The United States, the European Union and other local and international rights groups want Bangladesh government to bring about changes to Digital Security Bill to maintain international commitments on human rights and freedom of expression.
They believe that if the bill, already passed by the parliament, is allowed to become a law, it will impinge on constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press, and create extensive legal impediments for journalists in carrying out their professional activities.
Jatiya Sangsad on September 19 passed the much-talked-about Digital Security Bill amid local and international concerns, especially from the journalist community and campaigners of press freedom.
Jatiya Sangsad would send the bill to president Abdul Hamid for his formal assent to the proposed legislation.
The United States on September 30 in a statement called for bringing changes to the Digital Security Bill in conformity with the Bangladesh constitution and maintaining international commitments to rights of people.
The outgoing US ambassador in Dhaka Mercia Bernicat said in a statement that they would encourage the Bangladesh government to consider changes to the proposed law that would bring it in conformity with their constitution and with Bangladesh’s international commitments to ‘human, civil and political rights’.
She also said that the United States shared the concerns of international community that the recently passed Digital Security Bill could be used to suppress and criminalise free speech, all to the detriment of Bangladesh’s democracy, development and prosperity.
Bernicat also welcomed information minister Hasanul Haq Inu’s meeting with media representatives to discuss their concerns about the bill.
On September 27, the European Union reiterated its concern over passage of Digital Security Bill saying it unduly restricts the freedom of expression and media and undermines judicial procedural guarantees.
In its current form, the bill could be used to ‘suppress and criminalise’ the legitimate exercise of these freedoms, EU said in a joint statement.
It found that the bill was passed while journalists and freethinkers were on protests terming it a black law which they said would gag the country’s freedom of media and expression.
‘We call upon the government of Bangladesh to continue consultations on this bill and pursue the commitments made during the universal periodic review last May, so as to ensure that the Digital Security Bill will be in accordance with the universal declaration of human rights, the international covenant on civil and political rights, as well as the constitution of Bangladesh,’ said the statement.
The statement was jointly issued by ambassador of the delegation of the European Union Rensje Teerink, Italian ambassador in Bangladesh Mario Palma, Spanish envoy Álvaro de Salas Giménez de Azcárate, Swedish ambassador Charlotta Schlyter, French envoy Marie-Annick Bourdin, German ambassador Peter Fahrenholtz, Dutch ambassador-designate Harry Verweij, Danish ambassador-designate Winnie Estrup Petersen, acting British high commissioner Kanbar Hossein-Bor, Norwegian envoy Sidsel Bleken and Swiss ambassador in Bangladesh René Holenstein.
On September 24, New York-based international rights organisation Human Rights Watch said in a statement that the bill, passed by the Bangladesh parliament, despite vehement opposition from the country’s journalists, would strike a blow to freedom of speech in the country.
The law, which replaces the much-criticised ICT Act, retains most of problematic provisions of that law and adds more provisions criminalising peaceful speech.
The new bill was a tool ripe for abuse and a clear violation of the country’s obligations under international law to protect free speech, said Brad Adams, Asia director.
‘With at least five provisions criminalising vaguely defined types of speech, the law is a licence for wide-ranging suppression of critical voices,’ he says.
The HRW also stated that the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the independent expert body that monitors compliance with International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bangladesh was a party, expressly stated that laws that penalised the expression of opinions about historical facts were incompatible with a country’s obligations to respect freedom of opinion and expression.
‘The passage of this law utterly undermines any claim that the government of Bangladesh respects freedom of speech,’ Adams points out.
‘Unless the parliament moves swiftly to repeal the law it just passed, the rights of the country’s citizens to speak freely will remain under serious threat,’ he states.
September 21, Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent press freedom advocacy organisation headquartered in the US, expressed its deeply concern about the bill.
Steven Butler, Asia programme coordinator at CPJ, in a statement urged the president to exercise his constitutional authority to return the legislation to Parliament for revisions that would eliminate these dangers.
‘Specifically, we ask that legislators address the concerns that have been expressed repeatedly by the community of journalists in Bangladesh,’ he says.
One of the most worrisome provisions of the bill is an amendment added at the last minute in Section 43, which will allow police to arrest or search individuals without a warrant, it points out.
In addition, it says, the bill includes problematic aspects of Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act, despite public promises by government ministers to eliminate it.
Section 57 has been repeatedly used to imprison journalists in defamation cases. Government ministers previously acknowledged that police misused Section 57, and had promised that procedures would be established to prevent this.
Instead, it finds, journalists continue to be subject to the danger of arbitrary arrest in the normal course of their activities.
Also of concern is the inclusion of the colonial-era Official Secrets Act in the Digital Security Bill, which seems to contradict the Right to Information provisions included elsewhere in the legislation.
The extension of the Official Secrets Act into the digital sphere escalates the hazards faced by investigative journalists who play a vital role exposing corruption in government.
The extremely heavy fines and punishments, up to Tk 50 million and life imprisonment depending on the offense, threaten to make journalism an unacceptably hazardous profession and will, it fears, result in a timid press that cannot play the important role required to support a vital democracy in Bangladesh.
The CPJ is similarly concerned that the vague descriptions of potential offenses, such as hurting religious values or causing deterioration in law and order, would invite arbitrary use and misuse of the law to restrict the media.
On September 20, in a statement, Amnesty International’s South Asia campaigner Saad Hammadi said, ‘This law imposes dangerous restrictions on freedom of expression. Instead of learning from the lessons of the past, it seeks to repeat them. Given how the authorities have arbitrarily arrested hundreds of people in the past six years under the Information and Communication Technology Act, there are serious concerns that the new Act will be used against people who speak out’.
Shushashoner Jonno Nagorik, better known as Shujan, a civil society platform, has also voiced concerns over the bill as several sections of the law can be misused to harass citizens and gag the press.
Rights activists at the Committee for the Protection of Fundamental Rights, a citizen’s platform, on September 29 termed the bill draconian, and apprehended that freedom of expression would no longer exist in the country if the law was enacted.
National Human Rights Commission, however, made no statement over the passage of the bill along with many other local rights groups.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Dhaka's Pollution Focus