Bangladesh's Digital Security Act: A Clampdown on Freedom of Expression

Bangladesh's Digital Security Act, enforced in 2018, criminalizes expression and press, resulting in 433 imprisonments and 100 journalists sued, violating human rights and privacy.

Bangladesh's Digital Security Act: A Clampdown on Freedom of Expression
Rear View of a Silhouette Man in Window, by Donald Tong, via Pexels, August 11th, 2016.

19-03-2024

Shahad Ghannam

Legal Human Rights Researcher, 

Global Human Rights Defence

In recent years, Bangladesh has seen a significant tightening of control over freedom of expression and the press, primarily through the enforcement of the Digital Security Act (DSA) of 2018. Enacted with the purported aim of combating cybercrime, the DSA has instead been wielded as a weapon criminalising a wide range of legitimate forms of expression. The Act gives arbitrary powers to law enforcement agencies for searches, seizures, and arrests without warrants, directly contravening the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Bangladesh has ratified.

The DSA contains several contentious sections that have been the focal point of international and local concern. For instance, Section 21 criminalises the publication of information that is "false” or "offensive” and can be used to impose restrictions on freedom of speech. Meanwhile, Sections 25 and 31 have been instrumentalised to target individuals for their online comments, even when such comments can be considered a form of legitimate dissent or criticism of public figures and policies. 

Several cases have highlighted the severe implications of the DSA's enforcement on individuals, with at least 433 imprisoned as of 2021. Specifically, the cases of Mushtaq Ahmed, who died in prison, after 10 months without trial, after criticising the government’s COVID-19 response, and rights activist Rahul Amin, arrested for a Facebook post faulting the government for Mashtaq’s death, are clear examples of the act’s misuse. These incidents highlight the act's role in stifling non-conformity and silencing critical voices under the guise of protecting digital security.

Furthermore, prominent civil society leaders and journalists have been targeted, with more than 100 journalists sued, showcasing a systematic attempt to clamp down on opposition and independent journalism. Investigative journalist Rozina Islam’s case stands as a prominent example of judicial harassment, as she endured two years of legal investigation, court appearances, and a debilitating travel ban, with no substantial evidence presented against her. Similarly, Odihkar’s (a leading human rights organisation) secretary and director were convicted for publishing "fake information" regarding their documented efforts to expose extrajudicial killings and excessive use of force. The Bangladeshi government never pursued an investigation of their reports and subsequently denied Odikhar registration renewal.

The enforcement of the DSA and the incidents it has perpetrated violate several fundamental human rights and principles particularly enshrined in the ICCPR. Firstly, its vague wording and broad discretion significantly hinder individuals' rights to freely express their opinions and criticise the government, essential components of a democratic society. The arbitrary arrests and prolonged detentions without trial, as seen in the few cases mentioned among many others, undermine the principle of fair trial rights. Finally, the use of arbitrary detention and the enabling of unwarranted searches and seizures, intrude on an individual's privacy rights, a cornerstone of personal security and freedom. 

UN experts, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and Amnesty International, among other human rights organisations, have urged the Bangladeshi authorities to seize opportunities, such as the Human Rights Council review, to address the deteriorating human rights situation. They call on the Bangladeshi government to dismiss cases filed under the DSA, amend the Act, and ensure it aligns with human rights standards. Nonetheless, the situation in Bangladesh remains a critical concern for those advocating for the protection of human rights and the principles of democracy. The international community watches closely as Bangladesh approaches national elections in 2024, hoping for significant legal changes to ensure a safe, open, and facilitative environment for free and fair elections.

Sources and further readings:

Amnesty International, 'Bangladesh: End Crackdown on Freedom of Expression Online' (Amnesty International, 7 July 2021) https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2021/07/bangladesh-end-crackdown-on-freedom-of-expression-online-2/ (accessed 18 March 2024).

Amnesty International, 'Stop Crackdown on Freedom of Expression Online in Bangladesh' <https://www.amnesty.org/en/petition/stop-crackdown-on-freedom-of-expression-online-in-bangladesh/> (accessed 18 March 2024).

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 'UN Experts Urge Bangladesh to Seize Human Rights Council Review Opportunity' (OHCHR, November 2023) <https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2023/11/un-experts-urge-bangladesh-seize-human-rights-council-review-opportunity> (accessed 18 March 2024).

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 'Bangladesh Must End Harassment of Human Rights Defenders: UN Experts' (OHCHR, July 2023) https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2023/07/bangladesh-must-end-harassment-human-rights-defenders-un-experts> (accessed 18 March 2024).

United Nations General Assembly, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (16 December 1966) 999 UNTS 171 (ICCPR) (accessed 18 March 2024).

Committee to Protect Journalists, 'CPJ, Partners Call on Bangladesh to Dismiss Digital Security Act Cases Over Freedom of Expression' (CPJ, August 2023) <https://cpj.org/2023/08/cpj-partners-call-on-bangladesh-to-dismiss-digital-security-act-cases-over-freedom-of-expression/> (accessed 19 March 2024).

Amnesty International, 'Rising Attacks on Freedom of Expression and Peaceful Assembly in Bangladesh Must be Stopped' (11 August 2020) <https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/08/rising-attacks-on-freedom-of-expression-and-peaceful-assembly-in-bangladesh-must-be-stopped/> (accessed 19 March 2024).