The much-debated Digital Security Bill 2018 was passed in parliament last night with a harsh provision allowing police officials to search or arrest anyone without any warrant.
The bill got through by voice vote amid opposition from a number of Jatiya Party lawmakers, ignoring concern of journalists, owners of media houses and rights activists over some of its sections.
Journalists and rights activists have expressed worries over the new law, saying it was passed without addressing their concern.
They also said the act goes against the main spirit of the constitution and will restrict free-thinking, freedom of speech and freedom of expression. It will also impede independent journalism.
Section 43 of the new law says 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 committing crimes or destroying evidence, the official can search the place or any person there.
In its final report on September 17, the parliamentary standing committee on posts, telecommunications and information technology ministry recommended that police would have to take permission from the director general of the Digital Security Agency, to be formed under the new law, before arresting anyone under the section.
However, during the bill's passage yesterday, Jatiya Party lawmaker Fakhrul Imam proposed dropping the provision [of taking permission from DG] on grounds that it would hinder law enforcers from “carrying out their duties properly”.
Posts, Telecommunications and Information Technology Minister Mustafa Jabbar, who placed the bill before the House, then accepted his proposal, which was passed by voice vote.
At a meeting on Sunday, Sampadak Parishad (Editors' Council), a platform of the editors of the country's dailies, expressed its surprise, disappointment and shock at the committee's final report.
In a statement, the Parishad said they were “forced to reject the report” as it suggested no fundamental changes to sections 8, 21, 25, 28, 29, 31, 32, and 43 of the draft act that poses serious threats to freedom of expression and media operation.
The Parishad also called upon the authorities not to pass the draft act, saying it would gravely affect journalistic freedom and democracy in Bangladesh.
Yesterday, taking part in the discussion on the bill, JP lawmaker Fakhrul said concern of media people was not reflected in the bill and their opinion was neglected, which would create obstacles for them in performing duties.
“Inclusion of the British era Official Secrets Act in the new law is regretful and frustrating. This goes against the main spirit of the constitution, especially the freedom of speech and freedom of the press.”
This inclusion will restrict investigative journalism and research, added the JP lawmaker.
“The digital security act will create insecurity for the citizens of the country.”
Fakhrul along with some other opposition MPs, including Rawshan Ara Mannan, Shamim Haider Patwari, Mohammad Noman and Selim Uddin, proposed eliciting public opinion on the bill. But the proposal was rejected by voice vote.
A total of 11 opposition lawmakers and an independent MP submitted written statements to the House, opposing the bill. They proposed the bill be withdrawn and sent to the parliamentary committee for eliciting public opinion.
Of the 11 JP MPs, two were absent in parliament yesterday. JP lawmaker Kazi Firoz Rashid later withdrew his statement.
Terming the law a historic one, Mustafa said, “This law will be followed by many countries because they don't have any law on digital security.”
Referring to Singapore's law on digital security, the minister said if anyone compares it with the new law, he will find that the Bangladeshi one is a “heavenly law”.
He further said one of the new law's main objectives is to ensure the country's security from digital crimes and security of people's lives and assets.
Mustafa said that since 2015, the ministry tried to engage all the stakeholders in the process of formulating the law.
He said that if anyone goes through the parliamentary standing committee's report, the person would see how many times it was discussed with journalists and how many changes were brought to the bill.
“The standing committee and the law minister held many meetings with journalists and the Editors' Council and we have brought huge changes in the bill, giving the highest importance to their opinion,” the minister added.
“May be they [journalists and the Editors' Council] have forgotten what they have told at the meetings with the law minister and the standing committee.
“At every step, we gave the highest importance to the opinion of journalists. We brought the necessary changes in line with their opinion.”
The new law will facilitate ensuring freedom of speech and thoughts, said the minister.
On the inclusion of the Official Secrets Act in the bill, he said there is no instance that this act has been misused in the country.
He further said the new law is not for suppressing or controlling the media, rather it is meant for containing digital offences.
Noting that the future war will be a digital war, he said the republic has to be secured in that war. “If we don't secure our country, we will be held responsible.”
WHAT'S IN THE LAW
The bill was passed with several minor changes as recommended by the parliamentary body.
Section 3 of the new law includes a provision of the Right to Information Act 2009, which will be applicable in case of right to information-related matters.
As per section 32 of the law, if a person commits any crime or assists anyone in committing crimes under Official Secrets Act, 1923, through computer, digital device, computer network, digital network or any other electronic medium, he or she may face a maximum 14 years in jail or a fine of Tk 25 lakh or both.
The law also includes a definition of the “Spirit of the Liberation War” in section 21, which says, “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.”
According to section 29 of the law, a person may face up to three years in jail or a fine of Tk 5 lakh or both if he or she commits the offences stipulated in section 499 of the Penal Code through a website or in electronic form.
Section 31 of the act says a person may face up to seven years in prison or Tk 5 lakh in fine or both if he or she is found to have deliberately published or broadcast something on a website or in electronic form which can spread hatred and create enmity among different groups and communities, and can cause deterioration in law and order.
The act was passed without addressing journalists' concern over sections 8, 28, 29 and 31 that deal with hurting religious values, disrupting public order, dishing out defaming information and causing deterioration in law and order by publishing anything on a website or in electronic form.
Though Mustafa told the House yesterday that section 57 of the ICT act would be repealed following the passage of the bill, controversial provisions of section 57 were included in four sections of the new law.
On July 4, the parliamentary committee at a meeting with Sampadak Parishad, Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ) and Association of Television Channel Owners (ATCO) placed an 11-point change to the proposed Digital Security Act for their consideration.
Representatives of the three organisations told the committee that they would share their opinion on the changes later, following discussions in respective forums.
The committee set July 16 for further discussion with the organisations on the bill. But the meeting was postponed and no fresh date was announced.
Earlier on May 22, the committee had invited presidents and general secretaries of the Sampadak Parishad and BFUJ, and president and senior vice president of ATCO to a meeting to hear their views.
At the meeting, the three organisations voiced concern over sections 8, 21, 25, 28, 29, 31, 32, and 43, saying these would greatly hamper freedom of speech and independent journalism.
Earlier on several occasions, Law Minister Anisul Huq and Mustafa Jabbar assured journalists of taking measures to mitigate their concern.
On April 9, the Digital Security Bill 2018 was placed in the House, which sent it to the parliamentary committee for scrutiny. The committee was given four weeks to place its report before parliament.
Later, parliament extended the deadline for submitting the report by three months in two phases.