Bangladesh is under growing pressure from human rights groups, media organizations and civil society groups to repeal or amend its controversial Digital Security Act (DSA), which has been used to arrest and prosecute hundreds of people for expressing their opinions online.
The DSA, enacted in 2018, contains vague and overbroad provisions that grant the authorities sweeping powers to police the online space and punish anyone who publishes or shares information that is deemed to be false, offensive, defamatory, harmful or against the state’s interests. The law also allows the police to search, seize and arrest individuals without a warrant and imposes harsh penalties, including life imprisonment, for some offences.
According to Amnesty International, a global human rights organization, Bangladesh has at least 433 people imprisoned under the DSA as of July 2021, most of whom are held on allegations of publishing false and offensive information online. Those targeted include journalists, cartoonists, musicians, activists, entrepreneurs, students and even a farmer who cannot read or write, among others.
In one case, writer Mushtaq Ahmed died in prison in February 2021 after being arrested under the DSA for criticizing the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic in his Facebook posts. He was denied bail six times and allegedly tortured in custody. In another case, cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore was severely tortured after his arrest under the DSA for his cartoons criticizing the government. He now lives in exile.
The DSA has also been used to silence dissenting voices on sensitive issues such as the 1971 war of independence, the national anthem, the flag and the nation’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, father of the current prime minister Sheikh Hasina. The law criminalizes engaging in “propaganda” against these symbols and subjects with up to 10 years in jail.
The DSA has been widely condemned by national and international human rights groups, media organizations and civil society groups as a tool to stifle freedom of expression and undermine democracy in Bangladesh. The law has been criticized for violating the right to freedom of expression enshrined under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Bangladesh is a party.
In June 2021, the government announced that it would repeal the DSA and replace it with a new law called the Cyber Security Act (CSA), which would be more compatible with human rights standards. However, the details of the new law have not been made public yet and there are concerns that it may retain some of the problematic provisions of the DSA .
The decision to replace the DSA has come at a time when over 7,000 cases filed under this law are pending before the courts. Amnesty International has urged the authorities to release all prisoners held solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression and to provide them with regular access to adequate healthcare and fair trials. The organization has also called on the authorities to ensure that any new legislation on cyber security is in line with international human rights law and standards.