The proposed Digital Security Bill will violate Bangladesh's international obligation to protect freedom of speech, said Human Rights Watch.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, the human rights watchdog stated: "Scores of people have been arrested over the past five years in Bangladesh under section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT Act) for criticizing the government, political leaders, and others on Facebook, as well as in blogs, online newspapers, or other social media, Human Rights Watch said in a new report published today."
"A proposed Digital Security Bill to replace the existing abusive law, however, is in some respects even broader than the one it seeks to replace and violates the country’s international obligation to protect freedom of speech," it added.
Bangladesh will undergo the scrutiny of its human rights record at the United Nations Human Rights Council on May 14, 2018, as part of a process known as the Universal Periodic Review, the statement read.
"The government should take this opportunity to commit to ending its crackdown on dissent and criticism, including that made by the political opposition, and instead, pledge to lead a robust public campaign on the right to free expression," it added. "This should include taking strong action against militant groups who seek to suppress free speech by engaging in violent attacks on those holding different religious views, Human Rights Watch said."
“The government of Bangladesh acknowledges that the current section 57 of the ICT Act is draconian, and needs to go,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But the new law being proposed is hardly an improvement, creating a series of new offences that will undoubtedly be used for years to come against government critics in the country’s highly politicized criminal justice system.”
The 89-page report, “No Place for Criticism: Bangladesh Crackdown on Social Media Commentary” details dozens of arbitrary arrests since the Information and Communication Technology Act 2006 was amended in 2013.
As of April 2018, the police had submitted 1,271 charge sheets to the Cyber Tribunal in Dhaka, claiming sufficient evidence to prosecute under section 57 of the ICT Act.
Section 57 of ICT Act authorizes the prosecution of any person who publishes, in electronic form, material that is fake and obscene; defamatory; “tends to deprave and corrupt” its audience; causes, or may cause, “deterioration in law and order;” prejudices the image of the state or a person; or “causes or may cause hurt to religious belief.”
The 2013 amendments eliminated the need for arrest warrants and official permission to prosecute, restricted the use of bail to release detainees pending trial, and increased prison terms if convicted.
A new Cyber Tribunal dedicated to dealing with offences under the ICT Act was also established. As a result, the number of complaints to the police, arrests, and prosecutions has soared.
The statement further said: "Press freedom is also under threat from section 57. Many journalists and editors have been arrested for online articles alleging corruption, maladministration, or criticizing particular individuals."
While the Cyber Tribunal provides no official data on the number of convictions and acquittals, anecdotal evidence suggests few people have been convicted to date, it added. " However, the mere fact that people are being arrested and detained for online speech is likely to have a chilling effect on speech and dissent, regardless of whether those individuals are ultimately convicted."
"Acknowledging that section 57 has been misused, the government has proposed to replace the law with a new Digital Security Act that they argue places some checks and balances on arrests over speech.
"However, the bill currently being considered by parliament will continue to significantly restrict freedom of speech in Bangladesh," Human Rights Watch said.
It stated: "Bangladesh’s journalists are concerned that the proposed law includes provisions that will treat the use of secret recordings to expose corruption and other crimes as espionage, arguing it will restrict investigative journalism and muzzle media freedom."
“Bangladesh authorities should accept that criticism, however unpleasant and hurtful, is part of public life and can serve to correct mistakes and provide redress,” said Adams. “The government should work with domestic and international experts to draft a new law that fully upholds the principles of free speech and internet freedom.”