Tk 500,000 ($6,097), or both, if he or she is found to have published or broadcast something on website or in electronic form which could spread hatred and create enmity among different groups and communities, or can cause a deterioration in law and order.

Section 32 says a person may face up to 14 years in jail or a fine of up to Tk 2.5 million ($30,488), or both, if found guilty of charges of computer spying or digital spying if he or she illegally enters the offices of the government, semi-government, autonomous or statutory bodies and collects or preserves or sends any top secret or secret documents through a computer, digital device, computer network, digital network or any electronic form or helps others to do that.

Section 43 says a police officer can search or arrest anyone without a warrant issued by a court.

Why the concern?

These provisions are in part intended to replace Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act of 2006, which local and international rights groups say has been used to silence dissenters and curb freedom of expression.

Hundreds of people including several journalists have already been accused under section 57 of criticizing the government, political leaders, and others. On August 5, 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 Dhaka was pent-up anger at state corruption and misuse of power.

A detailed report prepared by the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said members and supporters of the ruling Awami League had exploited Section 57 of the ICT Act to file numerous complaints alleging that online speech had defamed or prejudiced the prime minister, other government officials, or the ruling party.

‘Ripe for abuse’

HRW said the new Digital Security Act “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, the group’s Asia Director. “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 Transparency International said, giving recognition to the Official Secrecy Act of the British colonial era under section 32 of the Digital Security Act was “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.

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