10 October 2018, Wed, 7:44

UN rights body calls for revising Digital Security Act

The United Nations Human Rights office has called for urgent revision of the Digital Security Act in a bid to ensure checks and balances against arbitrary arrests and other undue restrictions.

The call came in response to the newly enacted Act that has drawn serious concerns over press freedom and the right to freedom of expression.

“We call on Bangladesh to urgently revise the Digital Security Act, to ensure that it is in line with international human rights law and that it provides for checks and balances against arbitrary arrest, detention, and other undue restrictions of the rights of individuals to the legitimate exercise of their freedom of expression and opinion,” said a UN spokesperson.

“We stand ready to assist the Government,” said Ravina Shamdasani, the spokesperson for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), at a press briefing in Geneva yesterday.

Earlier on Monday, President Abdul Hamid signed the bill into law amid wide-spread concern, criticism and protest against it both at home and abroad.

Shamdasani anticipated that the new law would seriously impede freedom of expression as well as the right to liberty of the people.

“The Act could have a severe impact on the work of journalists, bloggers, commentators and historians but [it] also penalises the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression by any other individual, including on social media,” she said.

The law contains vague provisions that could impose long-term prison sentences up to seven years or a fine for any statement posted online that might disrupt the law and order situation, hurt religious feelings or ruin communal harmony, said the spokesperson.

Any kind of propaganda or publicity against the “Spirit of the Liberation War”, national anthem or national flag is punishable by imprisonment up to 10 years on first offence and/or a fine of Tk 10 million (nearly $120,000).

Provisions linked to digital offences under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act carry penalties of 14 years' imprisonment, and life imprisonment for repeat offenders.

“The Act gives the police wide powers of search and arrest without warrant. Many of the offences in the Act are unbailable. This is of particular concern given concerns about due process in Bangladesh,” said Shamdasani.

The Act also provides broad powers to the government to restrict and intercept digital information, she added.

Shamdasani told the press briefing that the law as it stands does not meet 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 protect from interference with privacy and correspondence under Article 17, and to guard freedom of opinion and expression under Article 19.

During the Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Council on September 20, the day after the act was initially adopted by Parliament, the government of Bangladesh agreed to recommendations relating to the freedom of expression and bringing national legislation in compliance with its international obligations.

However, Shamdasani said despite pledges to revisit the problematic provisions of the Act, it was signed into law.