Bangladesh’s digital laws are inconsistent with its democratic ideals
The active restriction of online freedom began through internet censorship and government-made policies in the 1990s.
In 1991, Singapore’s Ministry of Information started reviewing its censorship laws on various aspects, which included media and nascent communications. Interestingly, this censorship was backed by popular support.
China is most notorious for its restrictions -- the country has made its own version of the internet since even Facebook was officially banned in the country, making people resort to homemade applications as alternatives.
In Bangladesh, almost all the governments throughout its history have taken some measures to censor content, which they deemed threatening to their acts and motives, or for securing law and order.
In the 21st century, many nations have applied limited or extensive amounts of censorship over online freedom. But Bangladesh is resorting to laws that explicitly restrict freedom of expressions in certain cases, and we have seen a wave of attempts to curtail online freedom by means of legislatures such as ICT Act, which is a predecessor to Bangladesh’s newly enacted Digital Security Act.
A few months ago, Shahidul Alam, the renowned Bangladeshi photojournalist, was charged under Section 57 of the ICT Act, with many well-known public figures condemning the arrest.
Section 29 of the DSA approves a person’s detention of up to three years if they defame someone through a website. Section 43 approves police officers to make arrests without a warrant. So apparently, the ghost of ICT act stills haunts us, albeit in a different manner through this newly enacted act.
Innocents can still become political scapegoats in non-bailable offenses for which they can be arrested without warrant by the law enforcers who might be bearing a motive of creating a gateway for political clampdowns. In comparison with Singapore in 1991, the people supported the restrictions imposed by the government because they culturally preferred “non-assimilation” with Western cultures, and one of the more important restrictions was to censor pornographic content which they deemed to be harmful.
The question is whether the people of our country back laws restricting criticism of high-level political figures, as it appears that the new Digital Security Act lacks the support of the populace. These laws are inconsistent with secular features of the constitution and fundamental rights of freedom of expression. The laws enacted for imposing restrictions on online freedom lack acceptability among our people, especially the youth.
In addition, these laws are inconsistent with Bangladesh’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including provisions to respect and protect the right to be free from arbitrary arrest under Article 9, to protection from interference with privacy and correspondence under Article 17, and to freedom of opinion and expression under Article 19.
Aqib Tahmid is a freelance contributor.