Cyber Security Act: Rebranding of DSA?

The draft Cyber Security Act that was discussed in the Cabinet meeting on Monday has now been finalised. Two additional sections from the previous Digital Security Act have been made bailable in this new version. Initially, the government had suggested making eight of the non-bailable sections from the previous Act bailable, along with proposing reduced punishments for certain sections.

It's important to highlight that when the Digital Security Act was enacted back in 2018, both domestic and foreign human rights organisations, as well as members of the media, strongly protested against it. However, the government policymakers chose not to take these concerns into consideration.

During its enactment, the government stated that the Digital Security Act (DSA) was designed to curb digital media-related criminal activities. However, in practice, it has been employed to stifle press freedom and quell dissent. As per the speech delivered by Law Minister Anisul Haque in the Jatiya Sangsad (national parliament), a total of 7,001 cases were registered up until 31 January. Regrettably, he was unable to provide the exact number of individuals who have been arrested under this law.

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According to information from the international human rights organisation, Article 19, within the past three and a half years, 229 journalists have faced accusations in 115 cases under the Digital Security Act. Of these, 56 individuals have been subjected to arrests. In a majority of instances, the accused are taken into custody without proper investigation immediately after the case is filed.

Adding to this concerning trend, a case was filed against Samsuzzaman, the Savar correspondent of Prothom Alo, some 20 hours after he was apprehended at his residence for a news report. Presently, he is out on bail. Notably, Prothom Alo's editor, Matiur Rahman, has also been implicated in the same case. Furthermore, an analysis conducted by the Centre for Governance Studies (CGS) reveals that 27.41 per cent of cases filed under the DSA are directed at journalists. 

Numerous organisations, including the Editors' Council, had urged for consultations with stakeholders prior to the finalisation of the proposed cyber security law. However, the government proceeded to conclude the process by publishing the draft on the website of a ministry within a span of 14 days.

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The proposed Cyber Security Act has rendered several previously non-bailable sections of the Digital Security Act as bailable. Additionally, certain sections have seen a reduction in penalties. Nevertheless, given that the fundamental structure of the digital security law remains unaltered, the concerns voiced by individuals from diverse classes and professions, including members of the media, are likely to persist. 

A significant drawback of the Cyber Security Act is its deficiency in providing clear definitions of cybercrimes. The four non-bailable sections, namely 17, 19, 27, and 33, present various aspects of concern. Article 17 addresses offenses and the associated penalties linked to unauthorised access to critical information infrastructure.

Section 19 pertains to harm inflicted upon computers, computer systems, and the like. Section 27 delves into matters of cyber terrorism, while Section 33 is concerned with hacking-related offenses. Consequently, akin to the Digital Security Act, the proposed legislation remains susceptible to being wielded arbitrarily for political motives.

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If the government genuinely aims to prevent the misuse of the law as a tool to curb press freedom and suppress dissent, it should engage in discussions with stakeholders and pass the legislation through parliament after duly considering their perspectives.

Even though the law's finalisation occurs within the cabinet meeting, ample opportunities exist to engage with stakeholders. Once the law is introduced in parliament, it will proceed to the parliamentary committee for evaluation, offering further avenues for discussions. 

Our unequivocal stance regarding the cyber security law is that it should not merely undergo a cosmetic transformation, but should also undergo a substantial change in its character. If the previous digital security law is re-imposed upon citizens under a new façade, the government must be prepared to bear the consequences of such a decision.