Digital Security Act threatens Bangladesh’s democratic fabric


Bangladesh, a country that has made significant strides in its democratic journey, is facing a concerning threat to its democratic fabric in the form of the Digital Security Act (DSA). Enacted in 2018, this legislation was intended to address digital crimes and cybersecurity concerns. However, the Act’s broad and ambiguous provisions have raised serious concerns among human rights advocates and journalists who fear its potential to suppress free speech, stifle dissent, and undermine democratic values. In this article, we will explore the implications of the Digital Security Act on Bangladesh’s democratic landscape and highlight the pressing need for reform.

In an article, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said: “The DSA, while of recent vintage, is not the first law to curb online freedom of expression in Bangladesh. The DSA was preceded by the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act 2006 (later amended in 2013). Since 2014, the ICT Act has come under harsh criticism as it was widely used to arrest and persecute individuals for expressing their views online. According to Human Rights Watch, Bangladeshi police filed nearly 1,300 charges from 2013 to April 2018 under the ICT Act. Most of these cases were filed under Section 57 of the act, which authorizes the prosecution of anyone who “publishes or transmits . . . in electronic form any material” deemed “fake and obscene”, defamatory, or otherwise likely to “deprave or corrupt” its audience. It also allows for prosecutions stemming from any online material that may cause “law and order” to “deteriorate”; “prejudice the image of the State or [a] person; or “hurt religious belief.” In 2018, the government finally decided to repeal five controversial sections of the ICT Act, including the offending Section 57. But this repeal didn’t result in a freer environment because the DSA essentially incorporated these sections with even harsher penalties”.

The Digital Security Act grants authorities sweeping powers to curb online speech, posing a significant threat to freedom of expression. Vague provisions criminalize any content that the government deems defamatory, offensive, or harmful.

DSA has led to increased self-censorship among journalists, bloggers, and social media users who fear legal repercussions for expressing their opinions. The lack of clarity surrounding what constitutes an offense creates a climate of uncertainty and fear, driving individuals to limit their online activities or resort to anonymous platforms. Such self-censorship erodes the vitality of a democratic society, as diverse perspectives and robust debates are essential for progress.

Journalists play a pivotal role in holding governments accountable and informing the public. However, the Digital Security Act poses a direct threat to journalistic freedom. The Act empowers law enforcement agencies to arrest journalists without a warrant, seize their electronic devices, and conduct surveillance without judicial oversight. These provisions not only undermine the independence of the press but also have a chilling effect on investigative reporting and the exposure of corruption and human rights abuses.

The Digital Security Act has been weaponized by those in power to target critics and dissidents. Human rights defenders, activists, and opposition figures have faced arbitrary arrests, intimidation, and harassment under the guise of combating digital crimes. This abuse of power compromises the fundamental principles of democracy and the rule of law, endangering the very fabric of Bangladesh’s democratic society.

DSA has drawn criticism from international human rights organizations and democratic nations. Concerns have been raised regarding its compatibility with international human rights standards and its potential to stifle freedom of expression. International bodies and foreign governments have urged Bangladesh to revise the Act to ensure it aligns with democratic principles and protects the rights of its citizens.

Journalists worldwide unite in criticizing the Digital Security Act

Across the globe, journalists have raised their voices in collective concern and condemnation against the Digital Security Act. Implemented in various countries, these legislations claim to address digital crimes and cybersecurity threats. However, journalists, who serve as the fourth estate, watchdogs of democracy, and defenders of free speech, are at the forefront of criticizing these acts. In this article, we explore the reasons why journalists worldwide are vehemently opposing the Digital Security Act and its implications for press freedom and democratic values.

Reiterating a call for repealing the Digital Security Act, Irene Khan, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, said the Digital Security Act of Bangladesh imposes draconian punishments for a wide range of vaguely defined acts.

In a report submitted to the 50th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva ending July 8, 2022, she said fake news laws generally failed to meet the three-pronged test of legality, legitimate aims and necessity set out in Article 19 (3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“An example of such flawed legislation is the Digital Security Act of Bangladesh, which imposes draconian punishments for a wide range of vaguely defined acts encompassing national security, criminal cyberlibel and disinformation, and bestows significant and highly intrusive investigative, search and seizure powers on the authorities,” she said in the report.

“Its use has led to the arbitrary detention, torture and custodial death of journalists, and chilled journalism online and offline”, said Irene Khan in the report.

Journalists argue that the Digital Security Act poses a direct threat to press freedom. The broad and ambiguous provisions within these acts empower authorities to suppress critical reporting and investigative journalism. The vagueness surrounding what constitutes an offense creates an environment of uncertainty and fear, leading to self-censorship and inhibiting the press’s ability to fulfill its vital role as a check on power.

The Digital Security Act’s provisions have a chilling effect on journalists and media organizations. The fear of reprisals, including arbitrary arrests, intimidation, and legal repercussions, discourages journalists from pursuing critical stories and holding those in power accountable. The result is a climate of self-censorship, where journalists resort to reporting on safer topics, avoiding necessary scrutiny of government actions and public interest issues.

Investigative journalism, known for uncovering corruption, human rights abuses, and societal injustices, is greatly hindered by the Digital Security Act. The acts grant authorities the power to seize journalists’ electronic devices, conduct surveillance without judicial oversight, and use these measures to impede the gathering of crucial evidence. The erosion of investigative reporting weakens democracy by shielding those in power from scrutiny and inhibiting transparency.

Digital Security Acts often fail to provide adequate protection for whistleblowers and journalistic sources. The fear of surveillance and retaliation makes it increasingly difficult for individuals to come forward with sensitive information that exposes wrongdoing. This lack of protection undermines accountability and stifles avenues for revealing important truths.

Journalists worldwide criticize the Digital Security Act for falling short of international standards and democratic values. The acts often infringe upon freedom of expression, a fundamental right protected by international human rights frameworks.

Journalistic organizations and press freedom advocates argue that these acts undermine democratic principles by granting excessive powers to governments, curtailing civil liberties, and weakening the foundations of a free and independent press.

The Digital Security Act in Bangladesh poses a grave threat to the country’s democratic fabric. The Act’s broad and ambiguous provisions enable authorities to suppress free speech, curtail journalistic freedom, and abuse power to silence dissent. The strong and united voice of journalists worldwide in criticizing the Digital Security Act underscores its detrimental impact on press freedom and democratic values. These acts suppress free speech, discourage critical journalism, and impede the ability of journalists to hold power accountable. As defenders of democracy, journalists advocate for a robust and independent press that operates without fear or interference. It is crucial for governments to recognize the concerns raised by journalists and to revisit these acts, ensuring they align with international standards, protect press freedom, and foster democratic societies where the public’s right to information is valued and respected.


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