Bangladesh is aiming to enact a controversial digital security law aimed at tackling digital crimes. But experts fear the proposed legislation could also be used to muzzle freedom of expression in the polarized nation.
"With increased digital services, crimes not only occur online but also through digital services. So we are planning to enact a more elaborate act to tackle all sorts of digital crimes." These are the words of Bangladesh's State Minister for Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Junaid Ahmed Palak, speaking on January 12 at a press conference in the capital Dhaka about the so-called Digital Security Act 2016.
Aimed at tackling cyber crime, the draft law reportedly includes provisions for a maximum punishment of 14 years in jail for offenders. The government also claims the new rules will bring an end to the controversies surrounding Section 57 of the 2006 Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, which regulates Internet use in the South Asian nation.
The section has been used against journalists, and criminalizes publishing or transmitting false or obscene content in electronic form which causes any deterioration of law and order, hurts the religious sentiments of people, or tarnishes the image of the state or of any person.
In its latest amendment in 2013, the ICT granted law enforcers the right to arrest any person without warrant. Moreover, offences under Section 57 were made non-bailable and the maximum penalty was extended to 14-year imprisonment. Fines imposed can reportedly go as high as 10 million taka ($127,000). Critics say the provision effectively muzzles freedom of speech and expression.
Speaking to journalists, Law Minister Anisul Huq sought to ease concerns about the government's latest plans: "When the new law is passed, Sections 54, 55, 56, and 57 may be repealed [in the ICT Act] and taken within the purview of the new law to avoid duplication," he said, adding that the new law would not be "unjust" for journalists.
ICT Minister Palak added the new law would address the issues in a "clearer manner." "The offences stipulated in Section 57 of the ICT Act are defined more precisely in the new law," he was quoted by bdnews24.com as saying. More discussions would be held before finalizing the draft to avoid inconsistencies between the new law and the ICT Act, the minister stressed.
Attacks on free speech
The discussion about the new draft law comes at a time when the South Asian nation is growing increasingly polarized. Not only has the country seen unrest over controversial death sentences imposed by the International Crimes Tribunal - a special court designed to mete out justice for the atrocities committed during the country's independence war - it has also witnessed a surge in violence against those seeking freedom of expression.
In recent months, Bangladesh has seen a number of attacks on bloggers and publishers carried out by suspected religious fundamentalists. Four atheist bloggers have been killed for their writings criticizing Islam.
"Bangladesh is facing a problem of militancy. A large number of groups has cropped up and is carrying out attacks on religious and sectarian minorities, as well as people having different ideologies or views," Dr. Amit Ranjan, a Bangladesh expert at the Indian Council of World Affairs, told DW.
To tackle the problem, Dhaka has decided to enhance police capability in combating militancy and terrorism, and created special units to combat cybercrime, terror financing and mobile banking related crimes.
However, some of the measures taken by the government are not without controversy. For instance, social media sites such as Facebook have been temporarily blocked, and, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), journalists have been under heightened pressure when reporting critically on authorities.
More restrictions on social media?
In light of this development, analysts and activists alike are concerned that the proposed act may end up expanding the power of the government to clamp down on dissenting voices.
Joyeeta Bhattacharjee, a Bangladesh expert at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, points out that Dhaka is right to be concerned about significant rise in cybercrime in Bangladesh. But the true challenge, she adds, will be the way in which the new legislation is implemented. "The government has to ensure the new laws won't be misused."
Jotirmoy Barua, a Bangladesh-based lawyer told DW that if Section 57 is actually repealed, as suggested by government ministers, "then we shall welcome that step." However, he added, if these articles are removed from the existing legislation, but instead incorporated into the new law, then that is to be criticized.
Dr. Ali Riaz, a Bangladesh expert and professor at Illinois State University, has a similar view. "The government has not said that the content of the Section 57 won't be incorporated in the new law. If the same or harsher punishments are in the new law, which in turn would make it more intrusive, then removing Section 57 of the ICT would be of no benefit."
And given that existing laws such as the ICT Act have been abused by the government in the past years, says Riaz, the new act "has the potential to impose further restrictions on social media."
Riaz believes democratic space, particularly freedom of expression, is rapidly shrinking in Bangladesh and despite the apparent calm, the political situation in the country is far from stable.
"Therefore, further stifling of freedom of expression will be detrimental to the country in the long-run," Riaz told DW.