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Bangladesh crackdown on social media commentary

Bangladeshi activists protest for freedom of speech in front of the National Museum, while calling for the removal of section 57 of the ICT law, in Dhaka, 4 October 2016
Bangladeshi activists protest for freedom of speech in front of the National Museum, while calling for the removal of section 57 of the ICT law, in Dhaka, 4 October 2016

Md. Mehedi Hasan/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 9 May 2018.

Scores of people have been arrested over the past five years in Bangladesh under section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT Act) for criticizing the government, political leaders, and others on Facebook, as well as in blogs, online newspapers, or other social media, Human Rights Watch said in a new report published today.

A proposed Digital Security Bill to replace the existing abusive law, however, is in some respects even broader than the one it seeks to replace, and violates the country's international obligation to protect freedom of speech.

Bangladesh will undergo scrutiny of its human rights record at the United Nations Human Rights Council on May 14, 2018, as part of a process known as the Universal Periodic Review. The government should take this opportunity to commit to ending its crackdown on dissent and criticism, including that made by the political opposition, and instead, pledge to lead a robust public campaign on the right to free expression. This should include taking strong action against militant groups who seek to suppress free speech by engaging in violent attacks on those holding different religious views, Human Rights Watch said.

"The government of Bangladesh acknowledges that the current section 57 of the ICT Act is draconian, and needs to go," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "But the new law being proposed is hardly an improvement, creating a series of new offences that will undoubtedly be used for years to come against government critics in the country's highly politicized criminal justice system."

The 89-page report, No Place for Criticism: Bangladesh Crackdown on Social Media Commentary details dozens of arbitrary arrests since the Information and Communication Technology Act 2006 was amended in 2013 to incorporate harsher penalties and allowing the police to make arrests without warrant. As of April 2018, the police had submitted 1,271 charge sheets to the Cyber Tribunal in Dhaka, claiming sufficient evidence to prosecute under section 57 of the ICT Act.

Scores of people have been detained for months at a time before being released pending trial, some simply for political criticism in Facebook posts or for caricaturing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed, her relatives, and colleagues. Others were arrested for offending religious sentiment or for defamation.

Section 57 of ICT Act authorizes the prosecution of any person who publishes, in electronic form, material that is fake and obscene; defamatory; "tends to deprave and corrupt" its audience; causes, or may cause, "deterioration in law and order;" prejudices the image of the state or a person; or "causes or may cause hurt to religious belief." The 2013 amendments eliminated the need for arrest warrants and official permission to prosecute, restricted the use of bail to release detainees pending trial, and increased prison terms if convicted. A new Cyber Tribunal dedicated to dealing with offences under the ICT Act was also established. As a result, the number of complaints to the police, arrests, and prosecutions has soared.

Bangladeshi citizens have been arrested for criticizing the prime minister's clothes, her foreign policy, her party, or the actions of her cabinet colleagues. The police have acted on complaints made by her political supporters or even on their own. For instance, in April 2018, after a student protest at Dhaka university, a police officer filed a complaint referring to 43 "provocative" Facebook posts, which "many have liked and commented on" that "created a situation which could potentially harm society and create chaos," and proposed action under section 57.

In April 2017, Monirul Islam, a rubber plantation worker in Srimongol, was arrested for "liking" a Facebook post that criticized the ongoing official visit of the prime minister to India, after a party supporter filed a police complaint saying he "was extremely hurt and agitated."

Press freedom is also under threat from section 57. Many journalists and editors have been arrested for online articles alleging corruption, maladministration, or criticizing particular individuals. In June 2017, police arrested Golam Mostafa Rafiq, editor of Habiganj Samachar, for an article published in the online edition of the newspaper which speculated a ruling party MP would not get the party nomination.

In July 2017, numerous journalists protested the arrest of Abdul Latif Moral for allegedly "sharing" an article on Facebook, reporting that a goat given as part of a relief initiative had died, with the "intention to defame the minister."

While the Cyber Tribunal provides no official data on the number of convictions and acquittals, anecdotal evidence suggests few people have been convicted to date. However, the mere fact that people are being arrested and detained for online speech is likely to have a chilling effect on speech and dissent, regardless of whether those individuals are ultimately convicted.

Acknowledging that section 57 has been misused, the government has proposed to replace the law with a new Digital Security Act that they argue places some checks and balances on arrests over speech. However, the bill currently being considered by parliament will continue to significantly restrict freedom of speech in Bangladesh, Human Rights Watch said.

Some provisions of the proposed new law are even more draconian than those in section 57. Bangladesh's journalists are concerned that the proposed law includes provisions that will treat the use of secret recordings to expose corruption and other crimes as espionage, arguing it will restrict investigative journalism and muzzle media freedom. The bill sets out prison terms for vague offenses like publishing "aggressive or frightening" information and would also impose sentences of up to 10 years in prison for posting information that "ruins communal harmony, or creates instability or disorder, or disturbs or is about to disturb the law and order situation," overbroad language that opens the door to further abuses.

Also concerning is a provision in the proposed law that would impose life imprisonment for those convicted of "negative 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 said laws that penalize opinions about historical facts are incompatible with a country's obligations to respect freedom of opinion and expression.

Bangladesh should hold civil society consultations to ensure that any new law passed to replace section 57 is compatible with its obligations under international law, and protects and respects freedom of speech, Human Rights Watch said. Criminalization of speech offenses should be limited to the worst cases, such as direct incitement to violence, and not for criticism of the authorities or defamation.

"Bangladesh authorities should accept that criticism, however unpleasant and hurtful, is part of public life and can serve to correct mistakes and provide redress," said Adams. "The government should work with domestic and international experts to draft a new law that fully upholds the principles of free speech and internet freedom."

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