Bangladesh has been quietly strengthening its laws curtailing freedom of expression - with dangerous results
In 1930s Germany, it was a criminal act to listen to “enemy broadcasters” from overseas. Anyone caught flouting this law faced imprisonment in a concentration camp. Today, Russian journalists referring to the invasion of Ukraine as a “war” - or defying the official Russian narrative at all - face 15 years in prison.
Controlling the media - and demonising journalists who don’t toe the “correct” line - is nothing new. It has been adopted by rulers across the world throughout history - and not just by dictators.
Bangladesh is just one supposedly democratic country, where the law is coming dangerously close to making journalism a crime.
The Government of Bangladesh is currently planning to introduce yet another new set of laws under the banner of the “Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission Regulation for Digital, Social Media and OTT Platforms”, a draft of which was published in February this year.
A total of 45 international organisations have called on the government to withdraw it amid concerns over freedom of expression.
This is just the latest step in Bangladesh’s long road towards curtailing freedom of speech, adding to the already existing, draconian 2018 Digital Security Act.
These digital security laws did not spring out of a vacuum. The Information and Communication Technology Act, which was passed in 2006 under the BNP-Jamaat government, was used to arrest more than 1,200 people. It has been actively used by all parties, not just BNP-Jamaat. Not only did the Awami League-led government make ample use of this draconian law, it amended the act in 2013 to clamp down on free speech on the internet even more.
There was widespread criticism over the misuse of Section 57 of the ICT Act by different human rights groups and civil societies. Section 57 of the Act authorises prosecution of anyone who publishes, in electronic form, material deemed fake, obscene, defamatory, or any material that “tends to deprave or corrupt” its audience. It also allows for prosecution if content may “cause hurt to religious beliefs”.
Dissident writer Mushtaq Ahmed was arrested for posting comments on social media about the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. He died in prison
The law is vague and open to interpretation. Photographer Shahidul Alam was arrested under Section 57 of the ICT act and spent 107 days in jail. He was charged with “spreading rumours” against the government for criticising the government's handling of a road safety protest over the death of two school students in a road accident.
But rather than revise its authoritarian approach, the Bangladesh government ramped up its efforts to curtail free speech even more in 2018, when it introduced the new Digital Security Act (DSA).
The DSA now includes life imprisonment for offenders, and uses terms and provisions which are excessively broad and open to interpretation.
Section 25 of the Act criminalises “spreading information with an intention to affect the image or reputation of the country or to spread confusion”. This is so broad and unspecific that it could very well target journalists who are deemed to not be doing enough to enhance the “image or reputation of the country”.
For example, the United States has sanctioned RAB officials over its handling of human rights in Bangladesh. This information certainly affects the image of the country, and the DSA empowers anyone to file a case against any journalist who merely states the facts on any online media.
The DSA also allows the authorities to arrest anyone, search their premises and seize any equipment without any judicial approval.
Dissident writer Mushtaq Ahmed was arrested in May 2020 on charges of violating the DSA for posting comments on social media about the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Police charged Ahmed with spreading rumours on social media, tarnishing the image of the country’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and “hurting the spirit of the 1971 liberation war”. His application for bail was denied six times.
He died in the country’s high-security Kashimpur jail after languishing there for nine months without trial. According to media reports, Mushtaq Ahmed was tortured in police custody. Cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore, who was also imprisoned after posting satirical cartoons on Facebook, also claimed he had been tortured in custody.
While the DSA targets critical voices on social media and other digital platforms, mainstream media and journalists are not safe from the Act. The Centre for Governance Studies (CGS) tracked a total of 890 charges under DSA from January 2020 to March 3, 2022, and found that 8.6 percent were brought against mainstream journalists.
Journalists warned about the potential ramifications of the Act from the very beginning. The Editor’s Council in Bangladesh raised its concerns about the Act during meetings with the government, warning that it would harm freedom of expression.
A 15-year-old child was arrested for 'defaming' the prime minister in a Facebook post. He was held in a juvenile detention centre
The DSA is not the only tool with which the Government of Bangladesh keeps journalists in check. One of the most discussed cases in the recent times was the arrest of the prestigious Free Press award winner journalist, Rozina Islam, in May 2021 under the country’s 100-year-old Official Secrets Act and the Penal Code.
She was held for more than five hours by government officials for allegedly reporting on corruption in the health sector of Bangladesh during the coronavirus pandemic. Later, officials handed her over to police and brought charges against her for “stealing and photographing of sensitive state documents”, which have never before been used against journalists in Bangladesh since the country’s independence in 1971.
The Digital Security Act ensures non-bailable penalties for at least 14 offences and section 28 of the act criminalises opinions that upset religious sentiments. This law gives licence to arrest anyone who merely reports on this issue.
The law has been taken to extremes. In 2020, a 15-year-old child was arrested for “defaming” the prime minister in a Facebook post. The child was accused of having “badmouthed our mother-like leader”.
He was held in a juvenile detention centre to spend time “realising his mistakes and correcting his character”.
As if this isn’t heavy handed enough, the focus of the new “Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission Regulation for Digital, Social Media and OTT Platforms” law is to govern content on all digital platforms even more strictly using traceability, network neutrality, truncated timelines for content removal and “codes of ethics”.
The ultimate result will be self-censorship by those posting any sort of content online. The question is - why does the government seek “digital safety” so desperately and who is it really for?
Rokeya Lita is a Bangladeshi novelist and journalist currently based in the UK
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera Journalism Review’s editorial stance