Bangladesh’s proposed Digital Security Act (DSA) has sections which could be used by both the State and private individuals to throttle the freedom of expression guaranteed in the constitution, writes P.K.Balachandran in South Asian Monitor.
The vaguely worded and all-encompassing draft law could be used to harass, intimidate and jail opponents, critics, journalists, bloggers and well-meaning individuals who innocently post comments on their social media accounts or use these platforms to spread information which in their view, may be for the public good.
The Bangladesh cabinet has just approved a draft DSA and if it is passed by parliament, as it will surely be given the road roller majority enjoyed by the Awami League, the ambitious “Digital Bangladesh” project might get tainted with an undesirable add-on like the DSA. Anti-democratic elements in the State as well as society, could turn it into an instrument of oppression, taking away any benefits the regulation may offer.
Commenting on the concept of Digital Bangladesh (DB) initiated by the Sheikh Hasina government, The Daily Starof Dhakasaid that it hadset in motion an exchange of ideas and views among millions, creating an open forum for discussion that the people of Bangladesh had never enjoyed.
“Here, in this digital space, millions upon millions of our citizenry engage in debates over the issues of their interest in a way that is unthinkable in any other platforms. Sometimes, a simple photograph of a polluted river or a child in distress triggers a social movement, leading to quick solutions or answering the needs.”
“But such freedom of expression will be severely curbed if the law in question is passed,” the paper said.
For example, the government could consider a timely warning by a concerned citizen as “scare mongering” and arrest him. Also, the provisions in the DSA are so vaguely worded that they can be easily misinterpreted and misused. No safeguards are written into the proposed Act to caution and restrain law enforcing authorities.
On the face of it, the DSA isapplicable only to the digital media. But all newspapers now have online presence and they offer multimedia content, which make the law applicable to newspapers also, The DailyStarobserved.
Anyone spreading negative propaganda against the Liberation War or the Father of the Nation, using digital devices or instigates to do so, will risk being sentenced up to 14 years’ jail or a fine of up to Tk. 1 crore (US$120,000) or both.He or she will face up to life sentence or Tk. 3 crore (US$360,000) fine or both for committing the offence for the second time.
In other words, no re-assessment or re-examination of the movement and the leader is possible even by historians, as it has been declared a “sacred area,” as a Bangladeshi historian put it.
A person may face up to three years in jail or Tk. 3 lakh (US$3,600) fine or both if he or she is found to have deliberately published or broadcast in the website or electronic form something which is attacking or intimidating or which can make someone disgruntled; knowingly publish or broadcast false and distorted (full or partial) information to annoy or humiliate someone; knowingly publish or broadcast false and distorted (full or partial) information to tarnish the image of the state or to spread rumor.
A person will face up to five years in jail or Tk. 10 lakh fine or both for committing the offence for second time.
A person may face up to seven years in jail or Tk. 10 lakh (US$12,000) fine or both if he or she is found to have deliberately published or broadcast something in the website or in electronic form or get it done to hurt religious sentiment and values.
A person will face up to ten years in jail or Tk. 20 lakh (US$24,000) or both for committing the offence for the second time.
A person may face maximum three years in jail or Tk. 5 lakh (US$6,000) fine or both if he or she commits offence stipulated in section 499 of the Penal Code through website or in electronic form.
He or she will face up to five years in jail or Tk. 10 Lakh (US$12,000) fine or both for committing the offence for the second time.
“The biggest danger of the law in question is that it does not sufficiently distinguish between genuine cyber-crimes and impediments to freedom of expression and the freedom of media. The draft is replete with provisions that can easily be used and abused to curb the press. This is further exacerbated by vagueness of language that leaves too much room for interpretation which, in turn, poses threats to freedom of expression,” warns The Daily Star.
Draconian laws have a past of staying put for long. Ruling parties rarely repeal draconian laws even if they had criticized them while in the opposition. This is because the State uses these laws. They are withdrawn only if there is overwhelming public pressure threatening to have a significant electoral impact.
Misuse by Non-State Actors
But an aspect which goes unnoticed is that such laws are widely misused by private individuals and groups as well. It seems that everyone has a stake in their continuance, observes Afsan Chowdhury, a leading Bangladeshi political commentator.
According to Chowdhurymost defamation cases are not filed by the State but by private individuals. “They use the law for their ends. The DSA and other laws give them scope to do this,” he said.
The DSA, like other criminal laws, could be and are used by people with links to the powers-that-be. Politically powerful caste and religious groups, business tycoons, those who want to impress a leader or a government, and even those who want to gain cheap publicity could use the DSA.
In India, teen agers have been arrested for just saying on Facebook that they are not impressed with a particular locally powerful communal leader. The arrests were made upon a complaint filed by the followers of that ultra-nationalist communal leader.
According to The Daily Starbetween 2012 and June 2017 in Bangladesh, 1,417 cases were filed under the Information and Communication Technology (ICT)Act. In these, 65% were for defamation under Section 57. But as high as 65% of the accused were acquitted. As police did not find any merit to press charges in some 180 cases.
“This makes it clear how the ICT act, particularly section 57, has been abused to gag freedom of expression. Therefore, our fear that the proposed law too will be misused is only justified,” the paper said.
Generally Oppressive Climate
However, it is undeniable that the State too could unleash DSA on opponents and critics because of the general climate of oppression in Bangladesh, partly due to the absence of an opposition in parliament.
The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) had boycotted the last polls.
According to the 2017 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, in June 2016, security forces arrested nearly 15,000 people, mostly young men, in connection with a series of attacks targeting writers, minority religious leaders, and activists.
Following the July attack on the Holey Artisan Café, security forces reportedly arbitrarily detained and in many cases killed suspected militants. Two of the hostages in the attack were secretly arrested and detained for over a month until international and national pressure forced the government to admit to holding them in detention.
A kitchen assistant, initially suspected to be one of the attackers, was allegedly tortured to death. The government announced several raids in various parts of the country but, due to lack of transparency about security force abuses and the ongoing government clampdown on media, details of those killed or arrested remain unclear, HRW said.
Journalists are also a common target. The editor of the English-language Daily Star, Mahfuz Anam, faces a total of 54 criminal defamation cases and 15 sedition cases. Fifty-five cases have been filed against editor Matiur Rahman and some journalists associated with the country’s highest circulated daily, Prothom Alo, for criminal defamation and “hurting religious sentiment,” the report pointed out.
Restrictions on Freedom of Expression
Several laws were proposed in 2016 to increase restrictions on freedom of expression. The Distortion of the History of Bangladesh Liberation War Crimes Act provides for imprisonment and fines if details of the 1971 war of independence are debated or disputed. The Foreign Donation (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act, passed in October, to control nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) will hinder freedoms of expression and association. Proposed Press Council Act amendments include provisions for closing newspapers.
“The government continues to use the overly broad and vague Information and Communication Technology Act against people critical of decisions and activities of senior government officials or their families,” the rights watchdog alleged.
“Bloggers expressing secular views and editors and writers supporting sexual minority rights were attacked in 2016, many of them hacked to death in public spaces. While authorities condemned the attacks, some recommended that individuals holding unpopular views censor themselves, implying that the responsibility for avoiding such attacks lay with the victims,” HRW noted.