Bracing against notorious cyber law

Saleem Samad
Thursday, February 8th, 2018
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The Bangladesh government has approved a draft Digital Security Act 2018, which is dubbed as another draconian law against a free press. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, at an official meeting of the ministers on 29 January, gave her consent to the proposed law.

 

The new law will replace certain sections of the infamous Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act of 2006 (amended in 2013).

 

The proposed new cyber law, new wine in an old bottle, baffles most media practitioners, media rights defenders and human rights groups, but the present government of ruling Awami League and its political alliance, with barely a year left in its second tenure (2014-2018), decided to have the law.

 

Surprisingly, the notorious Section 57 of ICT Act has crept into the new law, despite assurances by top officials of the government of eliminating the controversial provision.

 

Section 57 deals with defamation, hurting religious sentiments, causing deterioration of law and order and instigating against any person or organisation through publishing or transmitting any material on websites or in electronic form. It stipulates maximum 14 years in prison for the offences.

 

The government earlier argued that the new law was envisaged to combat increasing cyber crimes that are affecting many government and private organizations, including Bangladesh Bank.

 

In the absence of an opposition in the parliament, the new law will be passed and it is feared by media rights defenders and rights groups that it would be used as sword by law enforcing agencies, politicians and administration to gag freedom of expression.

 

Media practitioners, media rights defenders and human rights groups believe that it is likely that the new law will be widely misused after it has been passed the parliament. It will be misused by the law enforcing agencies, ruling party politicians and the civil administration.

 

For the first time in the political history of Bangladesh, a law has been proposed by any democratic government ever, which will only protect the regime. The draft digital security law does not provide sufficient safeguard for the protection of human rights and specifically reference international human rights standards.

 

Manipulating social media in the blame game of cyber security, will undermine democracy.

 

Most of the ministers, lawmakers and ruling party leaders have thanked the government of Sheikh Hasina for an appropriate law to shield against what they call the onslaught of media.

 

The new cyber security law will not only gag free press, but will also increase detention of bloggers for blasphemy, intimidate historians and writers for researching on Bangladesh liberation war and political history.

 

The new law will severely dent the civil society, as it will curb citizen’s rights to dissent and protest against any state policy. The right to dissent is enshrined in the constitution.

 

Rights group argue that the new law will further curtail freedom of religion, religious liberty, as many more would be accused for blasphemy in a Muslim majoritarian nation. Whereas, the state constitution has provision, that a citizen may or may not have a religion. There are several ethnic groups described as “cultural minorities” in Bangladesh, who do not belong to any formal religion or religious sects like the Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian.

 

More than 25 journalists were sued under the notorious Section 57 of ICT Act, while scores of bloggers and hundreds of Facebook users were accused of blasphemy and tarnishing image of the government, prime minister, politicians and government officials and are languishing in prison for months and years. Those accused on bail are tired appearing in various courts, including the Cyber Crime Tribunal.

 

Currently, 701 cases filed under section 57 are pending with the Cyber Crime Tribunal.

Most journalists were able to seek bail from higher court and only few cases were squashed by Cyber Crime Tribunal, which is less than one percent of the total cases lodged in the tribunal.

 

The proposed law describes some crimes as “non-bailable” and allows a police official to search or arrest anyone without a warrant in special circumstances.

 

The proposed law has a section 43, which gives license to police officers to search or arrest anyone without any warrant issued by a court.

 

The officer can arrest any person if he or she suspects that the person has committed or is committing crimes. In such a case, the officer has to submit a report to the court after carrying out the search, it added.

 

This proposed section 32, is tantamount to infringement of fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution.

 

In a landmark verdict of High Court and later upheld by Supreme Court in May 2016, a guideline on arrests and interrogation of suspects, refrains police force from making arbitrary arrests on suspicion and torturing arrestees on remand.

 

Bangladesh as a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Bangladesh must ensure that any of its laws attempting to regulate electronic and Internet-based modes of expression comply with international standards on freedom of expression. Hence, there is concerns about possible conflicts with international human rights standards within the proposed law.

 

Saleem Samad is an Ashoka Fellow (USA) for investigative journalism

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