The Digital Security Act 2018: In the Eyes of the Politicians

01 March 2022
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Freedom of expression is an inalienable right of the people of a democratic country. Since the inception of the Digital Security Act- 2018 in Bangladesh, it has been inciting fear among different groups of people as far as voicing any opinion is concerned. According to the different media reports, more than 1500 cases have been filed under the DSA from January 1, 2020, to March 2021. 925 cases were filed in 2018; 1189 cases in 2019 and 1128 cases in 2020. As a think-tank, The Centre for Governance Studies (CGS) has been able to track 835 cases with detailed information from January 2020 till the 30th of January 2022. In order to highlight this issue, the Centre is organized a webinar titled, “The Digital Security Act 2018: In the Eyes of the Politicians” next Monday, 28th February 2022 at 10.00 A.M.

The discussants of the webinar will be Ahmed Hossain, Organizing Secretary of Bangladesh Awami League; Abdul Awal Mintoo, Vice Chairman, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP); Kazi Firoz Rashid MP, Former Minister and Co-Chairman of the Jatiya Party; Major General (Retd) Syed Muhammad Ibrahim Bir Protik, Chairman, Bangladesh Kallyan Party; Barrister Andaleeve Rahman Partho, Former Member of Parliament and Chairman of Bangladesh Jatiya Party (BJP); and Zonayed Saki, Chief Coordinator of Ganosamhati Andolon.

The webinar was presided over by CGS Chairman Dr. Manjur Ahmed Chowdhury and hosted by CGS Executive Director Zillur Rahman.

Ahmed Hossain stated that the Digital Security Act 2018 (DSA) has not hampered freedom of speech in Bangladesh. The ruling party representative went on to state that as there are still many institutions that criticize the government, it proves that freedom of speech still exists in Bangladesh and that the DSA is not being misused. According to the organizing secretary, security is a very big priority for the state. Many other countries have laws that are drafted to ensure their nation’s security. Bangladesh is not an exception. The DSA is an important tool in combating terrorism and preventing civil unrest. It is also vital for stopping the spread of fake news and false allegations. He concluded that it is beneficial to discuss the lacking of the law and make it better. But the law is essential and must stay. 

In response, the Vice-Chairman of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party Abdul Awal Mintoo said there should be a cyber-security law to protect people against hacking and cyber-attacks. However, the current DSA law is too broad and vague and not being used to protect people against actual crime; instead, it is being used to censor criticism of the government and beat down political opponents. He argued that the charges being made of people undermining “the spirit of the liberation war” are subjective and open to interpretation. According to the BNP vice-chairman, the injustice and oppression that the people fought against during the liberation war are now being enshrined in Bangladesh’s legal system. New oppressive laws like the DSA are now overriding the people’s fundamental rights provided by the constitution. He concluded that the only way to return fundamental rights back to the people would require significant modifications to the DSA if not outright scrapping it.

Dr Manjur stated that the DSA is creating a culture of fear in society by laying down harsh punishment against cartoonists and others who criticize the government through parody. The punishment for the alleged crime is always very disproportionate to the severity of the crime. He argued that the DSA in its current form is wrong and that all applications of the DSA are malpractice. The DSA goes against the words of the constitution and needs to be scrapped entirely and remade so as to avoid falling into the issues that this law has introduced.

Zillur Rahman Stated that it was the responsibility of the government, particularly the incumbent government that has been in power for so long, to dismantle the DSA. We cannot, as concerned citizens, allow the DSA to exist in such a form. The DSA has created an environment in society that is stifling critical thought and undermining the democracy of Bangladesh. The executive director of CGS went on to state that there is a need to reexamine our history and identify conflicts in the law and the constitution. New laws can be made and implemented only after the existing DSA is dismantled.

Zonayed Saki stated that the DSA is not being appropriately implemented as too much power is given to law enforcement when deciding if the law applies to the situation or not. It is also problematic that most independent third parties file cases on behalf of victims instead of the victims themselves. It undermines freedom of the press and freedom of speech, which is supposed to be guaranteed by the government. He also stated that the DSA has undermined the right to information act. Currently, the government uses the fear generated by the DSA to maintain its authoritative power. The legal system meant to protect the citizens is being used to oppress them. Zonayed Saki concluded that the fact that it is now illegal to criticize the Prime Minister shows the government’s intent to suppress opposition and consolidate power. The only way to preserve democratic governance is to get rid of the DSA.

Andaleeve Rahman Partho stated with various examples that the law is very poorly drafted and was made to control the people through fear. The clauses are very widely defined, which allows massive room for interpretation. The BJP chairman elaborated that there is indeed a need for a digital security act, but it must be considered whose rights are being protected. Are the laws protecting the rights of the people? Or are they simply covering the government? According to Andaleeve Rahman, the focus of the DSA should be on hacking and online issues. As it is now, the law is a danger to democracy. It has to be ensured that the law doesn’t clash with the rights of the people. The parts that do clash need to be scrapped.

Syed Muhammad Ibrahim pointed out that the constitution of Bangladesh says that laws that go against the constitution’s words will be made invalid. However, just because a law goes against the constitution doesn’t mean it will automatically become invalid. It has to be made invalid by the people. The government doesn’t think that the DSA goes against the constitution, and that is why they defend it. The freedom fighter stated that there are fundamental issues in the DSA that need to be addressed. He also stated that there is always a need to limit freedom of expression in certain cases. However, it needs to be distinguished when such powers are used to benefit the state, the party, or the individual politician.

Kazi Firoz Rashid stated that the DSA is itself against the spirit of the liberation war. People did not fight to be liberated only to have their rights to speech taken away. He agreed with the other discussants that The wording of the clauses in the DSA is too vague and pointed out other problematic aspects of the DSA, such as the lack of bail. The incumbent MP argued that such misuse of the law is perceived negatively abroad and results in consequences like the recent USA sanctions. He elaborated that in a democracy, the state and the party are not the same. However, here, if someone criticizes the party, they are being charged as if they are attacking the state. He concluded that Bangladesh has had lots of visible development such as infrastructure, but the invisible developments such as the rule of law and good governance are lacking behind. Laws that do not help develop the nation don’t need to exist.


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