The Cyber Security Act Bill was passed in the Jatiya Sangsad (national parliament) amid strong protest from the opposition members of parliament. Criticising the bill, the opposition members of parliament said that like the Digital Security Act, this new law would also pose as an obstacle to freedom of speech and thought, media freedom. This was contrary to the constitution.
The Cyber Security Act Bill was passed on Wednesday in parliament. The controversial Digital Security Act, widely criticised at home and abroad, has been suspended and this new law drawn up in its stead. However, concerned persons maintain that almost all the controversial sections of the Digital Security Act remain intact in the Cyber Security Act. The sentences have been reduced in certain instances.
In reply to criticism from the opposition members of parliament, state minister for information and communication technology Zunaid Ahmed said that while freedom of thought and expression is recognized in the constitution, it is not unrestrained.
Speaking in the discussions on the passage of the bill, Gono Forum member of parliament Mokabbir Khan said, the law has been drawn up anew but it brings no relief. It is old wine in a new bottle. This law is much the same as the Digital Security Act. The objections and concerns raised by the United Nations, the Editors’ Council and journalists, still prevail.
Mokabbir said, the Editors’ Council had demanded that 9 sections of the Digital Security Act be cancelled as these seriously harmed independent journalism and freedom of expression. Now in the proposed law there had been amendments in the sentences and bail issues in seven of the sections, but the definition of the offences was not clarified. Two sections remained unchanged. The UN human rights office had called for the abolition of two sections, but these have not been abolished in the new law, just changes made in the sentences and the bail clauses.
Saying that this law could be used to very easily harass anyone, Mokabbir Khan stated, “I can easily guess how much of a threat this law is to journalists. A top person of the state can refer to a popular leading newspaper of the country, saying it is an enemy of the country, an enemy of the nation. This is unwarranted and unexpected. If there are allegations, action can certainly be taken. The declaration of the newspaper can be cancelled. It is clear that this is a direct intervention into independent journalism. But the threat has backfired.”
Mokabbir Khan went on to say that this law is the most effective tool to suppress dissenting views, criticism and free thinking. Over the last four and a half years the Digital Security Act has been used just to suppress criticism of the government or the ruling party and free thinking. And the journalist community has been the most repressed by this act. This law has shrunk their freedom of expression to a huge extent. Under this law the police have been given the authority to enter people’s homes and offices, carry out body searches and make arrests without warrant.
Jatiya Party member of parliament Fakhrul Imam said that there have been some changes in the law, but the journalists say they are not satisfied. The constitution provides freedom of speech, freedom of thought and press freedom. The constitution in the fundamental law. If there is any law drawn up against freedom of speech, then it is contradictory to the constitution.
While the constitution recognizes freedom of thought and expression, this is not unrestrained. Independence does not mean encroaching upon anyone else’s rights, to say whatever one wants, to speak obscenely to womenZunaid Ahmed, ICT state minister
Jatiya Party member of parliament Mujibul Haque said, the journalists take up their pens in the interests of the nation. There was scope to involve the Press Council in this connection. Section 42 gives the authority to make arrests without warrant. There is fear of this law being abused. He then referred to the issue of two Chhatra League leaders recently being taken to the police station and beaten.
Another member of parliament from Jatiya Party, Pir Fazlur Rahman said Section 42 of this act provides the power to make arrests without any warrant. There should have been a separate provision in this law to protect journalists. There was scope for control to be applied through the Press Council. He said 27 per cent of the cases under the Digital Security Act were filed against journalists. The plaintiffs were mostly leaders and activists of the ruling party.
Jatiya Party member of parliament Shamim Haider said that the constitution provides for freedom of thought, freedom of press and freedom of expression. It is contradictory to the constitution to have such a law while these provisions remain in the constitution. The definition of offences has been kept the same in the law, only the sentences have been reduced in certain instances. This law will lead to increased self censorship in the media.
Jatiya Party member of parliament Hafizuddin Ahmad said, many have objections to Section 42. This, and all unlawful sections, must be dropped.
State minister’s response
In response to the criticism from the opposition members of parliament, state minister for information and communication technology Zunaid Ahmed said that while the constitution recognizes freedom of thought and expression, this is not unrestrained. Independence does not mean encroaching upon anyone else’s rights, to say whatever one wants, to speak obscenely to women.
Zunaid Ahmed said, the Digital Security Act was introduced in 2018 as this was the need of the time. Now, in response to the needs of the present times, the Cyber Security Act is introduced. There is no alternative to a Cyber Security Act to build up a transparent, accountable and secure Smart Bangladesh.
Deputy speaker Shamsul Haque, as the chair, later sent the opinions of the parliament members to the scrutiny committee and addressed amendment recommendations. Then the bill was passed by voice vote.
Instigating hatred, confusion and criticism against the liberation war, the spirit of the liberation war, Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Rahman, the national anthem or the national flag will be considered an offence
What is in the law
The bill was tabled in parliament on 5 September. It was then sent to the parliamentary committee to draw up a report after review. Discussions were held there with leaders of a few journalist organisations and some semantic changes were made. The Official Secrets Act was dropped from the bill too. Provision for punishment for filing false cases was added. But even after this, concerned persons have objections to several sections.
Section 42 in the bill gives the police authority to conduct searches and make arrests without warrant. Authority has also been given to remove or block content from the digital media. The bill has said that carrying out or instigating hatred, confusion and criticism against the liberation war, the spirit of the liberation war, Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Rahman, the national anthem or the national flag will be considered an offence. The punishment will be prison sentence not exceeding five years or a fine of Tk 10 million or both.
The bill further stated that if any content that hurts religious sentiment or feelings is published on any website or electronic platform, the punishment will be prison sentence not exceeding two years or fine not exceeding Tk 500,000 or both.
The bill states that any defamatory content on any website or electronic platform will be considered an offence. The punishment for this will be a maximum fine of Tk 2.5 million. If any person publishes anything on any website or the digital media that creates enmity or hatred among different classes or communities, or harms communal harmony or creates unrest or disorder or deterioration of law and order, this will be an offence. The punishment will be a maximum 5 years imprisonment or a fine not exceeding Tk 2.5 million or both.