Digital Security Bill passes amid free speech concerns
The new law brings tougher punishment for illegally accessing and destroying any important information related to the state affairs
Parliament has passed the much-talked-about Digital Security Bill, 2018, which provides for stiff penalties for a wide variety of cyber infractions.
The law has faced vocal opposition from journalists and rights campaigners who say it could quash freedom of speech, especially on social media, and would undermine responsible journalism.
Posts, Telecommunications and Information Technology Minister Mostafa Jabbar yesterday moved the bill in the House which was unanimously passed by voice votes with Speaker Dr Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury in the chair.
The new law provides for a minimum of seven years and a maximum of fourteen years’ imprisonment and monetary fines of a minimum of Tk2.5 million and a maximum of Tk10 million, or both, for illegal access and destruction of any important information related to state affairs.
As per the act, the minister said: “The punishment will be life imprisonment and a monetary fine of Tk5 crore (Tk50 million) for second offenders.”
Piloting the bill, he said the government will form a digital security agency and a digital security council. The 13-member Digital Security Council will be formed with the prime minister in the chair.
The other members of the council are the minister/state minister or deputy minister of Posts, Telecommunications and Information Technology Ministry, the minister/state minister or deputy minister of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Ministry, the prime minister’s principal secretary, the governor of Bangladesh Bank, the secretary of the Posts and Telecommunications Division, the secretary of the Information and Communication Technology Division, the secretary of the Public Safety Division, the secretary of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the inspector general of police (IGP), the BTRC chairman, and the director general of the Defence Intelligence Directorate. The director general of the Digital Security Council will act as member secretary.
The bill was earlier sent to the concerned parliamentary standing committee for further scrutiny. The committee submitted its recommendations to parliament on Monday.
In its report, the House body on Posts, Telecommunications and Information Technology Ministry recommended minor changes to the bill, which included the provisions of the Right to Information Act, 2009, renaming the offence of “computer or digital spying” and “violating state secrecy” under section 32, and incorporating the Official Secrets Act, 1923.
According to media reports, in submitting the report to parliament, Imran Ahmed, chief of the parliamentary body, suggested the inclusion of a definition of the “Spirit of the Liberation War” in Section 21.
The proposed definition was: “The high ideals of nationalism, socialism, democracy, and secularism, which inspired our heroic people to dedicate themselves to, and our brave martyrs to sacrifice their lives in, the national liberation struggle.”
Bangladeshi media organizations and rights bodies have been vocal in their opposition to the bill since its inception, dubbing it a super-charged version of the existing Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT), approved during the BNP-Jamaat government’s tenure in 2006.
Following widespread criticism of the misuse of the ICT Act by various quarters, the government had decided to gradually annul the ICT Act altogether, and to introduce a new law.
The controversial part of the ICT Act, known as Section 57, has made its way into the new Digital Security Act, 2018, which was given a green light by the Cabinet in January this year.
Critics of the law said the government had just modified the ICT Act’s Section 57 and that people would lose their freedom of expression because of the new law.
If compared, it appears that the controversial issues of Section 57 were retained in some of the provisions of the new act.
A rough translation of Section 57 of the ICT Act says: “If any person deliberately publishes or transmits or causes to be published or transmitted in the website or in any other electronic form any material which is false and obscene and if anyone sees, hears, or reads it in the light of all relevant circumstances, and its effect is such as to influence the reader to become dishonest or corrupt, or causes to deteriorate or creates possibility to deteriorate law and order, prejudice the image of the state or person, or causes to hurt or may hurt religious belief or instigate against any person or organization, then this activity will be regarded as an offence.”
For these offences, violators can be sentenced to a maximum of 14 years and a minimum of seven years imprisonment. They can also be fined Tk10 million or more.
The new Digital Security Act will be used to deal with defamation, hurting religious sentiments, causing deterioration of law and order, and instigating violence against any person or organization by publishing or transmitting any material on any website or in electronic media.
According to the Act’s Section 17, if one uses digital media to intimidate people or cause damage to the state, he or she will face a jail time of 14 years or Tk10 million penalty, or both.
Section 25 says if someone uses a website or digital media to intimidate anyone, he or she may face three years in jail or Tk300,000 in penalties.
Also, if anyone hurts another’s religious sentiments as defined by the Penal Code, he or she will face 10 years’ jail time or a Tk2 million fine, or both, says Section 28 of the new act.
As per Section 29, if a person publishes information with the intent to defame someone, he or she will face three years in jail or Tk500,000 fine, or both.
All of these are issues that came under Section 57 of the ICT Act. They are retained in the Digital Security Act, often in an elaborated manner.
The Editors’ Council of Bangladesh on Monday expressed its surprise, disappointment, and shock, at the final report of the standing committee’s recommendations.
According to a statement, the members of the council said the report had ignored protests and concerns expressed by journalists and media organizations.
Transparency International Bangladesh executive director Iftekharuzzaman said: “The law is worrisome for the country’s citizens for a number of factors. In particular, it will curb citizens’ constitutional and fundamental rights to freedom of speech.”
He said the law would not only affect journalists but also civil society and campaigners of good governance.
“No investigative journalism can be done under this law. The law will work to protect corruption and irregularities.”
He urged the president not to approve the act for final passage.
Nijera Kori coordinator Khushi Kabir said the new law would oppress everyone, and would have a more negative impact on the people than the previous Section 57 of the ICT Act.
“Although this is a democracy, the state now can take any action without any valid reason against anyone, violating the democratic rights of its citizens,” the eminent rights activist said.
Jahangirnagar University professor Anu Muhammad said: “The government passed the bill to clear the way for the publicity of its success stories. The government claims it has been successful in many sectors.
“If it is so successful, why does it need to enact a law that controls the freedom of the media and curbs freedom of speech for all?”
Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua said the new law would frighten the public even more than Section 57 of the ICT Act did previously.
“The introduction of provisions of the Official Secrets Act in this law will hamper the purposes of the Right to Information act,” he added.
Dhaka University law professor Asif Nazrul said: “I am deeply shocked and disappointed. The ministers, on almost every single occasion, assured journalists, human rights campaigners, and civil society members, that their concerns would be taken into consideration.
“In the end, all of their concerns were ignored.”
The article appeared in the Dhaka Tribune on 19 September 2018