Digital Security Act (DSA) 2018 was passed in Bangladesh on Oct 1, 2018, to address cybercrime and related issues. The law was introduced to update and replace the previous Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, which had been criticized for its overly broad provisions and potential for misuse. DSA criminalizes a wide range of online activities, including the spreading of fake information, propaganda, or pornography, as well as cyberbullying, hacking, and identity theft. The law also includes provisions for the surveillance and monitoring of online activities by the government.
The law has been scrutinized with several controversies, with many calling for its repeal or amendment to ensure that it does not undermine human rights, including the right to freedom of expression. The 2018 national elections in Bangladesh were reportedly marred by huge irregularities including ballot stuffing on the previous night, intimidation and harassment of opposition politicians and critics of the ruling Awami League government under the DSA.
DSA also attracts criticisms for its vague and broad language, which has led to concerns that it could be used to stifle free speech and target legitimate expression and dissent. Critics have also argued that the law lacks sufficient safeguards to ensure that it is not misused to target journalists, activists, and other individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression.
How Digital Security Act 2018 is stamping out decent?
In a statement, by Volker Türk, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights over 2,000 cases have been filed under the Digital Security Act since it was enforced on October 1, 2018. The statement highlights the arrest of a journalist and editor of Prothom Alo, Shams Zaman and Matiur Rahman respectively, for publishing a report on rising prices on Independence Day. Shams Zaman was arrested on March 29, and his laptop, phone, and other equipment were seized during a house search. Despite his bail application, it was rejected, indicating the severity of the situation. The statement also cites the case of Poritosh Sarkar, who was sentenced to five years in prison in February for a Facebook post that allegedly hurt religious sentiments.
Poritosh was sentenced under Section 31(1) of the Digital Security Act (DSA), which criminalizes the publication of anything that “creates enmity, hatred or hostility among different classes or communities of the society, or destroys communal harmony”. The comments made by Poritosh were deemed to be insulting to Islam and Prophet Muhammad, and as a result, he was charged and sentenced under this provision. The blasphemy provision in Bangladesh criminalizes the insulting or outraging of religious feelings. Specifically, Section 295A of the Penal Code makes it a criminal offense to “deliberately and maliciously” insult the “religious beliefs or feelings” of any class of citizens.
Both the DSA and the blasphemy provision have been controversial, with critics arguing that they are overly broad and can be used to stifle free speech and target political opponents or religious minorities. There have been instances where both laws have been used to silence dissenting voices or criticism of the government or religious institutions. The case of Poritosh highlights the ongoing debate in Bangladesh and elsewhere about the appropriate balance between free speech and regulation of online content, particularly in the context of preventing hate speech and promoting communal harmony, while the blasphemy law raises similar concerns in relation to religious beliefs and sensitivities.
Volker Türk also expressed concerns over the broad and unclear provisions of the Act. While the government promised safeguards to prevent the arbitrary or excessive application of the law, Türk said that arrests continue and called for a proper overhaul of the law. He also urged the creation of an independent judicial panel to review all cases filed under the Digital Security Act to release those accused. Türk also reiterated his concern about the ongoing trial of Adilur Rahman Khan and Nasiruddin Elan from the now-deregistered Odhikar human rights organisation, who are accused of falsely reporting about alleged human rights violations in a 2013 case.
The pattern of events suggests that the DSA is being used to silence journalists and individuals who express their opinions online, which raises concerns about freedom of expression and the protection of civil rights in Bangladesh.
Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), a legal aid and human rights organization in Bangladesh, reported that at least 56 journalists from various media outlets have faced mistreatment, intimidation, or legal action across the country in 2023. This development raises concerns about the safety and protection of journalists and their freedom to report, which are fundamental rights that must be upheld in any democratic society.
Despite the Law Minister’s repeated assurances of being vigilant in taking cases under the Digital Security Act (DSA), the recent actions of the government appear to contradict this commitment and have encouraged people to file such cases. The Minister, however, stated that individuals offended by a report were behind the case and that the law would take its course, implying that more cases may be filed against journalists. In response, several local and international groups, including the Media Freedom Coalition, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Transparency International Bangladesh, the Editors Council, university teachers, and writers, have demanded the journalist’s release and repeal of DSA.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has reported that Bangladesh’s position in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index has dropped to 162nd out of 180 countries. This is a significant dip from 152nd position in 2021. The organization has further stated that journalistic freedom in Bangladesh is shrinking rapidly, especially with less than a year left until the parliamentary elections scheduled for January 2024. These developments have led various groups to call on Sheikh Hasina to put an end to the increasingly authoritarian approach taken by her government towards media criticism.
Global human rights organization ARTICLE 19 has also expressed apprehension that the Digital Security Act (DSA) violates international human rights standards, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Noteworthy that Bangladesh is a signatory to ICCPR. ICCPR recognizes freedom of expression as a fundamental human right, which encompasses the right to impart and receive information of all types irrespective of borders. ARTICLE 19 argued that provisions of the DSA, which criminalize online speech, are too broad and ambiguous, and can be employed to target legitimate dissent and expression. The organisation further raised concerns about the lack of safeguards within the legislation. This lacuna could be used to target journalists, activists, and other individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression.
“The Digital Security Act (DSA)-2018 contravenes the existing international instruments on human rights signed by Bangladesh. This law allows the arrest of anyone without prior permission from the court and without allowing self-defence of the accused. Even most of the provisions of DSA are non-bailable, which is a violation of a person’s fundamental human rights. Since its enactment, DSA has not been able to ensure the digital security of the public although it has served the government to suppress dissent.”
-Faruq Faisel, South Asia Regional Director of ARTICLE 19
Faisel has raised concerns regarding the enforcement of three proposed legislations, namely the Personal Data Protection Bill 2021, Regulation for Digital, Social Media, and OTT Platforms 2021, and Over the Top (OTT) Content-Based Service Provider and Administration Policy 2021. According to Faisel, these regulations will not only limit civil rights in the digital space but potentially enable the government to exercise control over social media and individual data.
These concerns are critical, as the law’s broad and vague provisions could be used to suppress the exercise of free speech, violating the fundamental human rights of individuals.
During a round table discussion organized by the Editors Guild Bangladesh, concerns were raised that it is essential for everyone to have the freedom to express their opinions and access information without any fear. However, it was also emphasized that hate speech, misinformation, and disinformation cannot be allowed to spread. Installation of a fact-checking system in the media to ensure public safety is need of the hour, the group opined.
In a statement released, Volker Türk urged the government of Bangladesh to immediately suspend the implementation of the Digital Security Act. He expressed his concern that the Act is being utilized by the authorities to suppress critical journalistic voices online. He further urged authorities to undertake comprehensive reforms of the Act to align with the standards of international human rights law.
Türk stated that his office has already provided detailed technical comments to assist with the revision process.
What OHCHR has to say?
OHCHR has recommended the removal of two sections of the Digital Security Act (DSA) in Bangladesh, namely Sections 21 and 28. OHCHR also highlighted concerns about the curbing of freedom of speech related to respect towards the authorities, the national flag, or symbols. The committee recommended that Section 21 be removed as it violates the freedom of expression and is not compatible with Section 19(3) of ICCPR.
OHCHR recommended Section 28 be scrapped as it lacks the required clarity and its severe than that provided in the Bangladesh Penal Code (Section 295A). OHCHR also highlighted that this section is not compatible with Article 19(3) of ICCPR, which specifies the circumstances under which such an offence can be considered.
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What needs to change?
Criminalization of legitimate forms of expression is one of the main areas of concern regarding the DSA, according to the recommendations of the OHRCR. The definition of criminalization in the DSA is overly broad and lacks clarity, with severe punishments, including life imprisonment for repeat offences. The OHRCR points out that Section 19 (3) of the International Convention for Civil and Political Rights, which Bangladesh has signed, requires that the cause of an offence be specified for both the public and law enforcement to understand. Without such clarity, there is an increased risk of abuse in the enforcement of this law.
The government must uphold the freedom of the press and ensure the safety of journalists. The use of the DSA to intimidate, arrest, and charge journalists with vague and broad offences violates international human rights law and undermines the country’s democratic principles. There is a pressing need to reform the DSA’s provisions and ensure that it is aligned with international human rights standards. The government must also ensure that the law is not abused by those who seek to suppress freedom of expression and the press. Local and international human rights groups must continue monitoring the Bangladesh situation and hold the government accountable for its actions.
About the author …
Junaid Suhais is a diligent academic writer whose research delves into the intersection of Artificial Intelligence and International Relations, specifically in diplomacy, foreign policy, and cyber security. His aim is to generate insightful and thought-provoking contributions that amplify our comprehension of these crucial areas.
Aside from his academic endeavors, Junaid Suhais is an adept photographer who captures the world’s magnificence and intricacy in a unique and innovative manner. He approaches his writing and photography with modesty and reverence, acknowledging that there is always room for growth and discovery.
Furthermore, Junaid Suhais is an independent journalist who covers diverse topics related to international affairs. He is currently pursuing his academic interests at the prestigious MMAJ Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia.