(New York) – The Digital Security Act passed by the Bangladeshi parliament last week, despite vehement opposition from the country’s journalists, strikes a blow to freedom of speech in the country, Human Rights Watch said today. The law, which replaces the much-criticized Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT), retains the most problematic provisions of that law and adds more provisions criminalizing peaceful speech.

“The new Digital Security Act is a tool ripe for abuse and a clear violation of the country’s obligations under international law to protect free speech,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “With at least five provisions criminalizing vaguely defined types of speech, the law is a license for wide-ranging suppression of critical voices.” 

Several provisions violate international standards on free expression.

Section 21 authorizes sentences of up to 14 years in prison for spreading “propaganda and campaign against liberation war of Bangladesh or spirit of the liberation war or Father of the Nation.” The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the independent expert body that monitors compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Bangladesh is a party, has expressly stated laws that penalize the expression of opinions about historical facts are incompatible with a country’s obligations to respect freedom of opinion and expression.

Section 25(a) authorizes sentences of up to three years for publishing information that is “aggressive or frightening” – broad terms not defined in the law. The use of such vague terms violates the requirement that laws restricting speech be formulated with sufficient precision to make clear what speech would violate the law. The vagueness, combined with the harsh potential penalty, increases the likelihood of self-censorship.

Section 31 imposes sentences of up to 10 years for posting information that “ruins communal harmony or creates instability or disorder or disturbs or is about to disturb the law and order situation.” With no clear definition of what speech would be considered a violation of the law, the provision leaves the government-wide scope to prosecute speech it does not like. Moreover, almost any criticism of the government may lead to dissatisfaction and the possibility of public protests. The government should not be able to punish criticism on the grounds that it may “disturb the law and order situation.”

Section 31 also covers speech that “creates animosity, hatred, or antipathy among the various classes and communities.” While preventing inter-communal strife is important, it must be done in ways that restrict speech as little as possible. UN human rights experts have stated that restrictions on public debate in the name of racial harmony must not be imposed to the “detriment of human rights, such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.” The law’s overly broad definition of “hate speech” opens the door for arbitrary and abusive application of the law and creates an unacceptable chill on the discussion of issues relating to race and religion.

Section 29, like the much-abused section 57 of ICT Act, criminalizes online defamation. While section 29, unlike the ICT Act, limits defamation charges to those that meet the requirements of criminal defamation in the penal code, it is nevertheless contrary to a growing recognition that defamation should be considered a civil matter, not a crime punishable with imprisonment.

Section 28 authorizes sentences of up to five years in prison for speech that “injures religious values or sentiments.” While this provision, unlike section 57 of the ICT, requires intent, it still fails to comply with international norms. As noted in the seminal Handyside case, freedom of expression is applicable not only to information or ideas “that are favorably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock, or disturb the State or any sector of the population.” A prohibition on speech that hurts someone’s religious feelings, reinforced by criminal penalties, cannot be justified as a necessary and proportionate restriction on speech.

The new law also grants law enforcement authorities wide-ranging powers to remove or block online information that “harms the unity of the country or any part of it, economic activities, security, defense, religious value or public order or spreads communal hostility and hatred,” and to conduct warrantless searches and seizures if a police officer has reason to believe it is possible that “any offense under the Act” has been or is being committed.

Journalists in Bangladesh also opposed section 32 of the law, which authorizes up to 14 years for gathering, sending, or preserving classified information of any government using a computer or other digital device, noting that doing so is a means to expose wrongful actions by officials. The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression has stressed the need to protect, not prosecute, those who disclose information in the public interest, and the Global Principles on National Security and the Right to Information make clear that journalists should not be prosecuted for receiving, possessing or disclosing even classified information to the public.

“I don’t know why our journalists are becoming so sensitive,” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said, asserting that the law was for the national good. “Journalism is surely not for increasing conflict, or for tarnishing the image of the country.”

The Bangladesh Editors’ Council has said it will protest the passage of the Act as “against the freedom guaranteed by the constitution, media freedom and freedom of speech.”

“The passage of this law utterly undermines any claim that the government of Bangladesh respects freedom of speech,” Adams said. “Unless parliament moves swiftly to repeal the law it just passed, the rights of the country’s citizens to speak freely will remain under serious threat.”