Freedom (Fear) of Expression in a Free Country

On 13 September 2023, the Cyber Security Bill of 2023 was successfully passed in parliament, replacing the Digital Security Act (DSA), which was initially passed on 8 October 2018. The DSA had faced significant criticism for its perceived encroachment on freedom of expression.

The new Cyber Security Bill intends to address some of the shortcomings of the DSA. Notable changes in the new bill include reclassifying certain non-bailable offences under the DSA as bailable, reducing punishments for specific offences, increasing fines, and removing provisions for additional punishment in cases of repeated offences. However, many experts and organizations working on human rights issues opined that the new Cyber Security Bill is akin to repackaging the same old DSA in a new bottle—it does not address any major concerns raised about the DSA—and suggested recommendations for amendment.

The Act, designed to protect digital security, has led to a significant number of cases; over 7,000 lawsuits have been filed under the DSA in Bangladesh since its enactment. Individuals from all walks of life, ranging from children to government employees, have been accused. And from the type of changes introduced, it is apparent that the new act is not going to alter this trend as it does not decriminalize any action that was considered criminal under the DSA.

So, an important question emerges: do the people of Bangladesh truly believe they are free as citizens? Are they comfortable expressing their opinions on social media? A recent nationally representative survey conducted in November–December 2022, with a sample size of 10,218 respondents, offers valuable insights into the sentiments of the Bangladeshi population regarding these questions.

Surprisingly, the survey reveals that a considerable majority (78%) of respondents think themselves free as citizens of Bangladesh. Further examination of the data reveals a more nuanced picture. It becomes apparent that women, more so than men, embrace this belief, with 82% expressing their sense of freedom. Education level also plays a role, as 80% of those with no formal education assert their freedom, while only 72% of graduates hold the same view. Furthermore, income disparities are mirrored in these responses, with 80% of respondents from households earning less than BDT 5,000 affirming their freedom, while the figure drops to 65% among those from households earning between BDT 40,000 and BDT 50,000.

We asked respondents to tell us why they considered themselves free. A large group (45%) think they are free as citizens because they can act as they please. Freedom of movement also seems to be a major determinant of freedom, mentioned by 21% of respondents. Living as a citizen or living in a free country also influences citizens’ sense of freedom, as the survey

Figure 1: Factors Contributing to Bangladeshi Citizens’ Sense of Freedom

Alternatively, respondents who do not consider themselves free think that they lack freedom of movement (13%), freedom of speech (13%), and security (13%). They also talked about not having true voting rights, lack of the rule of law, existing political turmoil, and economic hardship as reasons which violate their sense of freedom as citizens.

What we need to remember is that our survey did not define “freedom.” The respondents used their own understanding to assess whether they were free and responded accordingly. The detailed analysis of the reasons for their beliefs reveals that those who thought they were free gave mostly vague and general concepts of freedom, while those giving a negative response mentioned rather specific aspects of freedom. Thus, it may not be unjustified to assume that many who answered positively may not fully understand what freedom entails for a free citizen.

In the next set of questions, we asked people about their internet usage behaviour and use of social media. About 47% of the total respondents were found to be using the internet, and among them, more than 82% used Facebook and 6% used Twitter.

Those who used either Facebook or Twitter were asked if they felt safe to post/like/share their opinion regarding social issues in the country. The result is somewhat disturbing, as about 63% viewed that it is never or not very often safe to post opinions on social media. When they were asked if they felt safe to post opinions on political issues on social media, an even bleaker scenario emerged. About 73% of the respondents feel that it is never or not often safe to post or share opinions on political issues on Facebook. A mere 12% of respondents feel safe to post their opinions on the subject. These opinions do not vary much across gender, education, and income groups, highlighting the pervasive fear associated with openly discussing political matters.

Figure 2: Factors Contributing to Bangladeshi Citizens’ Lack of Freedom

What takeaways can one generate from these contrasting findings? Though on the surface, people may think of themselves as free citizens, their idea of freedom seems to be rather limited. Thus, the high rate of positive answers regarding the question of freedom as citizens may be a significant overestimation. This is exemplified by other data points: vague definition of freedom by those responding positively, specific definitions (including freedom of speech) among those responding negatively, higher negative response among those with higher education, and the overwhelming fear surrounding freedom of expression on social media.

Finally, the question remains: what is the source of this overwhelming fear? Does this fear come from the execution of the DSA, which often seems to harass citizens? Will the new act be able to alleviate this fear? From the changes that were made, it seems rather unlikely.

Tanvir Ahmed Mozumder is a Research Coordinator at the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD)