Reworked version of 2013 law seen as a way to stifle dissent and limit freedom of expression
Bangladeshi activists in Dhaka protest the harassment of online activists and journalists in this 2015 file picture. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Bangladeshi rights activists, media workers and church officials have expressed discontent over an upcoming cybersecurity law widely seen as a tool to muzzle dissent and curtail freedom of expression.
The ruling Awami League government finalized and approved the draft of the Digital Security Act 2018 on Jan. 29 during a cabinet meeting headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
The law is likely to be placed in parliament during the ongoing session of the house that started mid-January.
Aimed at curbing cyber crime and terrorism following a recent lethal rise in militancy, the act also includes some controversial provisions.
These entail severe, non-bailable penalties for offences relating to hurting religious sentiments, defamation, causing deterioration of law and order and instigating against any person or organization through electronic media or websites.
The provisions are refined versions of Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act 2013, widely condemned for gagging freedom of expression, and some sections of the repressive Penal Code 1860 from the British colonial era.
Section 32 of the proposed act says a person may face up to 14 years in jail or a fine of 2 million taka (US$24,000) or both on a charge of spying if he or she illegally enters the offices of the government, semi-government or autonomous bodies to gather information and uses an electronic device to record something secretly.
As per Section 43, a police official can search and arrest anyone without a court warrant.
“The government has played a trick and moved forward the old black law in a new, refined format. It is absolutely unacceptable that journalists who use various sources to get information might face the risk of being charged for spying under this law,” Father Albert T. Rozario, convener of the Justice and Peace Commission in Dhaka Archdiocese, told ucanews.com.
“This is a black law that threatens constitutional rights to freedom of expression, and it gives police an abusive tool to exploit and muzzle dissent in favor of the government,” the priest, a Supreme Court lawyer, added.
Nur Khan, a prominent rights activist, said the government had moved away from Section 57 of the ICT Act due to public pressure but was delivering it in a new form.
“People were angry over Section 57, so the government repealed it. Now, the new law would be an even more dangerous nightmare for the media, free thinkers, writers and government critics as they would face spying charges,” Khan told ucanews.com.
“People will continue to live in fear under the culture of impunity and gagging of free speech being put forward. The law will hang people like a sword and cause a mortal blow to our fledgling democracy.”
Monjil Morshed, a Supreme Court lawyer, said the government has shown its “undemocratic character” with this proposed law.
“In every country, a law is intended for the welfare of people, but here it’s being considered as a weapon to protect interests of the government and vested groups. The law remains vulnerable to abuses by police and it would continue to frighten people,” Morshed told ucanews.com.
According to media reports, about 701 cases filed under Section 57 remain unresolved in Bangladesh’s lone cyber tribunal.