The act of imprisoning individuals for failing to pay fines has undergone a transformation. Defamation cases involving journalists will no longer carry provisions for incarceration under the forthcoming ‘Cyber Security Act,’ set to replace the existing ‘Digital Security Act.’ Instead, a maximum fine of 25 lakh rupees will be imposed, and in case of default, a potential prison sentence of either 3 or 6 months can be served if the fine remains unpaid.
You can also read: Cybersecurity under scrutiny: How vulnerable are we?
On Monday, August 7, Law Minister Anisul Haque informed journalists of this development. Speaking from his office in the Ministry of Law within the Secretariat, he revealed that amendments are being introduced to the Digital Security Act, incorporating numerous sections into the new Cyber Security Act. Notably, the punitive aspect of Article 29, involving imprisonment, is being completely eliminated. The sole penalty henceforth will be a fine, and failure to remit the fine can lead to a prison term of 3 or 6 months.
“The punishment of imprisonment was outlined in Article 29.” This provision is now being entirely removed. The singular penalty will now be a monetary fine. Failure to pay the fine will lead to a potential imprisonment of either 3 months or 6 months.”Law Minister Anisul Haque
When questioned about the size of the fine, Minister Haque indicated it would amount to Tk. 25 lakhs. He addressed concerns about the affordability of such a fine for the general population. He emphasized that the alteration aims to remove imprisonment from this section, while financial compensation without any upper limit can still be sought through civil law.
The minister clarified that the key change is the removal of imprisonment from the draft law. He stated that arrest would no longer be a possibility under the revised law.
Addressing the question of arrest in defamation cases, he confirmed that arrest would not be a direct consequence anymore. Prior to this amendment, the fine for such offenses was Rs. 5 lakh. When asked about the rationale behind the increased fine of Rs. 25 lakh, Minister Haque explained that this figure is not arbitrary; it allows the court discretion to determine the fine based on the severity of the offense and the harm caused. He emphasized that the adjustment is fair and reasonable.
Contrary to the notion that penalties are excessive, the Law Minister disagreed, asserting that the maximum limit of 25 lakhs has been clearly established to avoid excessive punishment. This decision received in-principle approval during a cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. It was decided that the ‘Cyber Security Act 2023’ would replace the Digital Security Act.
Section 29 of the Digital Security Act pertains to defamation, outlining the punishment for disseminating defamatory information. This section’s amendment raises the fine from 5 lakhs to Tk. 25 lakhs, while removing the imprisonment aspect.
All Digital Security Act cases will continue based on the previous law’s provisionsAttorney General
Regarding ongoing cases under the existing digital security law, Attorney General AM Amin Uddin affirmed that these cases will continue based on the previous law’s provisions. This continuity is ensured by a saving clause applied to repealed or amended laws. This approach aims to maintain the legal framework even when changes are made.
Attorney General Uddin welcomed the law’s modification and described it as a positive step. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government remains committed to curbing misuse and abuse through law while preserving essential clauses from the Digital Security Act within the new Cyber Security Act-2023.
It’s noteworthy that the passage of the Digital Security Act 2018 in the National Parliament on September 18, 2018, led to the repeal of five sections from the Information Technology Act, including sections 54, 55, 56, 57, and 66.
Development of Cyber Security Act 2023
- For maintaining Cyber accountability and security, all the provisions that the Digital Security Act 2018 had will remain the same in the Cyber Security Act
- Previously, in the cases of defamation, the punishment was imprisonment but now it has been changed into fine payment. But if the fine is not paid in time, imprisonment will be imposed depending on the amount of the fine
- Many non-bailable provisions in the Digital Security Act have been changed to bailable acts. This includes the provisions related to journalism and defamation
- As previously if any crimes were repeated by the same convict, his/her punishment was used to get double for the second attempt according to the provision. But in this developed version, punishment for the 2nd attempt will remain the same as the 1st attempt
- The concerning 43rd provision of seizing relevant devices used for cybercrime under the Digital Security Act will also remain in the cyber security act
Digital Security Act 2018
In September 2018, the Ministry of Law, Justice, and Parliamentary Affairs in Bangladesh introduced the Digital Security Act of 2018, marking the country’s adoption of a comprehensive Digital Security Law. This legislative provision was enacted to counteract the dissemination of racism, sectarianism, extremism, and terrorist propaganda, as well as expressions of hatred directed towards religious or ethnic minorities, across social media, print media, and other electronic platforms.
The law encompasses materials that the government deems pornographic or otherwise inappropriate, subjecting offenders to fines or potential prison sentences of varying durations. Notably, the Act granted the authority to law enforcement officers to apprehend individuals without the need for a formal warrant. The foundation for this law draws inspiration from the Information and Communication Technology Act’s Section 57, initially passed in 2006, serving as a template for its development.
Controversies of the Digital Security Act
The Moral Grounds of the Act, in one way or another gave birth to controversies. Critiques define that the act has every chance of being misused against people’s right to express themselves after it is passed by the national parliament.
- General people perceived the law as more insecure due to the retention of section 57 from the Information and Communication Technology Act in the new proposed legislation, albeit with modifications. Section 57 pertains to issues such as defamation, offending religious sentiments, order, and instigating against any person or organization through publishing or transmitting any material on websites or in electronic form
- It has punishment criteria in both fine sentences and imprisonment. Where prison punishment range starts from 10 years to 14 years
- The law describes some crimes as “non-bailable” which allows a police official to search or arrest anyone without a warrant in special circumstances. This has made the law more infamous as critics found this part of the more harassing and prone to misusage
Volker Turk’s Request
On March 31, 2023, Volker Türk, the UN Human Rights Chief, urged Bangladesh to immediately halt the enforcement of the Digital Security Act. Expressing concern, Türk highlighted that the Act is being utilized across the nation to apprehend, intimidate, and harass journalists and human rights defenders, ultimately stifling dissenting voices on the internet.
During the 52nd session of the UN Human Rights Council on March 7, 2023, Volker Türk appealed for the amendment of the Digital Security Act. He stressed the need for adjustments due to the ongoing imposition of criminal penalties on individuals exercising their rights to freedom of expression and belief.
Responding to these concerns, Anisul Haque, the Minister of Law, Justice, and Parliamentary Affairs, emphasized the current digital management of the entire nation in critical times. He highlighted the importance of safeguarding national interests and protecting individuals vulnerable to digital intrusion and aggression. While acknowledging the necessity of a digital security law, Haque asserted that there’s no intention to repeal the law. However, he acknowledged ongoing considerations for amending the law, underscoring the importance of a thorough examination of the matter.