Bangladesh revised a digital security law. Is it really less severe?

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International human rights activists say it’s old wine in a new bottle

Ahead of elections in January 2024, Bangladesh’s Parliament has passed the Cyber Security Act. It replaces a controversial law enacted in 2018, which allowed creators to be arrested for social media posts that were critical of the government or deemed to hurt religious sentiments. But nobody’s quite convinced that the new law is less “draconian.”

Cyber Security Act “is largely a replication of the draconian [law] that preceded it and retains repressive features which have been used to threaten and restrict the rights to freedom of expression, privacy and liberty in Bangladesh,” Nadia Rahman, Amnesty International’s interim deputy regional director for South Asia, said in a statement released by the organization. “Its various overbroad provisions fail to meet the requirements of legality, necessity, and proportionality, and are therefore incompatible with international human rights law.”

In the last few years, over 2,000 cases were booked under the older law — called the Digital Security Act (DSA) — with authors, social activists, journalists, and even minors being arrested. In February, Poritosh Sarkar was sentenced to five years in prison under DSA after being accused of hurting religious sentiments because of a Facebook post he made as a teenager. He reportedly spent eight months in solitary confinement in pre-trial detention in 2021, when he was a 10th grader. Over 83% of cases filed under DSA that year involved social media posts shared across Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, and Likee.

In March, Volker Türk, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, had called for an immediate suspension of the DSA as it was being used “to arrest, harass and intimidate journalists and human rights defenders, and to muzzle critical voices online.”

The new act reduces the prison term for publication of information that hurts “religious values” from five years to two years, and removes prison time altogether for the transmission of “defamatory information,” replacing it with a fine. In the last three years, over 220 journalists have been indicted under the act, and over 50 have been arrested.

After the act was passed last week, the U.S. Embassy in Bangladesh put out an official notice observing that “the new legislation continues to criminalize freedom of expression, retains non-bailable offenses, and too easily could be misused to arrest, detain, and silence critics.”

“We regret that the Government of Bangladesh did not give stakeholders adequate opportunity to review and provide input to the new law to ensure it meets international standards,” the notice read.

Anisul Huq, Bangladesh’s minister of law, justice, and parliamentary affairs, met local media on Friday to talk about how the new act was being misinterpreted. “There are only four cognizable sections in this act. All the other sections are non-cognizable,” he said. “Law-enforcing agencies have no scope or right to arrest someone without warrant, except for cognizable offenses. So, the questions that are being raised in this regard are only the misinterpretation of this act.”

— Durga M Sengupta