Bangladesh to replace criticized digital security law News
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Bangladesh to replace criticized digital security law

Bangladesh Law Minister Anisul Huq announced at a press conference on Thursday that the government would allow stakeholders to submit their opinions on a newly released draft version of the Cyber Security Act (CSA) 2023. The announcement comes just days after the draft was preliminarily approved to replace Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act (DSA) by a cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, as reported by local news outlets.

The still-effective DSA contains offenses and punishments for electronic communications, including information and data spreading as well as receiving. For example, Section 28 of the act, regarding the publication and broadcast of information in any electronic format hurting one’s religious values, carries a penalty of up to five years in jail maximum. Section 29, the transmission of defamatory information, carries a penalty of up to three years imprisonment.

The CSA suggests amendments to the above two provisions, which Bangladesh Law Minister Anisul Huq described as a “significant change.” Instead of a five-year prison term under Section 28, there would only be a two-year maximum prison term under the proposed CSA. Further, Section 29 violations will only warrant a fine.

Under the draft bill, persons accused under the CSA could also avoid bail—something that Huq drew attention to at his Thursday press conference—as opposed to the non-bailable offenses listed under the DSA. Huq said, “I think the misuse of Digital Security Act will stop after the enforcement of the proposed law.”

The announcement that Bangladesh would replace the DSA with the CSA was widely well received by human rights and free press groups. But as Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Asia program coordinator Beh Lih Yi noted, “[T]he devil is in the details….The government must ensure that journalists are fully consulted in drafting the new Cyber Security Act and that it complies with international human rights laws.” Amnesty International echoed CPJ, writing, “[T]he government must ensure that the Cyber Security Act it plans replace DSA with does not rehash the same repressive features of the DSA.”

The US also welcomed the reform, with US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller stating:

As we’ve previously stated, the Digital Security Act has been used to arrest, detain, and silence critics. We welcome the Bangladeshi Government’s long-stated commitment to reform the law, to protect freedom of expression, and we encourage the Government of Bangladesh to give all stakeholders an opportunity to review and provide input to the new draft Cyber Security Act to ensure it meets international standards.

With Huq’s Thursday announcement, the public now has the opportunity to do just that. Stakeholders interested in providing the government with their opinion on the draft version of the CSA have 14 days from Wednesday to submit their opinions.

Human rights and free press groups have previously criticized the DSA for degrading human rights such as the freedom of expression and the press. CPJ claimed that Bangladesh officials have filed more than 7,000 cases under the act since its introduction in 2018. Included among those charged are journalists who resented the government’s COVID-19 response.