Bangladesh urged to remove threats to free speech from new digital law

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Bangladeshi government to amend the proposed Digital Security Act that the cabinet approved yesterday in order to remove provisions that pose a grave threat to freedom of expression and information.

The new law is supposed to replace the notorious and controversial Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act of 2006. But Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government has missed an opportunity to remedy the ICT Act’s biggest flaws, including Section 57, which criminalizes online content regarded as defamatory or blasphemous.

At least 25 journalists and several hundred bloggers and Facebook users were prosecuted under Section 57 in 2017 alone, so its overhaul was long overdue. But many of its provisions are reproduced in different sections of proposed new law, and still carry sentences of up to 14 years in prison.

“The proposed Digital Security Act is not satisfactory, especially as, on several points, it is even more draconian that the previous law,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “We urge the Bangladeshi authorities to withdraw all the provisions that could be used to gag journalists and bloggers.”

“The still vague wording will allow the same abuses as before, benefitting those who do not want freely and independently reported news and information. One of the needed amendments is the inclusion of an article requiring that the relevant authorities review complaints thoroughly before initiating any defamation or blasphemy proceedings.”

Although the Bangladeshi Editors’ Council called for the repeal of the ICT Act’s Section 57 last July, much of it is reproduced in Section 19 of the proposed new law, which provides for a two-year jail sentence for content that “pollutes the human mind, defames someone and hurts religious sentiments.”

Content “liable to disturb public order” would be punishable by seven years in prison under article 20, while “spreading negative propaganda against the Liberation War or the Father of the Nation” would be punishable by 14 years in prison and/or a fine of 5 million taka (60,000 US dollars) under a new provision.

In Section 32 of the new law, espionage is broadly defined to include “secretly recording any kind of information” about “government, semi-government and autonomous institutions” and is punishable by 14 years in prison and/or a fine of 2 million taka (25,000 US dollars).

Bangladesh is ranked 146th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
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Updated on 17.02.2020