On September 13, 2023, the Bangladesh parliament passed the new Cyber Security Act 2023 (CSA), which aims to prevent cybercrime and the spread of false information. Just over a month earlier, on August 7, the cabinet of the Bangladesh government decided to scrap the controversial Digital Security Act, 2018 (DSA) and replace it with the proposed CSA.
Advocacy groups focused on human rights and digital rights are asserting that the new law is essentially a rebranded version of its predecessor, the DSA. The new law contains many contentious clauses that carry the risk of being exploited and misused, potentially targeting human rights advocates, journalists, opposition figures, and individuals expressing dissent or government criticism. The Cyber Security Act 2023 was hurriedly passed during the 24th session of the 11th Bangladesh parliament which concluded on September 14, 2023. There have been speculations that this session could be the final one before the upcoming parliamentary elections in January 2024.
Expat Bangladeshi Saimon posts a cartoon by Cartoonist Apu on X (formerly Twitter):
— Saimon (@SaimanLP) August 8, 2023
The draconian Digital Security Act, 2018
The Digital Security Act, 2018 became a law on October 8, 2018, just a few months before the 2018 parliament elections. Its primary objective was to prevent the spread of terrorism, propaganda, and hatred targeting religious or ethnic minorities through social media or other electronic media platforms. Before this, freedom of expression in Bangladesh was undermined by the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act (2006) which contained the draconian Section 57, among others, that granted the police the authority to arrest individuals for posting content online that was deemed “fake,” “obscene,” or “defamatory.”
However, the DSA proved to be more draconian, prompting protests from human rights activists, journalists, legal experts and individuals, who raised concerns about its ambiguous language and its tendency to criminalize legitimate expressions of thoughts and opinions. Under this act, broad powers were given to the authorities — such as the power to arrest people and search premises without a warrant on the suspicion that a crime was committed or to be committed online. As per the government, over 7000 cases were filed under the Digital Security Act from October 2018, and approximately 86 percent percent of those cases are still awaiting hearings. DSA Tracker, an effort of the Centre for Government Studies in Bangladesh, tracked 1321 cases as of May 31, 2013, which name 4,121 individuals as the accused, of which 1,454 had been arrested.
The Cyber Security Act (2023): a renamed version of the DSA
According to the Law Minister Anisul Huq, the DSA 2018 was not scrapped, but transformed and modernized after amending some sections, and then renamed the Cyber Security Act. The new law featured some reduction in penalties, such as for Section 21 of the DSA, which originally carried a 10-year imprisonment term for disseminating “propaganda” related to Bangladesh's Liberation War; in the CSA, this penalty has been reduced to 7 years.
However, the key issues arising from vague provisions and the broad powers of police and the DSA enforcing agency remain totally unaddressed.
Writes Zillur Rahman.#DSA #csa #opinion #law #bangladesh https://t.co/fPBMalZNnI
— The Daily Star (@dailystarnews) August 24, 2023
The law minister said that views from stakeholders have been considered. However, the general public was provided a brief timeframe, from August 10 to August 22, 2023, to submit their suggestions and concerns via email. The US Embassy in Dhaka published a statement asserting that the government did not allow stakeholders sufficient time or opportunities to review and contribute their input to ensure the law aligns with international standards. According to the statement, the CSA retains numerous elements from the DSA that still pose a threat to freedom of expression. Additionally, it pointed out that the CSA includes provisions denying bail for offences under certain sections, and some definitions are too broad and could be misused to intimidate and silence critics.
Information technology professional Yamin Hossain Sohan posts:
— Yamin Hossain Shohan (@needyamin) September 14, 2023
Media and digital rights defenders have consistently emphasized that the new law contradicts various provisions of the Constitution of Bangladesh and are in conflict with international human rights standards. Additionally, Section 42 of the CSA, akin to Section 43 of the DSA, grants authorities the power to conduct raids, carry out searches, or make arrests on the grounds of the suspicion that a crime is being perpetrated or is imminent, or that evidence will be destroyed. However, the law minister claimed that, under the new CSA, there is no scope for arrest without an warrant and the Section 42 has a legal requirement.
Human rights defender Saad Hammadi calls out the government's claim:
Raising the fine and removing the jail term for defamation is nowhere close to rectification of the DSA.
The public is eagerly anticipating the official version of the law to understand what changes were made based on stakeholders inputs and the suggestions of the parliamentary standing committee on post, telecommunication, and information technology on the draft that was posted online over a month ago.