The entire journalist society has expressed grave concern over the passage of the Digital Security Bill-2018. I myself also think that this law will pose a threat to journalism. A democratic country like Bangladesh cannot slap such law. Journalists from almost all news outlets repeatedly requested the authorities concerned to review the clauses of the act several times earlier. Echoing their fellows, Editors Council, an organisation of professional editors of almost all the newspapers in Bangladesh, also expressed their concern over the Articles 8, 21, 25, 29, 32, 43 of the act and said the law must not prevent free speech and free press. They have held talks with the ministers concerned several times and finally called human chain demonstration. However, the programme had been postponed soon after Information Minister invited them to hold a fresh talk.
Meanwhile, several other journalists associations and human rights organisations have requested the government to review the act and consider the demands of the journalists. As per the statements issued by them, the law will hurt the media, democracy, and freedom of expression. The civil society of the country also demanded cancellation of the act.
During the tenure of autocratic ruler HM Ershad, he used to shut down news outlets following publishing reports criticizing him. Several numbers of newspapers were sealed during his term showing lame excuses. After the fall of Ershad, the then Chief Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed scrapped the provision of shutting down newspapers from the act soon after he took the office as the president. Since then, journalists are enjoying independence while performing their duties. And at one stage, the mass media in a real sense became the fourth pillar of the state. In the last 10 years, the mass media has been performing the role of the opposition party in the country. In the age of free flow of information, journalists should let to perform their duties freely and the right to freedom of expression should get a wider space as well. But, this DSA came as a big threat to freedom of expression.
None will disagree with me if I say there is no alternative of independent journalism in giving democracy a permanent shape. My question is: If we want democracy and really want a further continuation of the process, why such obstruction would be slapped on journalism? Acts should be constituted for serving the interest of the people and the country. No ideal government can slap any law in order to serve its own purpose. If such a thing happens, then we must understand something is wrong there.
We strongly believe a cybersecurity law was very much necessary. None can accept the cybercrimes which are being committed using social media and to a large extent uncontrolled online media. All thing should have a limit but, people are crossing it. Many dare to post derogatory contents against Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, our independence and sovereignty. And they should be handled with strict legal measures. Many countries have such laws but those were not meant for choking the mass media and the freedom of expression.
We all believe that the present Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her cabinet members are media friendly. Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, has done many things for the welfare of journalists. She had set up Media Trust and extended her hands in the help of writers and poets. She has made a special bonding with the society by issuing assistance for the community members different times.
The PM herself is a good writer and she started the practice in her student life. So, I strongly believe that she cannot choke the freedom of expression. I even cannot think that such acts can be passed in her tenure.
Before the passage of the act, requests were placed before the cabinet members, asking them to cancel any such act like Section 57 that obstruct the path of free-thinking and journalism. A number of journalists have already fallen victim to the Section 57. This topic has been the most-talked-about thing in mass media.
All have admitted that journalists society has become the poorest victims of the provision. Repeated requests had been made asking the cabinet members and even the PM to cancel the section. In response, the PM herself assured journalists that any section that would create an obstacle for them, will not be included in the DSA.
However, we later saw that Section 21, 25, 28, 31, 32, and 43, which go against the freedom of speech and independent journalism, have been added to the law. Later, the authorities made some changes upon the request from the journalists. However, most of the clauses, including Section 32, remained the same. I'm sure these sections will not let us performing our duties freely.
According to section 32 of the law, a person may face up to 14 years in jail or Tk 25 lakh in fine or both on charges of computer spying or digital spying if he or she illegally enters the offices of the government, semi-government, autonomous or statutory bodies and collects or preserves or sends any top secret or secret documents through a computer, digital device, computer network, digital network or any electronic form and help others to do that.
He or she will face imprisonment of up to a life sentence or Tk 1 crore in fine or both for committing the crimes for the second time.
Parliament gave its nod to the act on September 19. But journalists again requested the PM to consider some Sections of the law moment before the bill was placed before the house. We thought that The Digital Security Bill-2018 will not be placed before the Jatiya Sangsad. The most interesting thing is, the PM donated Tk 20 crore to the Journalist Welfare Trust the same day and assured journalists of her unconditional support. But, the bill was passed which astonished the journalist community. Those who provoked our media-friendly prime minister in passing the law, don't want the progress of Awami League.
We have information from a number of sources that the bill was passed as per the advice of the high-ups of our police department. And by doing so, the government has made the law enforcers more powerful. And there are higher chances for the police members to become more arrogant after the passage of the bill. Now people are asking: Whether this is a police state!
The national election is set to take place in December and this will be a big challenge for the party in the power. Awami League is facing internal struggle because of a large number of uncontested lawmakers. Many dedicated leaders and activists are being ignored. Moreover, an anti-Awami League group is also active. On the other hand, an international community is also working against the party. So, this time the party would face a real problem in getting the majority in the polls.
Although most of the journalists believe in the spirit of our independence, such move taken by the government in such a moment can be harmful. Many believe that a vested quarter did it aiming to destroy the bonding between the Awami League and the journalist society.
The bill is yet to get the final nod from the president and the government should reconsider it again before it gets president's approval. Otherwise, it will be marked as a "black law." None would believe that such bill was passed during Sheikh Hasina's regime.
We all know that Bangabandhu has sacrificed his entire life in establishing a democratic state. He had served jail several times and went through unbearable torture for this. His daughter Hasina also fought for democracy in 1981. She also suffered a lot for the country. But, nothing could make her weak. And that's why the mass media of the country is always with her.
On September 20, the PM again assured that journalists need not worry over the passage of the bill. We also have faith in her words and we believe she cannot make journalists vulnerable. The president will not sign the bill, we strongly believe.
[Mostofa Kamal, popular writer and columnist, is the Daily Kalerkantho's executive editor]