Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Bangladesh: the latest assault on free speech

It’s not too late to stop a new law that would give extraordinary and sweeping powers of repression to authorities.

An exhibition “A Struggle for Democracy” featuring photographs by imprisoned photojournalist Shahidul Alam in Dhaka, 10 September 2018 (Photo: Munir Uz Zaman via Getty)
An exhibition “A Struggle for Democracy” featuring photographs by imprisoned photojournalist Shahidul Alam in Dhaka, 10 September 2018 (Photo: Munir Uz Zaman via Getty)
Published 2 Oct 2018   Follow @srabbee

Bangladesh already suffers poor standards when respecting freedom of expression, but a new set of laws will enable the government to suppress political dissent and free speech using brutal means.

A recently passed law known as the Digital Security Act 2018 has extraordinary scope. The new law will allow Bangladeshi authorities to search and detain any person, seize computers and handheld devices on mere suspicion, without any court-issued warrants, on charges that may land someone up to 14 years in jail for simple expressions of views in a digital platform that the authorities may deem defamatory or subversive.

The new law appears notoriously vague in its definitions of offenses, yet extremely precise and sweeping in its stipulations for punishments.

Prior to this new set of rules, which now awaits ceremonial confirmation by the country’s president, Bangladesh raised global outcries for jailing distinguished photojournalist Shahidul Alam for merely speaking to the international media during an August 2018 student protest demanding road safety in Dhaka. Within 24 hours of his interview to Al Jazeera, where he linked the road safety protests to overall lack of democracy and effective governance in Bangladesh, the country’s security forces arrested Alam and he has been in jail ever since, despite calls for his release coming from global luminaries including Nobel laureates and major media and rights organisations.

In another assault on freedom of expression, Wasim Iftekhar, a barely known young publisher, was picked up by plain-clothed men, after publishing a book which simply documents courtroom proceedings and arguments presented by Bangladesh’s opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia, while she was going through the country’s court system on corruption charges.

The new law, which appears notoriously vague in its definitions of offenses, yet extremely precise and sweeping in its stipulations for punishments, will enable Bangladesh to suppress free speech using increasingly draconian means.

The Digital Security Act allows the arrest of anyone if the police believe that an offense has been or is being committed, or there is a possibility of any crime or destruction of evidence.

Another provision of the law allows for up to 10 years imprisonment for “spreading propaganda” against Bangladesh’s Liberation War of 1971. Similar punishment awaits anyone defaming the country’s national anthem or the national flag using a digital device. Repeat offenders will face the maximum penalty of life imprisonment. 

The law offers scant definitions for what constitutes “defamation” or “propaganda” making it difficult to distinguish genuine historical scrutiny from content produced with the intent to malign historical events.

The new law states that anyone deliberately publishing or broadcasting anything that is “attacking, intimidating or insulting” will face three years of jail time. Similar punishment awaits anyone publishing or broadcasting false information to defame someone or spread of false information to mar the “image” (i.e. reputation) of the country.

The law stipulates seven years in jail for anyone publishing or broadcasting on a digital platform any content with the intent to hurt religious sentiments and values. This will further shrink the scope for theological debates in Bangladesh – a country from where several atheist bloggers, had to flee over the last five years.

Making the job of investigative journalism particularly difficult, if not impossible, the new law allows maximum jail term of 14 years and fines up to US $25,000 for illegally entering any government building and secretly recording anything with electronic devices. Espionage charges can be filed under this law against anyone gaining unauthorised access to any government information, which is a prerequisite for whistle-blowing exercises against government abuse.

For a country with $1,700 income per capita, the new law stipulates fines that are onerous, especially given that the likely offenders will be young opposition activists. There was a provision for the establishment of a Digital Security Agency in Bangladesh, with the task of reviewing allegations against offenders before legal proceedings can start by the police. That provision was later withdrawn, allowing the police to arrest anyone, without any warrants or oversight prior to such arrests.

The international community must do more to dissuade the Bangladesh government from destroying whatever little freedom of speech the country has left. Amnesty International has protested the Digital Security Act by warning hundreds of people had already been arbitrarily arrested in the past six years under the existing laws, and the new act would further impose “dangerous restrictions on freedom of expression”.

The president of Bangladesh must send this act back to the parliament for further review to address concerns expressed by journalists and rights organisations. As the third largest Muslim majority country with a population of 170 million, Bangladesh poses a serious geopolitical risk if the international community allows the country to plunge from being a less-than-perfect democracy and become a North Korea styled tyranny.

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