Proposed cyber-security bill threatens media freedom in Bangladesh

August 24, 2016 3:20 PM ET

Bangkok, August 24, 2016--The Committee to Protect Journalists called today on Bangladesh's legislature to scrap proposed cyber-security legislation that would impose severe penalties for disseminating online material deemed to be anti-state or a threat to national security or public order. The Digital Security Act 2016 was approved on August 22 by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's Cabinet and is pending in parliament, according to news reports.

If passed into law, the bill will enable the creation of a new agency charged with monitoring for violations, including the use of electronic media to "carry out propaganda," "hurt religious sentiments," or "create enmity and disturb law and order," news reports said. Maximum penalties would include life in prison for spreading false information about the country's 1971 war of liberation from Pakistan or about national founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman; seven years for disturbing public order; and two years for defamation or harming religious sensitivities, the reports said. CPJ was unable to determine when parliament is scheduled to vote on the proposed bill.

Cabinet Secretary Mohammad Shaiful Alam told reporters the bill would replace four sections of the 2013 Information and Communication Technology (amendment) Act to curb cyber terrorism and other cyber-crimes that cause financial and administrative damage to the country. He said the proposed law would impose a maximum 14-year prison sentence for crimes deemed as "cyber-terrorism." The law would also allow for two-year jail sentences for disseminating state secrets via computers, mobile phones, or other digital devices, reports said.

Cybercrime laws intended to extend penal codes to the online world can too easily be broadened to criminalize the standard practices of online journalists, CPJ has found. While publicly justified as a means of preventing terrorism or promoting stability, the laws are also used to restrict information critical of or embarrassing to authorities.

"Proposed cyber-crime legislation, if passed, would have a stifling effect on media freedom in Bangladesh," said Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative. "The draft law's language dangerously conflates cyber-crime with fair critical comment. We strongly urge parliament to reject the bill and ensure that any future version includes clearly defined press freedom and freedom of expression guarantees."

The restrictive legislation comes amid rising threats to Bangladeshi journalists, CPJ research shows. Three journalists with the local banglamail24 news website face a potential 14 years in prison for publishing a report that refuted rumors that Prime Minister Hasina's son, Sajeeb Wazed Joy, had been killed in a plane crash. The charges, filed this month, stem from a provision in the Information and Communication Technology Act that criminalizes the publication of material online that is "fake and obscene" or threatens "law and order."

The legislation's penalties for covering religious issues threatens to worsen conditions for secular reporters in the country. Five journalists were murdered by apparent Islamic extremists in 2015, and Bangladesh ranks 12th on CPJ's Impunity Index, a global measure of countries where journalists are slain and the killers go free. The research found that Prime Minister Hasina and her nominally secular ruling Awami League party have "done little to speak out for justice in these crimes."

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