Webinar on Digital Security, Advanced Democracy and Bangladesh

21 August 2023
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‘The Digital Security Act’ (DSA) was enacted in 2018 after much criticism of the Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT) 2006.The act gives law enforcement agencies the power to arrest anyone, search any premises, and seize any equipment without a warrant, requiring only suspicion that a crime has been committed using social media.

On 19 August 2023, the Centre for Governance Studies organized a webinar titled “Digital Security, Advanced Democracy and Bangladesh” to discuss the lethal impact of the Digital Security Act, how it is hampering the definition of democracy, and a comparison with other countries who has a similar kind of law like the DSA in Bangladesh. 

On 19 August 2023, during a webinar, Kamal Ahmed, journalist and columnist of Prothom Alo and The Daily Star, presented a report on the Digital Security Act 2018. The report showed a comparison between the Digital Security Act 2018 in Bangladesh and other similar acts in other countries like Europe and America. The paper also talked about the nominal change of the Digital Security Act to the Cyber Security Act. 

The presentation of the report was given by the writer, Kamal Ahmed. The discussants of the webinar includedDr. Ali Riaz, a Distinguished Professor at Illinois State University, Faruq Faisel, Regional Director of Bangladesh, and South Asia, Article 19, Nurul Kabir, Editor at New Age, Asif Bin Ali, Lecturer, Media and Journalism Program, North South University, Rozyna Begum, Researcher, and Human Rights Activist. Journalists from various news outlets were present in the webinar and a Q&A session was held after the discussion. 

The program was moderated by CGS Executive Director Zillur Rahman

Kamal Ahmed, in his keynote, addressed that even though the government is claiming to make the Digital Security Act more flexible by changing it into the Cyber Security Act, the change is only nominal. There is no platform where civil society can put their opinion for changing the act, there is not even any draft within the reach of the citizen to exchange views. There is a similar law in Europe but the law enforcement agency works independently there unlike in Bangladesh. The agencies do not have any kind of political influence or control over them when it comes to investigation.

Dr. Ali Riaz stated that there are two angles in today's conversation, 1. The Comparison of the Digital Security Act with other similar acts of the developing world, and 2. Nominal changes of the law.  One thing is very clear the correction of the DSA will only be ceremonial. CSA is just a replication of DSA. The problem with the replication of DSA gave institutions like law enforcement agencies too much power which makes them act like the government rather as a part of the neutral state. One terrifying fact about the Digital Security Act is the police can take preemptive measures against an individual if they think the individual is conspiring against the state or can make violation of the law before anyone files any case against him/her. How can police, residing in his office know that a person is committing a crime under the DSA?  He also mentioned a point from Kamal Ahmed’s report that the Digital Safety Acts of the United Kingdom will pass this September, 3 years after the proposal meaning there is intensive research done before passing the law. However, the government of Bangladesh has only given 14 days to put opinions about the new Cyber Security Law.  He concluded his discussion by asking about the political intent of the current government behind changing the law months before the election. 

Faruq Faisal stated that when they tried to discuss the oppressing nature of the DSA, the government said that the DSA is like the constitution and cannot be changed even though the constitution itself had some amendments in the past. He also said that the DSA has perplexing definitions. Any law will be useless until the country brings back the democratic ruling. The existing cases under the DSA from 2018 to 2023 need to be investigated and the abuser of the law should be punished. The level of self-censorship should also be tracked that has been created by the act. He added that law enforcement agencies do not have sufficient technical knowledge and training in IT to investigate the cases under DSA. 

Nurul Kabir stated that the government fabricated a lie about meeting the international standards of the Digital Security Act. The new law is only here to free DSA from its bad reputation. Changing the law is highly deceptive to the citizen and they are very much unaware of the fact of the lie. He talked about the missing million dollars from Bangladesh Bank, the hacking of 5 Lakhs NID, and the temporary shutdown of the National Service system portraying that the Digital Security Act is unable to prevent these types of incidents but is highly functional in terms of oppressing the people and snatching their freedom of speech and thoughts. Although journalists are the main victims of the act, if the citizensdo not come forward, be aware, and take part in revolutionizing the law then society itself becomes suppressed. 

Asif Bin Ali stated that every country needs a formal structure and framework of digital security law to protect citizens from digital scams and harassment, especially women, children, and minority groups. It is a necessity. Digital Security Act of 2018 covered some of it but the problem is that the lawmakers mixed up the necessity with the government criticism as a crime. The DSA is needed to protect the citizen, not to weaponize it for political will.  The Digital Security Act has an unclear definition of the crime that resulted in oppression. In the new Cyber Security Act it is stated that the punishment will be lessened but the social impact of 6 months of jail time and 6 years of jail time is the same.  The new law needs to fix the unclear definition of crime and has to open the door for criticism. No matter whatever law is there to replace the DSA, if there is no neutral supervision of the law, then it will only be futile.

Rozyna Begum stated that if anyonetries to analyze the new Cyber Security Act, they will get confused with the existing DSA because both are very similar, they do not have many corrections. Section 5 of both the DSA and CSA creates Digital Security which has the power to censor anything that is not ethical. Only the judicial system has that kind of power to sensor anything. It questions the necessity, Legality, and proportionality which conflicts with the constitution. She also raised the issue of preexisting cases under the ICT Act of 2006 and the DSA 2018 which are still running and the victim of the case is suffering from the law. She suggested they should be freed from the running cases and those who harassed them by abusing the law should be punished. 

Zillur Rahman concluded the session by stating that Democracy should come first. The Digital Security Act came into motion by following the footsteps of section 57 of the ICT Act. The developed world has the Digital Security Act but the government of Bangladesh has not followed the standard of the international acts. The acts in other countries protect their citizen whereas under the DSA act of Bangladesh Citizens are neglected and oppressed. The new Cyber Security Act is there just to eyewash the citizens. Until the judicial system does not work independently and law enforcement agencies get rid of the political influence, it is impossible to establish good governance.