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In October 2018, Bangladesh adopted a controversial law called the Digital Security Act, which is the main law the government now uses to deal with fake news through the web and social media. The Bangladesh Ministry of Information issued a circular establishing a unit to monitor social media and private television channels for “rumours” about COVID-19 cases. Human Rights Watch has reported that since mid-March 2020 there have been a wave of arrests in Bangladesh, including of journalists, doctors, opposition activists, and students, for comments about coronavirus, most of them carried out under the Digital Security Act.
I. Legal Framework to Deal with Fake News
Article 39(2) of Bangladesh’s Constitution guarantees “freedom of speech and expression” and “freedom of the press,” “[s]ubject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”
Article 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act 2006 (ICT Act) criminalized “publishing fake, obscene or defaming information in electronic form,” which is “punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to ten years and with fine which may extend to Taka one crore [approx. US$117,997].” Under a 2013 amendment the term of imprisonment may now extend to 14 years and provisions for bail may be disregarded. Since taking power in January 2009, the Awami League has been criticized for harassing and silencing journalists and “critical media voices”; and article 57 has been used heavily to “to harass journalists.” The ICT Act is also known to grant “broad powers to the Government to restrict online expression, including through vague and excessive content-based restrictions.”
In October 2018, Bangladesh adopted a controversial law called the Digital Security Act, which is the main law the government now uses to deal with fake news on the web and social media. It repealed certain provisions of the ICT Act, including article 57. Section 25 of the Digital Security Act stipulates as follows:
25) Publishing, sending of offensive, false or fear inducing data-information, etc.:-
(1) If any person in any website or through any digital medium-
a. Intentionally or knowingly sends such information which is offensive or fearinducing, or which despite knowing it as false is sent, published or propagated with the intention to annoy, insult, humiliate or denigrate a person or
b. Publishes or propagates or assists in publishing or propagating any information with the intention of tarnishing the image of the nation or spread confusion or despite knowing it as false, publishes or propagates or assists in publishing or propagates information in its full or in a distorted form for the same intentions , Then, the activity of that person will be an offense under the Act.
(2) If any person commits any offense mentioned within sub section (1), the person will be penalized with imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3(three) years of or [sic] fine not exceeding 3(three) lacs taka [approx. US$3,542] or with both.
(3) If any person commits the offense mentioned in sub-section (1) for the second time or recurrently commits it then, he will be punished with imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5(five) years or with fine not exceeding 10 (ten) lacs taka [approx. US$11,807] or with both.
II. Government’s Response to COVID-19 and Fake News
The Bangladesh Ministry of Information has established a unit to monitor social media and private television channels for “rumours” about COVID-19 cases. On March 25, 2020, the government issued a circular that assigned “15 officials to monitor each television channel for ‘rumors’ and ‘propaganda’ regarding COVID-19.” The move drew enormous criticism from the “journalist community and social media users, with many demanding withdrawal of the circular.” The next day, the order was canceled and an official from the Ministry of Information explained that the circular was being expanded: “In fact, the officials will not only monitor the private television channels, but also all other media, including the social media.”
Human Rights Watch has reported that since mid-March 2020 there have been a wave of arrests of “at least a dozen people, including a doctor, opposition activists, and students, for their comments about coronavirus, most of them under the draconian Digital Security Act.” On July 23, 2020, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that journalists are facing physical attacks and arrests amid the COVID-19 pandemic and “between March 10, 2020, and May 21, 2020, authorities detained at least six journalists in Bangladesh and opened investigations into at least nine more under the country’s Digital Security Act.”
According to the Bangladeshi independent newspaper the Daily Star, the Sampadak Parishad (Editors’ Council), an organization of newspaper editors, issued a statement in late June “condemning the recent spate of cases and arrests of editors, journalists, writers, [and] university teachers under the Digital Security Act (DSA) for expressing critical views about mismanagement in dealing with COVID-19.” The editors’ statement said that “[i]n the last few months, close to 40 journalists have been charged under the Digital Security Act (DSA) out of whom 37 have been arrested. These arrests have created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation making normal journalistic work extremely risky if not nearly impossible,” the Daily Star reported.
Prepared by Tariq Ahmad
Foreign Law Specialist
 K. Anis Ahmed, In Bangladesh: Direct Control of Media Trumps Fake News, 77(4) J. Asian Stud. 915 (Nov. 2018), available by Cambridge Core subscription.
 Id. § 25.
Last Updated: 12/30/2020