‘According to the Digital Security Law, I am a Spy': Bangladeshi Journalists Defend Their Right to Investigate

Screenshot from Facebook – people protesting with #আমিগুপ্তচর (#IAmSpy) hashtag

Since January 29, dozens of journalists in Bangladesh have claimed, in their social media profiles, that they are spies.

Holding placards bearing the #আমিগুপ্তচর hashtag (pronounced “Ami Guptochor”, and meaning “#IAmaSpy” in the Bengali language) they are speaking out against a newly proposed law that would criminalize key research practices of investigative journalists.

The 2018 Digital Security Act, still in draft, is said to target digital crimes. The current draft was approved by the Council of Ministers of Bangladesh government on January 29 and is scheduled to be submitted to the Jatiya Sangsad (National Parliament) for approval. The act is expected to be approved without opposition, thanks to the majority held by the ruling Bangladesh Awami League party.

The Act is intended to replace the 2006 Information and Communication Technology Act (amended in 2013), which has drawn much criticism over the past years. The notorious Section 57 of the law prohibits digital messages that can “deteriorate” law and order, “prejudice the image of the state or person,” or “hurt religious beliefs.” For these non-bailable offenses, the punishment is a minimum seven years in prison and a hefty fine. These vague terms paved the way for dozens of journalists and hundreds of bloggers and online activists to be prosecuted for their writings and comments on social media. The Law Minister Anisul Huq promised in July 2017 that Section 57 would be scrapped.

Why #IamaSpy?

The Section 32 of the proposed act stipulates:

If a person enters any government, semi-government or autonomous institutions illegally, and secretly records any information or document with electronic instruments, it will be considered as an act of espionage and he/she will face 14 years of imprisonment or a fine of BDT 2 million (US$ 24,000) or both.

Many journalists and online activists fear that their investigative work to expose irregularities by government employees and politicians could be regarded as espionage.

From Section 57 to Section 32, from protests to shaming. According to the Digital Security Act, I am a spy! Come arrest this self-proclaimed spy and let this country progress by strangling the journalists.

Journalist Parvez Reza, Special Correspondent at Ekattor Television, is believed to be the person who started the trend. He wrote in a Facebook post:

অনেকেরই প্রশ্ন, কেন সাংবাদিকরা নিজেকে গুপ্তচর হিসেবে স্বীকার করে নিচ্ছে? সহজ উত্তর, সরকার, রাষ্ট্র এখন আইনের মাধ্যমে আমাদের গুপ্তচর বৃত্তির অভিযোগে অভিযুক্ত করার পায়তারা করছে।[…]

Many are asking, “why are journalists calling themselves spies?” The answer is simple, the government is trying to criminalize our investigative work by booking us as spies.

Investigative journalist Badruddoza Babu fumes:

#আমিগুপ্তচর। আমি বদরুদ্দোজা বাবু। অনুসন্ধান করি, সাংবাদিকতা করি। মানুষের স্বার্থে কাজ করি। অনিয়ম আর দুর্নীতি খুঁজি। ফলে আমাকে সরকারি অনেক নথি জোগাড় করতে হয়! ডিজিটাল নিরাপত্তা আইনের ভাষায়, এখন আমি গুপ্তচর!

#IAmSpy. I am Badruddoza Babu. I investigate, I am a journalist. I work for the people searching for irregularities and corruption. I have to get a lot of evidence secretly. According to the latest Digital Security Law, I am a spy.

Journalist Rozina Islam told BBC Bangla in an interview that the Digital Security Act will make the process of obtaining evidence for news articles very difficult.

What else is inside the 2018 Digital Security Act?

There are 48 sections in the proposed Digital Security Act. The journalists initially reacted to its section 32, which says that unsolicited collection of information from any government, semi-government or autonomous institutions using electronic devices will be defined as digital spying.

There are a number of other sections in this new act that could threaten online free expression and media rights in the country. Section 57 of the soon-to-be-scrapped ICT Act stipulated a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison for offenses such as defamation, hurting religious sentiments, causing deterioration of law and order and instigating against any person or organization. The draft of Digital Security Act splits these offenses into four separate sections with punishment ranging from three to 10 years’ term. Some of the other more striking portions of the law include:

- Section 27: Material in websites or in electronic devices that hurts religious beliefs. The offense is non-bailable and punishment is 5 years imprisonment and BDT 1 million (USD$ 12,000) fine or both.

- Section 28: Publication of false and degrading remarks in media. The offense is bailable and punishment is 3 years imprisonment and BDT 300,000 (USD$ 3,600) fine or both.

-  A lifetime prison sentence for spreading negative propaganda against the Liberation War or the Father of the Nation using digital devices

- Authorization for security agencies to search or arrest anyone without any warrant if a police officer believes that an offense under the Act has been committed or there is a possibility of crimes

Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua, an advocate of Supreme Court in Bangladesh says in an interview with Monitor:

The Digital Security Act is an Eyewash. It is section 57 for all intent and purposes. All the provisions have merely been redistributed among other sections. Its approval will ensure that people lose their freedom of speech.

Barua also mentions in an interview with Dhaka Tribune:

Why won’t I be able to record something wrong happening before my eyes? If I try to copy classified government records, we have the Official Secrecy Act for that.

Screenshot from Facebook

Journalist and blogger Maskwaith Ahsan observed that the government is following the colonial era official secrets act in this new act. He writes in Facebook:

ডিজিটাল নিরাপত্তা আইন ২০১৮ প্রণয়ন দেখে অনুভূত হয়; সরকার ২০১৮ সালের বাস্তবতায় বসে ১৯১৮ সালের তামাদি শাসন কৌশল অনুসরণের চেষ্টা করছে। বৃটিশ শাসনে অফিশিয়াল সিক্রেসি এক্ট বা দাপ্তরিক গোপনীয়তা আইন প্রণীত হয়েছিলো। ঔপনিবেশিক অপশাসন চালিয়ে যাবার জন্যই জনগণের স্বার্থে পরিচালিত সরকারী দপ্তরের তথ্য জানার অধিকার থেকে জনগণকেই বঞ্চিত করার অপচেষ্টা চালানো হয়েছিলো এই আইনের মাধ্যমে।

Seeing the Digital Security Act 2018 passed, it seems that the government is trying to follow the tactics of the governance of 1918 in the reality of 2018. During the British colonial rule, this official secrets act was introduced. The main focus of this law was to expand colonialism and prevent the common people from obtaining information in government offices.

Journalist Aditya Arafat feels that section 32 is the last nail in the coffin to restrict investigative journalism. He writes:

এ ধারায় অনুসন্ধানী সাংবাদিকতা বলতে কিছুই থাকবে না। সারাবিশ্বেই অনুসন্ধানী বা অনিয়ম-দুর্নীতি নিয়ে রিপোর্টিংয়ের তথ্য সাংবাদিকরা জনস্বার্থে গোপনেই নিয়ে থাকেন। এ ধারার প্রয়োগে কোনো দুর্নীতির সংবাদের তথ্য সংগ্রহ করা যাবে না। এমনিতেই দেশে অনুসন্ধানী সাংবাদিকতা, দুর্নীতি বিরোধী রিপোর্টং করা অনেক ঝুঁকির। থাকে মামলা হামলার শংকা। [..]আর যাই হোক ধারাটি যারা তৈরি করেছেন তারা অসৎ সরকারি কর্মকর্তা-কর্মচারি এবং দুর্নীতি পরায়ন ব্যক্তিদের বাহবা পাবেন, হয়তো পাচ্ছেনও।

If this law is implemented there will no more be any investigative journalism. In other parts of the world, journalists obtain information on corruption or irregularities secretly in public interest. This law will not let information be collected. The process of investigative journalism and reporting against irregularity are very dangerous in this country. The journalists brave the fear of the lawsuits. Those who wrote this law will get accolades from the corrupt and dishonest officials and maybe already they have.

Parvez Reza reacted to the Law Minister's statement in an interview with online site Sarabangla.net:

আইনমন্ত্রী বলছেন, ” গুপ্তচরবৃত্তি আর সাংবাদিকতা এক নয়, দুর্নীতির খবর করলে এই আইন প্রযোজ্য হবে না।” আপনি কিভাবে নিশ্চয়তা দিচ্ছেন মন্ত্রী বাহাদুর? আইনের প্রতিটা প্রয়োগ কি আপনাকে জিজ্ঞেস করে হবে? ৫৭ ধারা অপপ্রয়োগের শিকার কিন্তু সাংবাদিকরাই বেশি হয়েছেন।

The law minister said “espionage and journalism are not the same, this law will not be applicable for reporting about irregularities”. How can you be sure Mr. Minsiter? Will every imposition of the law be controlled by you? Journalists were at the receiving end of the misuse of the section 57 of the ICT act.

I protest the Digital Security Act 2018. Let the pen of the investigative journalist live on. #IAmSpy

Scenes of protest. The police did not allow the use of microphones.

Along with journalists, various political parties, members of the civil society and ordinary people are protesting the law. An editorial published by The Independent notes that “recommendations of stakeholders were ignored in the formulation of the draft act”. They have urged the government to hold a public consultation before enacting the law.

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