Bangladesh activists issue rights alert over data bill


Instead of spreading digital literacy, draft law gives govt wider scope to silence critics, they say

A draft data protection bill in Bangladesh will give govt wider scope to silence critics, according to activists

A draft data protection bill in Bangladesh will give govt wider scope to silence critics, according to activists. (Photo: Unsplash)

Legal experts and human rights activists in Bangladesh are demanding changes to a draft online data protection law, saying it can help the government to impose tighter controls, surveillance and censorship.

The proposed Data Protection Act allows police to detain people “without a warrant. It gives unlimited and absolute power to government officials,” said Gitiara Nasreen, a professor at Dhaka University, while addressing a seminar last week, organized by Bangladesh Legal Aid Services Trust and the Institute of Informatics and Development, a public policy institute, in the capital Dhaka.

The absolute power the draft law gives to government officials stands in conflict with various rights enshrined in the Constitution of Bangladesh, Nasreen said.

The draft does not allow civil, criminal or any other type of legal remedies for a person for damages caused by measures taken by the authorities, Nasreen,added.

The bill clearly says “the prosecution can do whatever it wants under this law,” Nasreen told UCA News.

“Instead of focusing on digital literacy, we are going towards control,” Nasreen added.

Hamidul Misbah, a lawyer and founder of the Bangladesh Intellectual Property Forum, told the gathering that under certain provisions in the bill, the government can use information shared by people. But the bill is silent on specifying details.

The bill, drafted last year, gives undue powers to the government to suppress dissent activists said.

Section-59 of the Act confers powers to any police officer not below the rank of inspector to investigate offenses, without specifying his/her technical qualifications to investigate a specialized matter.

Section-49 prevents an aggrieved person from seeking legal remedies directly as their complaints have to be first routed through a government department before moving to court.

Speakers at the seminar said the bill broadly exempts actors “preventing crimes” without actually defining what it constitutes.

Its implementation will be one-sided and will disempower the public, they observed.

The bill was drafted by the ruling Awami League, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, ahead of polls due in January 2024 in the South Asian country.

Similarly, months before the 2018 elections, the government passed a repressive Digital Security Act, whose victims included journalists, opposition leaders and social media users.

This cyber law incorporates blasphemy, defamation and secrecy acts. Under the draconian law, 1,109 cases have been registered, of which around 60 percent were for views aired on social media. Cases were filed against 2,889 individuals, according to a study by the Centre for Governance Studies (CGS), a think-tank based in Bangladesh.

The proposed act will favor a particular party to silence its critics ahead of polls next year, Misbah observed at the seminar.