Webinar on Digital Security Act 2018: What to do?

27 April 2023
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The Centre for Governance Studies (CGS) hosted a webinar on the Digital Security Act 2018 titled "Digital Security Act 2018: What to Do?" on April 17, 2023. The webinar was moderated by the Executive Director of CGS, Zillur Rahman. The panel of discussants includes Dr. Ali Riaz, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Illinois State University, USA, and a member of the advisory board of the Centre for Governance Studies (CGS); Brig. General (retired) M. Sakhawat Hossain, former Election Commissioner of Bangladesh; Dr. Iftekharuzzaman, Executive Director, Transparency International Bangladesh; Didarul Islam Bhuiyan, Economic Coordinator, State Reformation Movement, and member of the DSA Victim Network.

Zillur Rahman, as moderator of the webinar,brought up the case of Khadijatul Kubra, a student at Jagannath University who was only 17 years old when the cases were filed. Two cases had been filed against her in New Market and Kalabagan Thana.

He reminded everyone that the Law Minister had promised to amend this Act and pledged to give protection to the journalists. But in reality, journalists are victims of this act, which is in full swing. But unfortunately, some of the journalists are directly or indirectly supporting the law. He also said the Law Minister promised the ICT Cell would oversee the misuse of these cases, but no promise was kept.

Dr. Ali Riaz, the principal investigator of the project related to the Digital Security Act, said, "Not only CGS, as an organisation, and I, in my personal capacity, expressed concerns about this law, but almost all other human rights organisations had expressed concerns." Out of the 1,295 cases, we found that 3,644 were accused until March 30, 2023. In fact, there was evidence that 11 DSA cases had been filed against one person.

"There is a lack of transparency by the government in cases of information sharing and discussion with stakeholders. Has the government conveyed in its note to the UNHCR what the stakeholders have to say about this Act? This is an absolute disregard for transparency on the part of the government", he added.

In his speech, Professor Ali Riaz proposed five recommendations before amending the act:

1.    A moratorium has to be imposed immediately on this law until an alternative is found through discussion with the stakeholders (the UN and HR organisations in Bangladesh).

2.    A list of all cases under the DSA has to be published by the government, either in white paper or any other form.

3.    Unfettered power to the police has been given, and the police are not complying. According to data provided by the CGS, the investigation report has not been given within the 75 days that are mandated by law.

4.    Immediately, bail has to be given to all accused under this Act, including those who are genuinely innocent. People were taken away, forcibly disappeared, or arrested even before the filing of the case. Those who have been accused of fraud, harassment, or violence against women need to be prosecuted under existing laws of the land other than the DSA (Penal Code, CrPC).

5.    Compensation has to be provided by the judicial committee to the victims under this law. Especially the mental trauma, physical torture, and economic and social struggles of the victims

Furthermore, he also said that the Press Council is not an independent body and cannot serve as a platform for a free press. Arrest before filing a case, pre-judicial killing, and death in custody have become the new normal using DSA. Civil society should document cases and stand beside victims, he added.

Dr. Iftekharuzzamanagreed with the five recommendations of Dr. Ali Riaz. He also added that as long as a cyber-security act is enacted, a moratorium has to be imposed. The government has accepted the fact that there was misuse, so an independent judicial probe has to be made to bring the abusers to justice. The government did not publish the note that they shared with the UNHCR, he added. It is a repressive law that violates the fundamental human rights of the victims, and it is also unconstitutional and against the spirit of the liberation war. According to him, any form of dissension is penalised, and there is a law that encourages the torture of the citizens and punishes dissenting voices in society. He also said that this law affects minority communities and creates existential crises for them. The law-enforcing agencies created by this act have become agencies that violate the law rather than protecting it, he added.

Lastly, he proposed that we need cyber security laws for protection from hacking, but there cannot be a law similar to the DSA, which is repressive in a democratic country.

Brig. Gen. Dr. M. Sakhawat Hossain (Ret. ), while discussing,said, "When I write something, I keep in mind the DSA, and that is one of the reasons why I don’t use Facebook." Regarding DSA, he said, there are some clauses that are not well defined. For instance, Sections 21 and 29 include "spirit of liberation", "spirit of independence," and "father of the nation," which are very broad terms that can’t be properly defined. With or without a warrant, you may be taken away for expressing any thoughts that may go against authority or any influential person, or on the mere suspicion of being defamed. As far as the national election is concerned, he said, the Election Commission has made a new law that says the media cannot do live telecasts in the voting room. This is another concerning sign in addition to the DSA. Lastly, he stated that freedom is an important component for a level playing field before the elections. These laws are not appropriate for ensuring a democratic and just society.

Didarul Islam Bhuiyan, one of the victims of the DSA, said that during COVID-19, with many others, including Barrister DilipBarua, they formed a network to oversee the relief distribution of the government in Kurigram and Naraynganj. While reporting about the discrimination in Kurigram, he had been receiving threats and was suddenly arrested. While talking about his own experience, he said he was taken into the RAB-3 office. His colleagues tried for the next few hours to find him in all the RAB stations and in the police station, but they denied any arrest.

He was in custody for one day, where RAB questioned him for seven hours with handcuffs and blindfolds. In the FIR, it has been mentioned that he had three CPUs and one laptop and was in front of a hospital when he was arrested. Didarul was in jail for five months. After 3 months of bail, a charge sheet was given, which included many vague pieces of information.

He was told that Mustaq Ahmed is his friend and that they have been conspiring against the state. For proof, they showed a 3-month-old Facebook status that was a mere poem protesting discrimination. ‘I did not get any stay orders due to the reluctance of the judges to hear the case,’ he added.

He concluded by saying, "The application of the DSA itself is a misuse. This kind of law cannot remain in a humanitarian state." He demanded the law be abolished immediately.

Webinar Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hXg3sD9OnQI