- The Digital Security Act was passed despite protests from civil society and journalists
- DSA incorporates other legislation that has been systematically used to silence dissent
- New law comes amid a growing, brutal crackdown on peaceful protests and dissent
Human rights groups have condemned the passing of a new law in Bangladesh that is widely seen as a further blow to media freedom and free speech in the country.
The Digital Security Act, which was passed this week despite strong opposition from journalists and rights campaigners, is intended to replace certain sections of the much-criticized Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT), to enable the continued suppression of critical voices in Bangladesh.
The ICT Act has restricted freedom of expression in Bangladesh since 2013, and Section 57 of the law has been the provision most frequently used to bring charges against critics, activists and other dissenting voices. Scores of journalists have been arbitrarily arrested in terms of this section, for their reporting. The provision has also been described as a “de facto blasphemy law”, as it criminalises anyone who “causes to hurt or may hurt religious belief”.
The new law incorporates Section 57 of the ICT Act and contains other measures that are overly broad and vague, and that impose disproportionate sentences and lengthy prison terms for offenders.
In a letter to the Prime Minister in April 2018, global civil society society, CIVICUS, FORUM-ASIA and the Asian Human Rights Commission had called on the government to review the proposed Digital Security Bill to bring it in line with international human rights law and standards.
“The law is clearly inconsistent with Bangladesh’s human rights obligation and an assault on freedom of expression,” said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS civic space research officer.
“It is extremely disturbing that despite repeated calls to amend the law in recent months, parliament has disregarded this and bulldozed it through.” said Benedict.
In the past year, there has been a deterioration in the space for civil society in Bangladesh. Repressive legislation has been used to target and harass journalists and human rights defenders, impose restrictions on the right to freedom of assembly and the allow for enforced disappearances of opposition supporters. Further, the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), the student wing of the ruling party Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) have attacked peaceful protesters with impunity. Due to this Bangladesh has been added to the CIVICUS Monitor Watch List.
The new law comes amid a systematic assault on civic freedoms in Bangladesh, with arbitrary arrests of peaceful protesters and government critics, a clampdown on protests and attempts to silence Bangladeshi civil society.
Protests, led by students, against a quota system and for improved road safety, have gripped the capital, Dhaka for weeks and have been violently attacked by security forces and groups loyal to the ruling party.
“The international community must do more to call out the state on these abuses. Failing to do so will deepen the climate of impunity in the country,” said Benedict.
CIVICUS has called on the government amend the Digital Security Act and all other laws that restrict freedom of expression, drop all charges against its critics, especially students who have been protesting peacefully, and create a safe and enabling environment for civil society and citizens to exercise their rights without intimidation, harassment, arrest or prosecution.
Yesterday, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted the outcome of Bangladesh’s review of its human rights record and failed to accept 73 recommendations from other governments that were made in May 2018. This includes recommendations pertaining to repealing or amending all laws that violate the rights to freedom of expression such as Section 57 of the ICT Act, provisions related to defamation and sedition and laws that restrict the activities of civil society organisations, including the Foreign Donations Regulation Act of 2016
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