By Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Bangladesh’s draft Cyber Security Bill is nearly identical to the Digital Security Act it is meant to replace, with similar repressive provisions and harsh punishments that curb free speech, analysts said Thursday.
Human rights activists, analysts and professional bodies such as the Editors’ Council criticized the proposed bill, saying that enacting a new law without any basic changes to the old one was “meaningless.”
But Law Minister Anisul Huq said the changes made in the bill should address any concerns that people had with the earlier Digital Security Act (DSA). The new bill’s draft was released to the public late Wednesday.
“Ninety-five percent of the people – from the U.N. Human Rights High Commission to journalists – have talked about the necessity of a cyber security law. Their demand was to get some of the sections of the Digital Security Act amended so that the law does not hinder the operation of the news media and block the freedom of providing news,” Huq said on Thursday.
“We firmly believe that we have addressed those through framing the Cyber Security Law; we have allayed their fear.”
The government would seek public opinion and recommendations from stakeholders on the draft bill during the next 14 days, the minister said.
His statements however did not match the contents of the draft bill, a copy of which BenarNews obtained and studied.
The proposed Cyber Security Bill-2023 and the DSA both contain almost the same provisions. In fact, the new bill numbers its sections the same as in the DSA.
Jyotirmoy Barua, a High Court lawyer who has dealt with many DSA cases, concurred.
“I think replacement of provisions of DSA with another law that has a new name will not suffice,” he told BenarNews.
“Human rights defenders had been demanding the repeal of DSA, not replacement of the same provisions in a new law. The oppressive character of the [new] law will [again] curb dissenting voices.”
Barua said the government had pulled a similar sleight of hand when it passed the DSA to replace the Information and Communication Technology Act-2006.
“They had done the same when they repealed the oppressive section 57 of the ICT Act-2006, spreading the section in four other sections in the DSA,” he said.
The Editors’ Council had been demanding that the government scrap at least nine sections of the DSA – 8, 21, 25, 28, 31, 32, 43 and 53 – to ensure free speech and a free press.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has been working with the government to reform the DSA, and had raised serious objections about two DSA sections, 21 and 28.
Under Section 21, anyone launching or helping launch a propaganda campaign on any digital platform against Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence or its spirit; Mujibur Rahman, the Father of the Nation, who is also Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s father; or the national anthem would face a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.
Under the draft of the new bill, Section 21 lists the same offenses but reduces the punishment to a maximum seven years in prison.
Section 28 stipulates that anyone intentionally hurting religious sentiment on a digital platform faces five years in jail.
Under Section 28 of the proposed Cyber Security Bill-2023 the text of the offense reads the same, but the punishment is only slightly reduced, to two years in prison.
The other sections that the Editors’ Guild wanted scrapped similarly remain in the new draft bill – some with reduced jail terms and lower fines.
Section 53 of the DSA includes 14 non-bailable digital offenses, while section 53 of the new Cyber Security Bill reduces that number to six.
The only real change in the new bill is that defamation will now constitute a civil offense and not a criminal one, said Nur Khan, executive director of the rights body, Ain-O-Salish Kendra.
“DSA designates defamation as a criminal offense, but the Cyber Security bill treats it as a civil offense. The jail terms have been removed from Section 29. This is progress I would say,” he told BenarNews.
But, he added, “the Cyber Security Bill is like old wine in a new bottle.”