The freedom of the press and expression was put to the sword, feared journalists and rights defenders as the cabinet yesterday approved the draft of the Digital Security Act-2018 yesterday.
There would be every chance of the act being misused against people's right to express themselves after it is passed by the Jatiya Sangsad, they observed.
They also felt duped by the government as section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act was kept in the proposed law with some changes, despite assurances in the past of eliminating the controversial provision.
Section 57 deals with defamation, hurting religious sentiments, causing deterioration of law and order and instigating against any person or organisation through publishing or transmitting any material in websites or in electronic form.
It stipulates maximum 14 years in prison for the offences.
Now, the draft of Digital Security Act-2018 splits these offences into four separate sections with punishment ranging from three to 10 years' term.
The proposed law describes some crimes as “non-bailable” and allows a police official to search or arrest anyone without a warrant in special circumstances.
A cabinet meeting, presided over by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at her office, gave the approval and Cabinet Secretary Md Shafiul Alam later briefed the media at the secretariat.
He said the government has formulated the act to combat growing cyber crimes that are affecting many public and private organisations including Bangladesh Bank.
The draft was approved keeping a provision for revoking sections 54, 55, 56, 57 and 66 of the ICT act, he said, adding that the cases already filed under section 57 will continue.
Inspector General of Police AKM Shahidul Hoque, too, said the proceedings of the cases filed under section 57 will continue, reports UNB.
Currently, 701 cases filed under section 57 are pending with the lone cyber tribunal of the country, sources say.
Asked whether the proposed law will affect journalism as elements of section 57 were incorporated in the draft, the cabinet secretary did not give any direct answer and only said, “There is nothing about journalists here [in the draft].”
Rights activists and journalists have been demanding cancellation of section 57 for its widespread misuse.
Experts say the section goes against people's right to freedom of expression and free speech and it contains vague wordings, allowing its misuse against newsmen and social media users.
Protests were staged last year after more than two dozen journalists were sued under the section.
Amid widespread criticisms, Law Minister Anisul Huq on several occasions said section 57 would be removed.
Contacted last night, he said, “There is a great difference between section 57 [of ICT Act] and the provisions incorporated in the Digital Security Act.”
Asked about the criticisms from journalists and rights activists about the draft, the minister said, “They are saying this for the sake of saying something.”
He declined to comment further.
After a programme in the capital, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan said section 57 was discussed for a long time in the cabinet meeting. The draft will be finalised after many inclusions and exclusions, he added.
Khandaker Muniruzzaman, acting editor of daily Sangbad, termed Digital Security Act more draconian, more dangerous than section 57 of the ICT Act.
“It can be accepted in no way,” he told The Daily Star over the phone.
“We have been demanding cancellation of section 57. But things have not improved; rather, more bad elements have been introduced. Actually, the government has duped the people.”
The act will not only curb the freedom of speech and expression but also impede independent journalism.
Asked about section 32 of the proposed act, which deals with spying on government and non-government offices, he said the provision will make journalism more difficult.
“A reporter collects information in various ways. This law will make his or her work more difficult,” he said.
Bangladesh Pratidin Editor Nayeem Nizam said they have raised their voices following the misuse of section 57 as a number of cases were filed against journalists and some were detained.
“If this law [Digital Security Act] is passed [in the JS], the media independence will be under threat. I hope lawmakers will recommend removal of these provisions when the draft will be placed in parliament,” he told The Daily Star yesterday.
Under the new law, he said, any journalist may face the charge of spying when he/she tries to collect government documents for writing a report. “Independent journalism will not march forward if the draft is passed,” he added.
Jyotirmoy Barua, a Supreme Court lawyer working on human rights, told The Daily Star that incorporating elements of section 57 in the draft law will create more ambiguity and scope for using it in harassing people.
“It [the new law] could be used as a tool to harass people the way section 57 was used,” he said.
About section 32, he said it will shrink the scope for journalists and researchers in their professional and academic activities.
Rights activist Nur Khan Liton said after the Digital Security Act is passed, the freedom of expression will be curtailed, the door for discussion on some specific topics will be shut down and free voice will be muzzled.
There should be a section in the new act binding the authorities concerned to do some scrutiny before taking cases over defamation or hurting religious sentiments, he said.
Baki Billah, an online activist, said the move to enact such a law goes with the characteristic of the government. The government wants to curb the freedom of expression more, which reflects its “undemocratic character”, he said.
“The government has incorporated the very provisions that we have been criticising for long,” he told this newspaper last night.
WHAT NEW SECTIONS SAY
Section 21 says anyone spreading negative propaganda against the Liberation War or the Father of the Nation, using digital devices or instigates to do so, will risk being sentenced up to 14 years' jail or a fine of up to Tk 1 crore lakh or both.
He or she will face up to life sentence or Tk 3 crore fine or both for committing the offence for the second time, it said.
Section 25 of the proposed law says, a person may face up to three years in jail or Tk 3 lakh fine or both if he or she is found to have deliberately published or broadcast in the website or electronic form something which is attacking or intimidating or which can make someone dishonest or disgruntled; knowingly publish or broadcast false and distorted (full or partial) information to annoy or humiliate someone; knowingly publish or broadcast false and distorted (full or partial) information to tarnish the image of the state or to spread rumour.
A person will face up to five years in jail or Tk 10 Lakh or both for committing the offence for second time, it said.
Section 28 says a person may face up to seven years in jail or Tk 10 lakh fine or both if he or she is found to have deliberately publishes or broadcasts something in the website or in electronic form or get it done to hurt one's religious sentiment and values.
A person will face up to ten years in jail or Tk 20 Lakh or both for committing the offence for the second time, it said.
Section 29 says a person may face maximum three years in jail or Tk 5 lakh fine or both if he or she commits offence stipulated in section 499 of the Penal Code through website or in electronic form.
He or she will face up to five years in jail or Tk 10 Lakh fine or both for committing the offence for the second time, it said.
Section 499 of the Penal Code reads, “Whoever by words either spoken or intended to be read, or by signs or by visible representations, makes or publishes any imputation concerning any person intending to harm, or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputation will harm, the reputation of such person, is said, except in the cases hereinafter excepted, to defame that person.”
Section 31 of the proposed law says a person may face up to seven years in jail or Tk 5lakh fine or both if he or she is found to have deliberately published or broadcast something in the website or in electronic form which can spread hatred and create enmity among different groups and communities and can cause deterioration of law and order.
Punishment will be up to 10 years in jail or Tk 10 lakh fine or both for committing the offence for the second time, it said.
Section 32 says a person may face up to 14 years in jail or Tk 20 lakh fine or both on the charge of spying if he or she illegally enters the offices of government, semi-government and autonomous bodies to gather information and uses electronic device to record something secretly.
A person may face up to 14 years in jail or Tk 1 crore or both for hacking, according to section 34 of the act.
If anyone illegally enters any critical information infrastructure, he or she will face maximum seven years' imprisonment or Tk 25 lakh fine or both, and he or she may face up to 14 years in jail or 1 crore in fine or both for doing any harm to the infrastructure, according to section 17.
The new law stipulates some crimes under sections including 17, 28, 31, 32 and 34 as “non-bailable”, considering the gravity of crimes and magnitude of punishment, the cabinet secretary said.
SOME OTHER PROVISIONS
According to the draft law, the government will form a Digital Security Agency to ensure national digital security and combating cyber crimes. A director general will lead the body.
To discuss the overall digital security of the country and to take “nationally important decision” over the issue, there will be a National Digital Security Council headed by the prime minister, the draft reads.
The government, through a gazette notification, will declare some specific computer systems, networks and information infrastructures, as “Essential Information Infrastructures” to serve the purpose of the act.
NO NEED FOR ARREST WARRANT
As per section 43 of the draft, a police official can search or arrest anyone without any warrant issued by a court.
If a police officer believes that an offence under the act has been committed in a certain place or is being committed, or there is a possibility of crimes, or there is a possibility of destroying evidence, he or she can search the place or any person present there.
The officer can arrest any person if he or she suspects that the person has committed or is committing crimes. In such a case, the officer has to submit a report to the court after carrying out the search, it added.