The recently enacted controversial Digital Security Act 2018 is considered by many as an impediment to freedom of expression in Bangladesh. Talking to young professionals — researchers, lawyers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, university students and student leaders, Nasir Uz Zaman writes about their concerns, in what ways do they think the enactment of this new law will impact their work.
Concerned citizens have raised questions about the recently enacted Digital Security Act 2018 as it carries the risk of constraining freedom of expression in Bangladesh. However, much of the debate is revolving around how it could affect the ethical-objective journalism. In a historically unprecedented event, the Editor’s Council took to street to protest against the enactment of the Act into a law without addressing the issue they have raised with the law makers.
The public debate is mostly concerned about institutional journalism. Young professionals; however, worry more about the citizen journalism. The true citizens of today’s digital world are the young generation and they expressed their frustration with the law as it could affect their everyday, ordinary social media activities.
'How does exercising my constitutional right constitute an offense?’
General Secretary, Revolutionary Student Unity
The beauty of democracy lies in the environment where people can freely engage in critical and constructive dialogue with the government about its policies and actions. However, in a fascist system, government tends not to tolerate any criticism. Therefore, it needs an environment that only encourages a yes-man culture, such acts like ICT Act or the newly enacted Digital Security Act given birth to such environment.
As the Editors’ Council has pointed out, the DSA has more room to abuse and harass journalist and ordinary citizens, even greater possibility of abuse than in the ICT Act. One can only imagine what awaits us; since we know how earlier Act was used to suppress dissident voice. I know it from my personal experience. Sarcastically speaking, I am the fortunate victim of ICT Act. During the peak of Save Sundarbans movement, as an active organiser of the movement, conscious citizen, I have expressed my opinion on the issue and I was slapped with a case under Section 57 of ICT Act. It is my constitutional right to voice my opinion on issues of public interest. How does exercising my constitutional right commit an offense? And, I lost nearly four months of my life in jail.
Imprisonment is conceived negatively in our culture. People think it as only for criminals but they cannot think that one may be incarnated for speaking truth to power and raising voices against injustice. Being accused does not prove one as guilty or criminal. Particularly in our context in which laws and judiciary has very much at the disposal of the government to suppress dissenting voice. My point is, being accused one has to suffer domestically, socially, economically, academically— all because someone brought some allegation using the legal ambiguity of Section 57. It has taken about four months from my academic life, an irreparable loss. I fear that the new law will further victimise ordinary students, ordinary citizens and it is an impediment to any democratic expression or practice.
‘If someone is constrained in the process of writing, her/his thinking is also constrained.’
Student, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh
As a student of journalism and writer, I will identify DSA as a barrier to the freedom of media. If someone is constrained in the process of writing, her/his thinking is also constrained. It appears, everything that can criticise the government is been banned. To say, they do not want to tolerate any opinion against them and want to remove those is to some extent is to block those. It is an insult to the publisher, as well as writer. It creates some conditions of not writing. If it still happens, the author can be jailed.
There are many terms in the DSA that are subjective. For example, the ‘Spirit of the Liberation War’ is not clear to me. Those of the government drafted it did not define it. Is it intentional ambiguity, who knows? The act talked about ‘hurting religious values or sentiments’ which is not the quite same in all cases. When legal terms that constitute offense are left so vague in the law, it means the newspapers and journalists are always working under pressure and at risk of facing legal charges. How does that in any way bring any good for journalism or freedom of media? Some acts like this one are created to encourage censorship; writer and newspapers’ integrity and originality will be absent, discouraged.
'This act will interfere in the uncompromising language of student movements’
President, Bangladesh Students’ Federation
The DSA is clearly antithetical to democratic advancement of student politics. It is possibly an assault to student politics as the Act has given unlimited power to police to arrest protesters, if they write on any social media platforms challenging any policy or project of the government, particularly policies that are of student interests. Every government, so far, has taken the policy of commercialisation of education and we took to streets and social media to oppose it.
Progressive student organisations continuously organise street protests and write on several online platforms. Although, the student leaders’ activities and writings are for the sake of student community and education, if their writing contains anything critical of the government and makes the government unhappy, then they are harassed and with the new law, the possibility of harassment is even higher. This act will interfere in the uncompromising language of student movements.
This government is afraid of students’ glorious historical role against exploitation, miss-governance and the spirit of changing the society. As a result, government’s new contrivance is this act to suppress students’ logical and fair demand through legal means. This act will control and violate young students’ new thoughts and creativities in this era of technology where online platforms are main medium of expression. It will surely create obstacle to the youth’s inquisitiveness and thinking process. It is impossible to establish democracy by controlling students’ democratic thinking and the right to criticise. This suppressive and abusive act must be abolished.
‘The new digital security law can stop online activism and blogging in CHT’
Convener, Hill Bloggers’ and Online Activists’ Forum
The DSA will bring adverse impact on online activism of the Jumma youth.
I can answer in real time, right now. The Chittagong Hill Tracts is ruled by the military forces which impede every aspect of our life. There is unspoken psychological operation— we are being watched whatever we write or speak to the media. To us, internet is an alternative media to reach to the world. We want the world to hear the unheard voice of the Jumma people. News of the Jumma people is being barred by military censorship and media blackout. Therefore internet is crucial for us to reach the world. The new digital security law can stop online activism and blogging.
The new digital security law is a draconian law to suppress the people’s voice. It is against the freedom of speech. There are certain provisions in the law i.e. section number 8, 21, 25, 28, 29, 31, 32, 43, and 53 are against the spirit of people’s democracy and freedom. According to section 25, anything deemed to be anti-state is a punishable crime. So if a human rights’ activist from CHT express concern about any human rights abuse of security forces, it may be conceived as an anti-state activity. Therefore, the act will of course can be a tool of the state to stop the Jumma voices. Previous ICT act has already been a grave concern for the Jumma bloggers and online activists. The newly enacted law will worsen the situation to the extent that may silent the cyberspace.
‘By this act, police can intervene without any judicial warrant and what can be more terrible than this?’
Barrister Sadia Arman
Advocate, Supreme Court of Bangladesh
People have the right to their own material and intellectual property. Journalists’ property is mostly intellectual property. But now people, including journalists have less right to their intellectual property. Because police can enter any premises and can seize one’s computer without judicial warrant. This does not mean that police will seize only the article but can seize the whole computer system which consists of all saved intellectual property.
As we know, executive branch, legislative branch and judicial branch are the three organs of the government. What is seen that from a long time judicial powers have been interfered from many ways and successfully reduced and weakened. But now it seems that, judicial powers are tried to be replaced. By this act, police can intervene on body without any judicial warrant and what can be more terrible than this?
The constitution said that one has the right to life and liberty but this act demolishes one’s constitutional right when police enters into one’s premise and intervene on one’s body which is also a threat to one’s right to life. One is not also safe to express self-thought which also demolishes one’s constitutional right of freedom of speech. It is not only like that people will only eat three times a day and only have residence but people want to live with conscience. But there will not this right to freedom of conscience when one cannot express the self.
'Ethical journalism is never possible if there exists self-censorship’
Staff Reporter, DBC News
The processes of preventing the voice of journalists are not new but had been around since British period, Pakistan period and even after the independence. The DSA appeared graver than its predecessors. During the enactment of the ICT Act, the government had said that journalists had nothing to fear as it was prevent cyber-crimes, but reality proved that people including journalists suffered imprisonment and harassment under Section 57 of the act. Now the same is said for the DSA.
Today, people lost faith in mainstream media and they started creating and depending on online media for news. A journalist’s duties and responsibilities are to gather information and to present it in an accurate manner. The section 25, 28, 29, 31 and 32 of this act, among others, directly affect and apparently make impossible to meet their duties and responsibilities. As journalist, one has to take photos, videos or collect documents delicately, often secretly to reveal truth but the path is closed if such responsibility becomes crime. How the journalists’ sources would provide documents on corruptions? Of course the sources will not do that openly but secretly. Indeed this act will make it impossible to publish any negative report about any corrupt person or institution as it will ‘irritate’, ‘embarrass’ or ‘humiliate’ the corrupt one.
Objective journalism, fair journalism, ethical journalism, whatever you say, is never possible if there exists self-censorship, moreover, if journalists face cases after cases how far they can go? It is quite impossible for the one to overcome such barriers where the field is forcefully narrowed. The field of journalism is very much open and wide— the basic right of journalist is to expose wrong and unjust to the public.
‘Musical expression against state violence are at risk of judicial harassment.’
Horendro Nath Singh
Coordinator of Madal
We sing songs to protest against any kind of injustice. For example, the ethnic minority community of Shahebganj-Bagda farm land in Gaibandha district, the world has seen through social media first, later reported in national and international media how police were setting fire on ethnic minority houses. Police shot and killed Piren in the protest against Eco Park in the Madhupur forest area and we have written song about his movement and sacrifice which got immense support in social media. Now, the Section 21, 28, 32 and 43 of the act can be used against such kind of musical expression against state and invite judicial harassment.
This act can possibly affect us. It is impossible to promote any song without digital media. We think, revolutionary change in this society is required for the liberation of every people including the ethnic minority and working class. Towards this end, we work to create public awareness in musical form. These songs are largely promoted through digital platforms and the government and administration may dislike our work as it may go against their interest and view.
‘If law encourages concealment of truth, how is it any good to the nation?'
I would like to focus my response on some sections of the DSA. Many terms in the act are taken lightly. For example, ‘religious sentiment’, ‘damaging the image and reputation of the state’, ‘spirit of liberation war’, ‘irritate, embarrass or humiliate someone.’ These terms not specified.
In Section 25 (b), there is no elaborate description or definition of the ‘image or reputation of state’. According to the section, publishing any news of various corruptions and bank loots can also be an act of damaging the ‘image or reputation of state’. But, should such news not be published? If the truth is not revealed through investigative journalism, activists’ research or independent work in newspapers or any different means, if law encourages concealment of truth, how is it any good to the nation?
‘Hurting religious sentiments’ is another unspecified term which requires elaborate description and definition. It is possible to interpret religion from various angles and different interpretations can coexist. For example, several fatwas, specially fatwas on women’s rights and the discussion on them can possibly ‘hurt religious sentiments’. But, should one not discuss them because it ‘hurt religious sentiment’?
The section 43 will fatally affect journalism as well as intellectualism. Without warrant police can search any computer system and arrest anyone on suspicion. It will hit on one’s privacy and encourage harassment. My concern is that this act will not only affect journalists but also affect different people at different sectors of society by its attempt at chaining the thinking process, by deploying a politics of fear. This act will boost self-censorship among people. Several types of independent research, such as documentation of various public movements i.e., Save Sundarbans Movement, documentation of violence of development project and discussion on them will be interrupted by this act.
'History knows how to resist’
Theatre and dance activist
Not only the DSA can restrain freedom of speech, it can also further marginalise and terrorise already persecuted communities such as LGBT rights workers, hijra communities as well as people with non-normative sexual orientations.
The Section 24 of this law reminds us of one incident— the arrest of 27 so called ‘homo-sexual’ from Keraniganj. According to media reports, many of them especially hijras are often known by their alias. So this section’s ‘identity theft or alias’ part can easily target such community’s culture. Among them, writers are also included, those who have written about LGBT rights under alias. Moreover, section 25 does not meticulously clarify terms like ‘hurting religious sentiment’ which could potentially put LGBT rights workers at risk. Because, even though Bangladesh is a said to be democratic, secular nation, but in practice, it privileges Muslim majoritarian, heteronormative values leading to the strong belief that propagation that homosexuality is a crime. How fatal such believes could turn out to be was proven in the heinous murder of LGBT rights activist Xulhaz Mannan!
Now the state will interfere in personal thinking, will hijack artists’ freedom, will road-block them to scrutinise their brain cells for ‘conspiracy’ against the power quarters— only to secure the power status quo. Whenever there are any resistance, any dissatisfaction against the power, the ‘perpetrators’ will be persecuted and will be confined inside cells that they fancily call ‘jails’ and on top that, huge amount of monetary penalty. Today’s youth, we do not welcome such undemocratic dictatorial Bangladesh. We want complete abolishment of such laws, otherwise, the history knows how to resist.
'Historically, controlled regime always failed to chain creativity’
Anthropologist, Filmmaker and Writer
The first point I want to make is I am against all the regulations, particularly on art and all forms of expressions. As an anthropologist, my first concern is how people manifest as human being. The characteristics of any regulation are to close all the doors of manifestation, but one must remember a human being is always in the process of being.
The primary job and responsibility of a filmmaker and writer is to ask questions and to be critical. Without questioning we cannot take anything for granted. One have to be critical on everything and have critical engaging conversations on issues of public interest including Islam, Qur’an, Bible, Church, and also the constitution and this is the way to move forward in democratic environment. The laws for censoring are very problematic in this regard and no creative filmmaker could ever accept such laws.
To talk about films, already there are regulations. Now the DSA had appeared as a draconian law. However, there are thousands of examples that creative filmmakers created films living within strongly controlled regime using creative power. Historically, controlled regime always fails to chain creativity and my belief is that people will overcome this chain by any means as the nature of human being is that they are creative.
One has to address the outcome and context of such act which enhances imbalance in power relations. The imbalance in power relations clears the path of domination. The new law— is it enacted to ensure security and to prevent harassments or to further monopolise power? Another pathetic point is that the policy makers have failed to recognise the fundamental facts of problems. Such act will bring short term damage for filmmakers and artists, but in the long run the government will have to suffer. If the government chains the people from evolve as creative being, the controlled regime will give birth to frustrated, restless and ‘terrorist’— a demography that will have even greater, dangerous distance with the government.
'Bangladesh also failed to distinguish between jurisprudence of cyber crime and cyber security.’
Rezaur Rahman Lenin
Academic activist, Dhaka.
It is factually correct that last few years many illiberal democratic countries like Bahrain, China, Egypt, Hungary, UAE and so on updated their existing cyber laws or enacted fresh cyber related laws and policies to curb cyber offenses and enhance cyber security. The DSA of Bangladesh has been supposedly entrapped with the aim of safeguarding nationwide cyber security along with stopping and indicting cyber offenses, but in reality, it poses significant threats to right to privacy online and offline, freedom of expression online, freedom of association, assembly and movement online, freedom of religion and belief online and of course right to have a dignified life.
It is important to note that cybercrime jurisprudence and international standards are heavily contested and problematised by the digital rights defenders from the perspective of human rights discourse and instruments like ICCPR, CRC, ICERD, CEDAW also done the same. In the year of 2001, the international Cybercrime Convention, popularly known as Budapest Convention was adopted, but Bangladesh is not a signatory to the treaty. Even the existing DSA in many ways undermine the problematic Cybercrime Convention such as unnecessarily categorised high number of offenses, lack of procedural safeguards for human rights protection and posing digital rights defenders under risk, disproportionate sanctions to different stakeholders and excessive police power and harsh punishment to the offenders.
The DSA also been expanded to grant authorities the right to confiscate electronic devices, block websites, and punish and hold service providers accountable for the content published via their services. This opens the new-old door to service providers and intermediaries spying on users en masse in an effort to escape liability. Like many other repressive countries, Bangladesh also failed broadly to understand and distinguish between the jurisprudence of cyber crime and cyber security. Therefore, the digital security laws should not conflict with the fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed by the constitution, international law and human rights standard. It is important for human Rights Defenders, journalists, bloggers and netizens participation and input in telecommunication, information and communication technology sectors to ensure right to privacy, freedom of expression online or offline, personal data protection, or even general protection as a part of digital rights of netizens. As of today, the government policies and initiatives do not engage with rights-based approaches to enhance information and communication technology sector.
‘I think this act will perform as an art school for the upcoming artists’
Singer and Songwriter
I want to shed light on the DSA from an artist’s perspective. I would like to thank the government of Bangladesh for passing such a challenging law. This pressing times demands a repressing laws. I believe that our music, art, film, literature, satire and other mediums of expressing free thinking have been clichéd to such extent that we are restrained to some familiar imagery when it comes to resistance. We are stuck in a phase in which we can only imagine an oppressor as a pig, oppressed people in shackles and other forms that have been used and overused for decades. Thus lost its meaning or failed to make any impact. Our art practices are no different than those of 60s. It surprises me, as if, we cannot think out of the box when it comes to the art of resistance. So, the enactment of such laws, in my wishful thinking, I think, the law will compel artist to break free from this comfortable clichéd creative expressions, it may spark anger, emotion that would help artists to break the spell. There are not that many art schools for the younger generations in our country. Perhaps, this act will perform as an art school for the upcoming artists. I hope, the repressive law will act as prop to incite new creative ambition for artists and we will find ways to portray our oppressor without insulting an innocent pig. Let art be free of cliché. ●
Nasir Uz Zaman is a member of the New Age Youth team.