Bangladesh will tone down its Digital Security Act, criticised by many as a draconian curb on dissent, to allow bail for suspects and halt the jailing of journalists for defamation, the law minister said on Monday (7).
Journalists and rights activists have long demanded the repeal of the act to protect press freedom.
“Many sections of this act will be incorporated in the new Cyber Security Act. Major amendments will be brought in some clauses,” law minister Anisul Huq told reporters after a cabinet meeting.
Huq said the punishment for defamation would be changed from jail to a fine.
He told parliament in June that there had been 7,001 cases filed under the act across the country since the enactment of the law in October 2018 until January this year.
The act combines the colonial-era Official Secrets Act with tough provisions such as allowing police to make arrests without warrants.
“I don’t know whether the government is just (playing) a trump card under severe pressure both at home and abroad,” said a journalist, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.
“I hope it will not be old wine in a new bottle.”
Amnesty International said it welcomed the move to change the act, which it called “a draconian law which was weaponised by the ruling party and its affiliates to stifle dissent and thwart freedom of expression online”.
But it also voiced caution and said the new act should “not rehash the same repressive features”.
Human Rights Watch has said the “vague and overly broad measures” of the DSA had been used to “harass and indefinitely detain” activists and journalists.
Prime minister Sheikh Hasina has maintained tight control since coming to power in 2009 and has been accused by opposition groups cracking down on free speech, suppressing dissent and jailing critics. Her government has denied the charges.
The opposition has called for Hasina to step down and for the polls to take place under a neutral caretaker government. Hasina has rejected the demand as unconstitutional.
Western governments and rights groups have also criticised the government for cracking down on anti-government protests.
Opposition groups have held large protest rallies calling on Hasina to step down and for the next election, due in January, to be held under a neutral caretaker government.
In May, Washington said it would restrict visas for Bangladeshis who undermine the democratic process at home, after accusations of vote-rigging and suppressing the opposition marred elections in 2014 and 2018.