August 10, 2018 (DHAKA) — Following the death of two students by a speeding bus on Dhaka’s Airport Road on July 29, 2018, students have taken to the streets in protest in Bangladesh’s capital demanding punishment of the culprit and safer traffic laws. Bangladeshi authorities have reportedly arrested a number of activists and journalists covering the protests online — a major breach of freedom of expression in the region.
Alongside these arrests, the Bangladesh government also ordered telecommunications providers to limit mobile internet access to 2G connection, making it impossible for those participating in the demonstrations to share videos and other multimedia content aimed at documenting abuses and debunking false claims about the events.
Bangladesh ranks 146 out of 180 countries in the press freedom barometer, according to the Reporters Without Borders 2018 World Press Freedom Index. However, in its constitution, Bangladesh places value on a free and vibrant press. Article 39 of the constitution ensures freedom of expression “subject to reasonable restrictions imposed by law.” As a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Bangladesh’s government must meet clear international standards, including a determination of necessity and proportionality, to impose any restriction on the operation of the fundamental right to free expression.
The ICT Act as a tool for silencing dissent
The government claims that the violence surrounding the student protests is being fueled by provocative and “fake” content shared over social media platforms. In response, police have arrested a number of journalists under the Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT Act), including renowned actress Quazi Nawshaba Ahmed and celebrated photographer Shahidul Islam, for social media posts reporting on the student protests. According to the Dhaka Metropolitan Police, six cases were filed under the ICT Act over the last 10 days.
Section 57 of the ICT Act punishes citizens for posting fake, obscene, or defaming information on an electronic platform which can disrupt law and order or hurt religious sentiments. Convictions under the law are punishable with imprisonment for up to 14 years and fines up to 10 million Bangladeshi Taka (equivalent to approximately 118,000 USD). This law has been widely criticized by journalists, authors, and activists over the years.
As per news reports, a total of 1,417 cases on cybercrime charges were filed with police between 2012 and June 2017, of which only 179 have been dismissed so far. A total of 125 people were arrested in Dhaka alone between July 2017 and June 2018.
“Given the fact that Bangladesh is moving toward its general elections at the end of the year, such restrictions and clampdown on freedom of speech and expression could prove to be a serious threat to human rights in the country. Since most of the protesters arrested by the government are students, the incident poses a great threat to the right of free expression of 23 million young voters, who would be voting for the first time,” said Naman Aggarwal, Asia Policy Associate at Access Now.
Potential for reform, but not without concerns
There are currently deliberations in Bangladesh to replace the ICT Act. However, the Digital Security Bill 2018, which seeks to replace existing provisions of the ICT Act, is being opposed by civil society. There are concerns that the new bill is nothing more than an attempt to rebrand the existing ICT Act, as the problematic language of Section 57 of the ICT Act has returned as Section 32 of the Digital Security Bill 2018. The Digital Security Bill also splits the offenses under Section 57 into four separate sections (21, 25, 28, and 29) with varying levels of punishment, from three to 10 years’ jail term.
The earlier version of the draft bill raised concerns in Bangladesh and across the world. On March 25, 2018, representatives from the European Union and 10 countries met Law Minister Anisul Huq and expressed concern over several sections of the Digital Security Bill 2018. The bill currently sits with a parliamentary committee for review, after being delivered by the government despite intense opposition, and is being considered for redrafting.
“The current prosecution of journalists and activists in Bangladesh is deeply concerning. It is imperative that Bangladeshi authorities reconsider these prosecutions and also undertake reforms to ensure a more fundamental rights-respecting law on communications. Unfortunately, the present draft Digital Security Bill 2018 contains many problematic provisions and must be further amended. Bangladesh must engage with civil society, both domestic and international, through public consultations to come up with a more user rights-respecting law,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Policy Director at Access Now.
Access Now condemns the prosecution of journalists and activists in Bangladesh and demands their release. In addition, Section 57 of the ICT Act must be amended, and the enactment of the Digital Security Bill must come only after comprehensive public consultations and improvements to its text to better protect rights recognized by Bangladesh’s constitution and international human rights law. We urge the global community to join together in working to protect freedom of expression in Bangladesh.