The government passed the Cyber Security Act 2023 in the Jatiya Sangsad on Wednesday despite strong objections from opposition lawmakers. With the passing of the law, the Digital Security Act (DSA) enacted in 2018 had been repealed.
Now, the pertinent question arises as to whether this new legislation effectively addresses the concerns and anxieties expressed by various quarters, including members of the media, regarding the previous digital security act.
It is undeniable that the Digital Security Act was notably repressive. While the government asserted that it aimed to combat digital crimes, it was, in practice, used against journalists, human rights activists and opposition leaders.
This law faced substantial criticism both at home and abroad. Notably, the United Nations Human Rights Commission called for the repeal of two sections of the act and the amendment of several others.
The government did consult with stakeholders before passing the Cyber Security Act and there are lingering concerns that have not been adequately addressed. Opposition MPs have referred to it as 'old wine in a new bottle.'
Some improvements have been made, such as making 10 out of the 14 non-bailable sections from the old act bailable in the new one and reducing the duration and extent of punishment in many sections.
However, the primary concerns of the journalists and human rights activists regarding the law remain unaddressed, specifically the absence of clear definitions of the offences and the provision for arrests without warrant and searches of an accused person's home or premises.
Members of the media suggested that any complaints related to digital media should be directed to the Press Council, but the government did not incorporate this recommendation.
According to the law, if any information that is deemed offensive to religious values or sentiments is published on a website or through electronic means, the offender may face imprisonment for up to two years, a fine of up to 500,000 taka, or both.
However, there is concern that this provision could be misused, leading to the unjust imprisonment of innocent individuals. Determining what constitutes an offence against religious values or sentiments, as described in the law, remains a challenge.
The same ambiguity applies to matters related to the spirit of the liberation war.
One of the most contentious aspects of this law is that it grants the police significant powers, including the authority to enter homes, search offices and individuals, and make arrests without a warrant.
Section 32 has been eliminated from the Cyber Security Act due to demands from media workers. However, this law from the British colonial era remains enforced through another legislation. Our demand is for the complete repeal of this Act.
It's not just journalists. The Digital Security Act had created an atmosphere of fear among people from various walks of life, and that fear still persists in the new law.
In this legislation, there is a provision for punishing those who file baseless cases, which is certainly appropriate. However, before proving that the case is indeed baseless, the victim may still endure undue harassment.
Law Minister Anisul Haque has stated that even if the Digital Security Act is repealed, the cases filed under this Act will continue without the possibility of compensation, citing Article 35 of the Constitution.
Nevertheless, our question remains: why will those who have already suffered unjust imprisonment under the repealed law not receive compensation? Under no circumstances should an innocent person be subjected to punishment.