Digital Security Act: From the frying pan into the fire
Bad news: The law that will dictate your digital life for the foreseeable future is finally here. The parliament on September 19 passed the Digital Security Bill 2018 despite stiff opposition from the journalists and rights campaigners and grave concerns among the public. Good news: Well, at least we now know, with blinding clarity that is, the limits to our digital rights and the extent to which those rights can be exercised.
In Bangladesh, the last session of a parliament is apparently reserved for sneaky decisions and controversial laws, approved rather hastily with the hope that those will tilt the scale in favour of the party in power in the coming election. The government has outdone itself in that respect. In just a matter of hours, it has passed three high-stakes bills with innocuous-sounding titles—Digital Security Bill, the Road Transport Bill, and another recognising the Dawrae Hadith (Takmil) certificate in Qawmi madrasa as equivalent to a Master's degree in Islamic Studies and Arabic—the purposes of which, it would appear, are not so innocuous. The security bill is clearly the most controversial, and will likely have profound repercussions despite assurances from the government that it will not. Its timing is most inauspicious, its background most unfortunate.
There are so many things wrong with this law that it's difficult to decide where to begin. For starters, since its formation early this year, the bill has attracted determined pushback from the journalists, editors and rights campaigners who said that it contradicted the basic principles of the Constitution and would pose serious threats to freedom of speech, especially on social media, and undermine independent journalism. After the draft of the proposed bill was approved by the cabinet on January 29, the Editors' Council expressed its concerns over eight sections (8, 21, 25, 28, 29, 31, 32 and 43) of the bill. Law Minister Anisul Huq, after meeting with the editors, called their concerns "largely logical". According to Prothom Alo, diplomats from 10 western countries and the European Union also expressed their concerns over sections 21, 25, 28 and 32, while Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) called for a critical rethink of nine sections (including the eight objected to by the Editors' Council).
Until September 11—by which time the parliamentary standing committee on the ministry of posts, telecommunications and information technology held two meetings with the representatives of the Editors' Council, BFUJ and ATCO—it seemed as if there would be attempts to bring about the desired reforms in the bill. But the surprising haste with which legislation was followed through, and the fact that the last promised meeting with the representatives of the media bodies was not held, or that none of their major concerns was addressed in the final draft, indicate that those ministerial engagements to assuage fears were merely an eyewash—a shrewd ploy to delay the inevitable until a predetermined point in time.
For those who do not know, here's a quick round-up of some of the controversial aspects of the new law:
Section 43 of the law says that if a police official believes that an offence under the law has been or is being committed at a certain place, or there is a possibility of someone committing crimes or destroying evidence, the official can search the place or arrest the person involved without any warrant or permission whatsoever. Meanwhile, although the now-infamous Section 57 of the ICT Act has been repealed with the promulgation of the new law, its controversial provisions were kept intact and spread out across four sections (25, 28, 29 and 31) of the law.
Equally worryingly, the colonial-era Official Secrets Act was given a new lease of life, meaning if anyone commits a crime or assists anyone in committing a crime under the Official Secrets Act using any electronic medium, he/she will be punished under the new law, with the maximum punishment being 14 years of imprisonment or a fine of Tk 25 lakh or both. It's ironic that a 1923 act would be resurrected to address modern-day problems—that too by a government that prides itself on its commitment to establish a Digital Bangladesh.
In all likelihood, the implications of the new law on our society, political climate and even the individual psyche will be profound and far-reaching. From a pragmatic point of view, how necessary was it really? Posts, Telecommunications and Information Technology Minister Mustafa Jabbar, who placed the bill before the House, called it a "historic" law to be used against digital crimes. He also made a cryptic reference to a "digital war" in the future. "If we cannot protect the nation during this war, and if it endangers the state, the fault will be ours," he said (Prothom Alo). Frankly, we're not sure what the minister meant by that. In any case, we're more troubled by the more immediate "war" at hand, in present-day Bangladesh, at the heart of which is a sinister effort to undermine responsible journalism through one law or the other.
The two recent social media-driven movements for road safety and quota reforms have clearly put the government on the defensive, resulting in knee-jerk reactions tightening the legal noose around social media practices. Apparent in the manner in which unreasonable restrictions are being put on social media is a deep-seated fear that digital platforms such as Facebook may emerge as powerful opinion-shaping tools ahead of the national election, to the detriment of the interests of the ruling coalition. But the actual risk, for those at the business end of this insecurity, is far graver.
"Due to the inclusion of Official Secrets Act [and other such] provisions, this new law will not only curb freedom of expression but also undermine the objectives of the Right to Information Act. It will also increase the fear created by Section 57," according to Jyotirmoy Barua, a Supreme Court lawyer and activist. "As a result, people will go into further self-censorship" (The Daily Star).
Those trying to assure the aggrieved journalists that there is nothing to be worried about the new law are, however, missing a vital point here: It's not just about journalism. When the journalists/activists say they are worried about the law, they don't speak only for themselves but also for the 9.05 crore active users of Internet in Bangladesh (BTRC), whose digital lifestyle and choices will no longer be the same after the enactment of the Digital Security Act 2018. It's preposterous to single out only the more vocal of citizens as victims.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.