In Bangladesh's current political climate of narrow avenues for free debate and legitimate democratic dissent, the proposed 'Digital Security Bill 2018', if passed as law, will severely undermine freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
Ten international civil society organisations engaged on human rights and sustainable development issues in Bangladesh expressed the concern in an "Open letter on Digital Media Security Bill" to president Abdul Hamid and chairman of the National Human Rights Commission Kazi Reazul Hoque.
The proposed law, especially article 32 that equates certain journalistic pursuits with spying, has drawn widespread criticism from media activists and rights groups at home and abroad.
The 10 organisations pointed out that the proposed bill "fails to protect the right of the media, civil society and members of the general public to freely express their opinions on policies and actions of decision makers."
The signatories are Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD), Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), Asian Human Rights Commission, CIVICUS, FIDH - International Federation for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, Odhikar, People’s Watch, Robert F Kennedy Human Rights, and World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT).
They observed that the digital security bill's provisions would affect the people's constitutional rights and Bangladesh’s commitments under international law. "In the present situation we recommend that the bill’s provisions are carefully considered from a constitutional and international law standpoint," they added.
The organisations referred to UN 'Special Rapporteur on Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression' David Kaye for his extensive work on the exercise of the freedom of expression in the digital age.
"We believe that the government would greatly benefit from engagement with Mr. Kaye, who could advise on the permissible limits on the freedom of expression under international law," they said.
The rights organisations also have called for Dhaka's constructive engagement with UN human rights experts for strengthening the country's "democracy and commitment to human rights and sustainable development" "in the interests of the people of Bangladesh".
In this context, the signatories regretted that an official visit to Bangladesh by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid bin Ra’ad Al Hussein has been postponed. They also requested authorities to facilitate such a visit at the earliest opportunity.