Bangladesh is planning to introduce legislation, almost certain to be enacted, that experts say would curtail freedom of expression and the press and result in an effective government seizure of digital media.
The government, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League Party and in power since 2009, has already passed controversial laws, such as the Digital Security Act, in 2018, which has been used to put politicians, journalists and ordinary citizens in jail and, according to multiple human rights groups, to curtail freedom of expression.
The proposed Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission Regulation for Digital, Social Media and OTT Platforms legislation would establish an aggressive set of rules for digital platforms.
The draft has been published on the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission website for public comment before being considered within the government and then sent to Bangladesh’s parliament, the unicameral House of the Nation, where it is expected to pass.
Under the proposal, no social media, digital platform or OTT platform – “over-the-top” platforms stream content directly to customers over the web – could display content threatening the “unity, integrity, defense, security, or sovereignty of Bangladesh, and its friendly relations with foreign states.”
The law would also ban from digital platforms content that criticizes the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh that established the country, formerly East Pakistan, the spirit of the war, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the architect of independence, the national anthem or flag, or anything that threatens to reveal government secrets.
The draft regulation would allow the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission to direct social media and other digital service providers to remove or block content. Providers would have to comply within 72 hours or face fines and imprisonment.
These restrictions are identical or strikingly similar to some sections of the narrower Digital Security Act 2018.
The government claims the law is necessary to govern online content, prevent fraud and threats to public tranquility, and to discourage piracy and obscenity.
Posts and Telecommunication Minister Mostafa Jabbar told VOA the proposed legislation is needed and said it has been prepared for “better governance.”
“If you look at the provisions in the proposed legislation, you will find that we formulated it to make the global tech giants and social media companies more accountable. We have seen how hate speech and misinformation were spread through platforms like Facebook in Bangladesh,” he said, referring to past incidents of communal violence triggered by rumors spread over social media.
“These social media giants barely comply with our requests when we ask them to take down vicious content. Now we want to make them accountable through our own law,” he said.
Fears of a ‘surveillance-based’ nation
Some experts say that if the new legislation were passed in its current form in the parliament, it would, for all practical purposes, turn Bangladesh into a “surveillance-based” nation.
The organization Society for Media and Suitable Human-Communication Techniques, which analyzed some 250 cases filed under DSA, said only 18% were for what could be described as digital crimes. The rest were filed for expressing opinions online or sharing news content, the group said.
Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, a public interest legal services organization, said that, like DSA, the proposed legislation’s provisions are broad in scope.
“If passed as currently drafted, it will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression. It sets out to prohibit the creation and dissemination of a wide range of online content on digital and social media. The language used in the draft Regulation also has the potential to impact marginalized communities and dissenting voices,” a spokesperson for the organization, who asked not to be named, said in an email to VOA.
The draft legislation, meanwhile, would require intermediaries, such as WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal, to enable traceability and identification of the first originator of any information.
Anti-graft watchdog Transparency International Bangladesh termed the proposed bill “anti-constitutional,” and said Bangladesh would become a “surveillance-based nation” if it were passed.
Iftekhar Zaman, executive director of TIB told VOA, “The draft regulation makes it mandatory to disclose the identity of message sender and receiver in encrypted platforms. It also enforces arbitrary and indiscriminate removal of content and repressive action. Both of these actions are against freedom of speech, the plurality of opinions and right to privacy.”
In an email to VOA, a spokesperson for Facebook owner Meta, who asked not to be named, said, “We cannot comment on the legislation since this is still not finalized. However, we hope that any new rules for the internet in Bangladesh will respect international best practices on safety, privacy, and freedom of expression, and create an environment conducive to innovation, investment and growth.”
Similar act draws flak in India
Journalist Shayan S. Khan compared the proposal to legislation in India that has been criticized by the United Nations and others.
“If you look at the relevant section of the draft regulation, that outlines what sort of content will be prohibited,” he said, “you will find it is literally a word-by-word copy of the Indian IT Rules 2021.”
“The similarities between the Indian law and the Bangladeshi draft make the Indian experience relevant to foreseeing how it might go for us. So in June 2021, a month after the law came into effect, three U.N. special rapporteurs wrote a joint letter to the Indian government saying that the law, in its current form, does not conform with international human rights norms,” Khan said.
The similarities between the Bangladesh Draft Regulation and the Indian IT Rules prompted the Global Network Initiative to write to the BTRC expressing alarm. The group’s members include Meta, Microsoft, Uber, Zoom, Telenor Group, Yahoo, Google, Nokia, Vodafone, Verizon, Human Rights Watch, Wikimedia, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and others.
“There are several areas of the draft regulation,” the group wrote, “where we saw clauses that were incomplete, important terms left undefined, or areas transposed from India’s Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, that seemingly failed to account for differences in the regulatory environment, adding to our concerns about the rushed deliberation processes.”
“We encourage the BTRC and the government more broadly to reconsider its approach to consultation on this bill, helping to build an evidence base for the draft regulation to address the regulation’s stated concerns in a rights-respecting fashion,” GNI said.
The Indian rules are currently facing multiple legal challenges before Indian courts, where at least three high courts have issued interim orders instructing the government to not enforce significant portions of the rules.