The passing of the Digital Security Act 2018 became the talk of the town last week. With a straightforward approach to curb cybercrimes, attack on religious sentiments or spreading propaganda, this coming of age law sparked controversy among journalists of the country. The bill expresses zero tolerance against persons spreading hate speech and propaganda online that may tarnish the image of the nation.
Amongst other approved amendments, the bill incorporates the objectives of the Right to Information Act 2009 and The Official Secrets Act 1923. The changes brought to the bill create confusion regarding whether the RTI and OSA can co-exist in the same frame.
Section 3 of the Digital Security Act 2018 states, it is supplementary to existing laws. It made an inclusion of the Right to Information Act 2009 (RTI) through this section. This is positive since the RTI ensures free flow of information. The RTI is an example how the Government prioritized the freedom of thought and expression mentioned in the Constitution. It was enacted with the aim to maintain accountability and transparency in all public, autonomous and statutory organizations. But the aims of the law contradict legislations left by the colonial regime. One of them is the Official Secrets Act 1923.
This draconian law was introduced by the British rulers under a total different political circumstance, namely to protect its rule over India. It attends to primarily cases of espionage, for example, making sketches, plans or models and circulating it to the enemy, directly or indirectly that might hamper the sovereignty of the country. This culture of secrecy is still rampant among bureaucrats of the sub continent. Human Rights activists and pressure groups in Bangladesh even called to scrap this black law while the RTI was being enacted.
However, The RTI’s “right of the citizen to know” overlaps with OSA’s “right to secrecy”.
Surprisingly, the Digital Security Act hosts an unsettling rendezvous of both the laws in conflict. An amendment of Section 32 of its Bill suggests that a person will face the punishment if he or she commits a crime mentioned in the Official Secrets Act of 1923 through computer, digital device, computer network, digital network or any other digital media or help someone else commit such crime. Under Section 32, any act of entering illegally into a government, semi-government or autonomous organization and secretly recording information and data through any electronic device will be considered as ‘spying’ and carries a maximum sentence of 14 years or Tk 2.5 million in fines, or both. The amendment was approved by a voice vote and the OSA was reincarnated. But the question still remains, isn’t the new Act creating a contradiction within itself?
The Digital Security Act 2018 has undergone numerous amendments and propositions with a view to tackle one of the major problems of the 21st Century, cybercrime. But along with this change, it leaves certain areas vague which are prone to be misused. However one cannot completely disregard the possibility of espionage through online publication. The Act tried to shed light on this activity but with an old fashioned torch. While it is praiseworthy to incorporate the RTI, it is equally surprising to give OSA such unwanted attention. The existence of OSA 1923 in such an updated Act of 2018 is deemed misfit.
The Digital Security Act itself can function solely on its own provisions regarding the offences. There is right to information but one should not take this right for granted. It is on the journalists and media to be careful about the information they handle. Online activists, bloggers and even casual users must be aware of what they publish. Lastly, the culture of secrecy among policy makers must be sidelined by the free flow of information on demand, especially in an era when citizen journalism is on the rise.