Bangladesh to tone down ‘draconian’ digital security law

Law minister says the law will be replaced with another legislation which will remove the sections that were allegedly misused.

Journalists protest in Bangladesh
Journalists protesting against the Digital Security Act in front of the Press Club in Dhaka [File: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters]

Dhaka, Bangladesh – Bangladesh says it will tone down its “draconian” Digital Security Act (DSA) and replace it with a new legislation, the Cyber Security Act of 2023.

In a news conference on Monday, Law Minister Anisul Huq said the proposed new law is likely to retain many of the existing provisions of DSA but will remove the sections which had the scope to be “misused”.

Huq’s announcement came hours after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina earlier on Monday chaired a cabinet meeting where the government took the decision to tone down the law.

Enacted in 2018, DSA has long been termed by rights activists as a “black Act” for its misuse by the government to suppress dissent and freedom of speech.

As demands to repeal the law grew, the United Nations human rights chief Volker Turk in April asked Dhaka to “impose an immediate moratorium” on its use and “to reform comprehensively its provisions to bring them in line with the requirements of international human rights law”.

Minister Huq said the government led by Hasina has paid heed to the call and decided to amend DSA.

“But we of course need some rules and regulation for our growing digital presence and cyber space. Hence we can’t function without any law. That is why we are going to have this new Cyber Security Act,” he said.

Huq said the new law will be a “modernised” version of DSA and will not have provisions which can be “misused” by anyone. He said the new law will include “monetary penalties” instead of “imprisonments” for journalists in defamation cases.

In fact, journalists were the worst victims of DSA. The US State Department in a press briefing in April this year called it “one of the world’s most draconian laws for journalists”.

Huq said there will be no jail term in defamation cases for journalists in the new law, and the fines in such cases will be capped at $23,000 instead of $92,000. However, in case of non-payment of fines, the person could be jailed for three to six months, he said.

But Supreme Court lawyer Jyoitormoy Barua said replacing DSA with another law with a new name will not be enough.

“As a lawyer who dealt with many cases filed under DSA, I think a replacement law will still serve the purpose of curbing the dissenting voices,” he told Al Jazeera.

Barua said rights defenders had been demanding a repeal of DSA, not its replacement.

Mahfuz Anam, president of the Editors’ Council of Bangladesh, told Al Jazeera a decision to “reform” and “modernise” DSA has been taken after years of protests and sufferings by journalists.

“We thank the government for the move and express cautious optimism because we don’t yet know what provisions are there in the Cyber Security Act and whether or not it impinges on press freedom in any form,” he said.

“When the government changed Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act and promulgated the DSA, it turned out to be far worse and more draconian. We are looking forward to a legal environment that is more supportive of press freedom and freedom of expression,” said Anam, who is also the editor of The Daily Star, the country’s largest English newspaper.

Dhaka-based political analyst Zahed Ur Rahman told Al Jazeera the government was compelled to amend the DSA as the UN Human Rights High Commission, along with several Western powers and international rights organisations, had been putting immense pressure on the government to abolish the law.

“The ICT law was used for harassing the opposition political activists and critics of the government. Consequently, it faced severe criticism from citizens, civil society and human rights organisations. Then the government scrapped this law and enacted the DSA prior to the general election of 2018,” he said.

“Ahead of another election, they are probably doing the same. I believe the government cannot stop weaponising such law to persecute the opposition political party activists and critics,” he added.

General elections are due in Bangladesh by January. The government has been accused of cracking down on opposition parties ahead of the polls.

Zahir Uddin Swapan of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), told Al Jazeera that by replacing DSA under pressure from the UN and other global watchdogs, the government has admitted it had enacted a controversial Act.

“But we didn’t want a replacement, we wanted an abolishment. Since the government didn’t reveal much about the provisions of the proposed Act, we are wondering whether that Act will still have the scope to be misused against oppositions and dissenters,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera