Updated at 7:36 a.m. on 2016-08-26
A law proposed by the government of Bangladesh threatens life imprisonment for people who criticize its founding father or spread false information about the war that birthed the nation.
The cabinet of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina this week approved a draft bill of a digital security law that contains a controversial new provision: Anyone caught spreading online “propaganda” about the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan, or who makes derogatory comments over the Internet about the country’s founding president could be imprisoned for life and fined 10 million taka (U.S. $127,760), if parliament ultimately adopts the Digital Security Law.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s first president, is Hasina’s father who was assassinated in 1975.
Supreme Court lawyer Shahdin Malik described the provision’s stipulation of life in prison for violators as harsh and a potential threat to free speech.
“If such a provision is made, [it] would severely tarnish Bangladesh’s image in protecting the freedom of expression and freedom of press,” Malik told BenarNews.
The government has yet to spell out how it defines such propaganda about the war in the draft law, yet the conflict in which the former province of East Pakistan broke free from Pakistan 45 years ago remains a deeply divisive issue in Bangladesh. The schism is reflected in a long-running rivalry between its ruling and opposition parties.
Leaders from the ruling Awami League frequently accuse the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its ally, the faith-based Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami party, of being pro-Pakistan. Jamaat, for one, opposed Bangladesh’s birth in 1971.
During Hasina’s present rule as prime minister, several leaders from opposition parties have been prosecuted and executed over alleged crimes committed during the 1971 war, when they fought on the pro-Pakistani side.
In January, the BNP’s chairwoman, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia – Hasina’s bitter foe – was charged with sedition for publically questioning the official number on how many people were killed in the war. The government has put the wartime death toll at as high as 3 million.
Mahbubur Rahman, a member of the BNP’s highest policy-making Standing Committee, said people had the right to question the government’s move to enact a law to stop “propaganda against the liberation war and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.”
“Most of the people respect Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and supporters of the war of independence. So, making a law to stop his criticism 41 years after his assassination is unusual. People may fear that the law may be misused,” Rahman told BenarNews.
Bill draws fire
Should Bangladeshi lawmakers pass the bill, the new law would be named the Digital Security Act, and would replace the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act of 2006 as well as amend four of the older law’s sections.
The government says that the new law, which would create an agency specializing in safeguarding Bangladesh’s digital realm and protecting the country from threats via social media, is needed to bolster cyber security in the country of 54 million Internet users. Home-grown militant groups rely on Facebook and other online media to spread their messages.
One of the proposed amendments states that a person who deliberately publishes or transmits false or obscene content online or electronically that undermines law and order could face criminal charges. Any electronic material that may prejudice the image of the state or a person, or that may hurt religious beliefs can also considered an offense under the proposed law.
Such provisions in the proposed law have raised concerns that it could be abused and lead to violations of rights.
On Wednesday, the U.S.-based press freedom watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called on Bangladesh’s legislature to scrap the bill.
“Proposed cyber-crime legislation, if passed, would have a stifling effect on media freedom in Bangladesh,” Shawn Crispin, the CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative, said in a statement.
“The draft law’s language dangerously conflates cyber-crime with fair critical comment. We strongly urge parliament to reject the bill and ensure that any further version includes clearly defined press freedom and freedom of expression guarantees.”
Responding to the criticism from CPJ, the head of the Press Institute of Bangladesh, which comes under the Ministry of Information, said the government needed such a law because of challenges to digital security in a fast-changing age of global technology.
“But the law is still under scrutiny because the bureaucrats have prepared the draft. Now, the Law Ministry will examine whether the law contradicts other existing laws. [T]he bill will be uploaded in the official website to seek feedback from the people, and we will hold discussions with all stakeholders before finalizing [this],” Shah Alamgir Hossain, the institute’s director general, told BenarNews on Thursday.
He added that the government was cautious in ensuring the freedom of press and freedom of expression, which, he said, were constitutionally guaranteed rights.
“But we definitely need such law because a single post on any of the social media can create chaos in the whole country. We have seen the CPJ’s concern. I hope we would maintain a balance between ensuring digital and cyber security and guaranteeing the freedom of expression,” Hossain said.
Shahriar Sharif in Dhaka contributed to this report.