Bangladesh Digital Security Act Protects Free Speech and Minorities

Since declaring its independence from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh has strived to build a secular democracy that protects the rights of all its people. One result is that the South Asian nation has a large and vibrant media presence (roughly 30 TV channels and 300 national newspapers), representing diverse points of view. No one in government wants to silence or impede the media. At the same time, it is essential to make sure that minority voices are heard and protected.

Major pending legislation called the Digital Security Act is designed to combat cyber criminals. Some Western media outlets have claimed that the Bangladeshi government is trying to suppress press freedom with it. This charge is false.

Bangladesh has moved rapidly into the digital age. A country of 163 million people, Bangladesh has more than 145 million mobile subscribers, an increase of nearly 59 million in just six years. Bangladesh also has become a thriving source of online workers and has encouraged widespread use of the internet. As in many countries, this progress has outpaced government policy.

For example, Bangladesh has struggled to tamp down malicious social media postings and online hate speech. After a posting recently appeared on Facebook showing a faked image of a Hindu deity inside the holiest mosque in Mecca, Islamist extremists vandalized 15 Hindu temples and 100 homes. It didn’t matter to radicals that the image was Photoshopped. The posting was used as a pretext for criminals to unleash their hatred against Hindus, who are a religious minority in Bangladesh.

Protecting the rights and safety of both the Muslim majority and the Hindu minority simultaneously is like threading a needle. Article 28 of the Digital Security Act, which prohibits speech that “injures religious feelings,” is Bangladesh’s attempt to do just that. Other sections of the bill also safeguard the rights of minorities by providing penalties for disseminating information intended to intimidate the powerless.

Section 14 of the Act has also drawn fire from Western critics. It prohibits the propagandized distortion of Bangladesh’s War of Liberation. Bangladesh won its independence, but not before the Pakistani army and its Bangladeshi collaborators perpetrated a genocide that killed 3 million people. Since then, successive military juntas and caretaker governments have attempted to re-write history, covering up the genocide.

Bangladesh is simply insisting in Section 14 that the juntas and their backers should be held accountable and that they not be permitted to spread racial and religious hatred. The proposal echoes similar laws in Germany and 15 other European nations that criminalize denials of the Nazi Holocaust during World War II.

The Digital Security Act is Bangladesh’s second attempt at regulation in the digital space. The legislation would end some of the most controversial elements of the previous Information and Communication Technology Act. It would rein in overly broad authority for police to interfere with bloggers or to take actions against anyone deemed to be acting without integrity and honesty. Indeed, the Digital Security Act represents a major step forward, leaving behind the draconian elements of the previous law.

In addition, the new law would prohibit digital extortion, blackmail and cyberbullying. These provisions are designed to eliminate the sad and standard practice of some media outlets, including some of the major newspapers, to extort business owners and government officials by threatening negative coverage unless they purchase advertising. Ending such malicious behavior should not be controversial; Bangladesh cannot accept this type of corruption.

Bangladeshis value a free and vibrant press. Article 39 of Bangladesh’s constitution ensures freedom of expression “subject to reasonable restrictions imposed by law.” This is no different than in the U.S. and dozens of other developed nations. The Bangladesh government has long nurtured the rights of its people to speak openly and freely, while simultaneously fighting to protect minority rights. This balance is what is sincerely sought in the pending Digital Security Act.

Sajeeb Wazed
Sajeeb Wazed
Sajeeb Wazed is the information technology adviser to the government of Bangladesh and the son of the prime minister.