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Advocates Question Whether Reforms Will Offer Bangladesh Media Greater Protection

FILE - Protesters demonstrate against the death in prison of a writer who was arrested on charges of violating the Digital Security Act, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Feb. 26, 2021. A proposed Cyber Security Act, to be voted on in September 2023, is intended to replace the DSA.

Bangladesh’s parliament is poised to vote on the Cyber Security Act when it reconvenes next month.

The law is intended to replace the Digital Security Act — a piece of legislation widely criticized for being used to harass and silence journalists and opposition voices.

Dhaka announced earlier this month that it would repeal the law, in a move welcomed by the United States. A State Department spokesperson said that the law had been “used to arrest, detain and silence critics.”

The proposed replacement is intended to reform aspects of the existing law. But journalists and civil society groups warn that the draft has some troubling and vague language, and they have called on the government to consult human rights experts.

Saydia Gulrukh, a journalist who reports on labor issues for the daily newspaper New Age, told VOA that what Bangladesh needs is to decriminalize speech. She added that the proposed law in no way addresses the cause of democratic governance of cyberspace in Bangladesh.

For Beh Lih Yi, the Asia program coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists, the decision to replace the Digital Security Act, or DSA, is an admission that the law was used to muzzle criticism.

But, said Yi, the reform “is essentially a rebranding exercise, and the proposed Cyber Security Act is old wine in a new bottle.”

The draft act incorporates several of the vague and repressive sections of the Digital Security Act that were used to jail and harass journalists, creating a culture of fear, Yi said.

While jail terms are reduced or eliminated in some sections, Yi said, “the proposed law does not provide enough safeguards.” She warned that it could still “be used to silence critical voices, including the work of journalists.”

Watchdogs have documented apparent misuse of the DSA since it was enacted in 2018.

Between October 2022 and March of this year, the Vienna-based International Press Institute documented nine cases of journalists being charged under the existing law.

An earlier report by the Centre for Governance Studies, a Bangladeshi think tank, said the law was cited in 1,029 cases, including 301 involving politicians and 280 directed at journalists.

One of those was freelancer Mushtaq Ahmed, who died of a heart attack while in custody in February 2011.

Ahmed, who posted political commentary to social media, was one of 11 people named in a complaint in early 2020 over accusations of posting disinformation about the pandemic. He was denied bail at least six times and, at the time of his death, had spent nine months in custody.

“Authorities are yet to conduct a transparent and impartial investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death,” said Yi. She noted that the revised law also doesn’t go far enough to “provide safeguards against prolonged pretrial detention.”

With elections scheduled for January 2024, Yi said she would urge the government to drop all cases filed against media under the Digital Security Act so that journalists can work without fear of reprisal.

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting did not respond to VOA’s email requesting comment.

Last month, Anisul Huq, the minister for Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, said that a six-member team is working with the United Nations to assess potential human rights violations under the outgoing law. Saying that journalists “are of great importance to the government,” the minister said that representatives from the communications, technology and law ministries were looking into the law.

Gulrukh, of New Age, said the proposed law has some changes but called them mainly “cosmetic.”

“Some offenses that were previously not eligible for bail are now eligible; others have had their jail sentences either lowered or eliminated. A minor redistribution of penalties is proposed,” she said.

The journalist said that under the proposal, penalties for “propaganda against the father of the nation, the national anthem or the national flag” are reduced from 10 to seven years in prison; the maximum sentence for “hurting religious sentiment” drops from five to two years; and the five-year term for defamation is replaced with a maximum fine of around $22,830.

But, she said, “historically and politically prejudiced terms and figures such as ‘propaganda against the spirit of the Liberation War,’ ‘father of the nation, national anthem and national flag’ are left vague and vulnerable to partisan interpretation and carry the risk of repeating the past abuse of law.”

The international rights organization Article 19 has urged Bangladesh to establish a judicial committee to analyze incidents that include deaths in custody and potential injustices linked to misuse of the Digital Security Act from its creation in 2018 to 2023.

Faruq Faisel, South Asia regional director for Article 19, told VOA that citizens, journalists, activists and some diplomats have little trust in the government's intention to reform the law.

Others, like Syeda Aireen Jaman, secretary general at PEN International Bangladesh, told VOA that any replacement law “must respect the right to freedom of expression.”

“The government has to take the final decision after discussing with human rights defenders, media leaders, editors,” she said. “It must not see the law as a weapon to curtail freedom of speech or criminalize dissent, but draft a bill to democratize the digital space.”

Bangladesh’s parliament is set to reconvene on Sept. 3.