Bangladesh moves to replace controversial internet law but criticism persists

Ahammad Foyez
Bangladesh moves to replace controversial internet law but criticism persists Bangladesh artists, authors, academics and journalists gather in front of the Bangladesh National Museum in Dhaka to support freedom of expression and the right to vote, Sept. 9, 2023.

The Bangladesh Parliament passed a bill on Wednesday to replace the controversial internet law even as critics alleged that it retains many restrictive provisions of its predecessor and negatively affects freedom of expression under an authoritarian government.

The Cyber Security Bill is to become law within a week of the president’s non-binding assent – he has 15 days to act after receiving it – as per local law. It replaces the Digital Security Act (DSA), which critics have branded as “draconian.” 

Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh, said the government only slightly toned down the severity of certain punishments contained in the old law’s provisions.

“It is nothing but a copy-and-paste of the previous law,” he said, adding that its passage violated fundamental principles of human rights.

As of January, as many as 7,000 criminal charges had been brought under the DSA following its enactment in 2018, according to a tally maintained by the law ministry. An analysis by the Center for Governance Studies, a Dhaka-based think-tank, showed a vast majority of those arrested under the law were activists, journalists and students. 

When the government released the draft of the new act in late August, human rights groups and press advocacy groups criticized it and called for substantial changes before its passage.

“Its various overbroad provisions fail to meet the requirements of legality, necessity and proportionality, and are therefore incompatible with international human rights law,” said Nadia Rahman, Amnesty International’s interim deputy regional director for South Asia.

Still, MPs approved the draft without significant alterations.

Compared to the DSA, the new law has toned down defamation-related provisions, converting the maximum sentence from a prison term to a top fine of 2.5 million takas (U.S. $22,780).

The proposed law also reduced the maximum prison sentence for “carrying out or supporting any kind of falsehood and propaganda” related to the 1971 war of independence, its spirit, the country’s national anthem or flag, and founding President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, from 10 to five years.

Two stringent offenses described in the earlier law have been made “bailable,” meaning a defendant accused of committing those offenses could be freed on bail while awaiting trial.

Four other offenses related to intrusion and hacking remain “non-bailable,” which means a judge can grant bail only on a discretionary basis. 

Media leaders objected to a section that authorizes vast powers for police, including allowing them to arrest anyone on suspicion of violating the law and to search for and confiscate related materials. 

A parliamentary committee that reviewed the draft rejected the objection, but agreed to remove a provision that promised a maximum 14-year jail sentence for anyone committing crimes using digital mediums under the Official Secrets Act of 1923.

The committee also added a provision that criminalizes filing complaints without any “lawful cause” and with an “intent to harm” the defendant.

During discussions in Parliament, members of the Jatiya Party, considered to be a token opposition party, joined by independent members, criticized clauses as violations of freedom of expression and the press.

“Many provisions in the proposed law directly contradict the Constitution. The media will be forced to exercise self-censorship because of this law,” said Shamim Haider Patwary, a Jatiya Party MP.

“In the last 4½ years, [DSA] has only been used to suppress criticism and free thought against the government or the ruling party. And this was used to torture the journalism community,” said Mukabbir Khan, a Gono Forum Party MP.

“The act empowers the police to enter houses and search people without warrant. No other law has given the police so much power,” he added.

Monjurul Ahsan Bulbul, a senior journalist known to be a supporter of the government, agreed that the provisions granting police extensive powers remain a major point of contention.

Didarul Alam Bhuiyan, a civil rights activist who spent months in jail under the DSA and now works with other defendants, said the government wanted to replace the DSA only because of domestic and international pressure. He said the new law would remain almost equally repressive.

“This new law will be used in a wholesale manner ahead of the election,” he said.

Bangladesh is to hold a general election in December or in January 2024.


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