New Digital Security Act in Bangladesh deepens threats to free expression

September 21, 2018 (DHAKA) — As per news reports, the Jatiya Sangsad (Parliament of Bangladesh) passed the Digital Security Act, 2018 on September 19, 2018. The Parliament passed the bill through a voice vote after the bill was presented by Mustafa Jabbar, the Minister of Post, Telecommunications, and IT. The Digital Security Act, 2018 has been ostensibly framed with the intention of ensuring national digital security in Bangladesh along with preventing and prosecuting digital offenses, but in practice, it poses significant threats to free expression.

“The recent arrests of journalists and activists, under the previously operating ICT law in Bangladesh, for posts on social media underline the need for a rights-respecting framework for digital security in Bangladesh. The new Digital Security Act doesn’t seem to allay any concerns on the restrictions of freedom of expression in Bangladesh, but only accentuates those issues. Protecting freedom of expression becomes especially important with the upcoming general elections in Bangladesh due to take place early next year,” said Naman Aggarwal, Asia Policy Associate at Access Now.

“The provisions under the Digital Security Act are concerning, and such laws must be drafted after substantive, transparent and accountable engagement with civil society, both domestic and international, through public consultations. 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,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Policy Director at Access Now.

Civil society first called attention to the Digital Security Bill in 2016. Since then, it has been facing opposition from various stakeholders including civil liberties activists, opposition parties, and academics.

On March 25, 2018, representatives of the European Union along with 10 foreign missions based in Dhaka met Bangladesh Law Minister Anisul Huq to express concerns over several sections of the bill.

Scholars and activists are concerned the law will curb freedom of speech and expression — a fundamental right enshrined in Article 39 of the Bangladesh constitution — through vague and overbroad provisions which may be used by the government to obstruct journalism and silent dissent.

The Digital Security Act establishes a Digital Security Agency as well as a National Digital Security Council, but the powers and functions of these entities are currently unclear. This law also establishes “digital offenses,” penalties thereof, and authority for police to investigate such offenses.

Provisions under the Digital Security Act reportedly include imprisonment for multiple years and fines up to 10 million Taka (approximately USD 100,000) for use of digital media to intimidate people or cause damage to the state, or publishing information with the intent to defame someone. Additionally, the police are provided powers to search any person or place without a warrant, on suspicion of an offense being committed under the Digital Security Act.

This is part of a larger trend currently seen around the world, especially in Asia and across the Middle East and North Africa. Many governments — including Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, and India — are regulating or attempting to pursue efforts to target cybercrime, cybersecurity, or even “fake news,” while actually putting in restrictions to freedom of expression online.

While the law became effective immediately upon being passed by the Parliament, an official copy of the law is not yet available for review. Access Now shall endeavor to access a copy of the law and provide a detailed analysis of its implications for free expression and independent media.