“It criminalizes honest people — journalists, rights campaigners, social activists — just for delivering on their commitment to society. “
If we have learned anything from the sufferings endured by journalists like Prabir Sikdar and Abdul Latif Moral under Section 57 of the ICT Act, we would certainly know that when a law is made, it becomes the new normal, and our system, which includes lawmakers and powerful ministers, has a tendency of abusing them.
That is why we should carefully scrutinize the newly passed Digital Security Act 2018 before it is too late.
We should ask ourselves a simple question: Why do we have a new law that could possibly slap journalists and activists with a hefty prison term just for doing their job, which is to unveil the truths that are considered central for a democratic debate?
If I, now, have your attention, you might ask, is this new legal provision as bad as journalists and rights groups are saying, or are they just overreacting? Specifically, will a journalist or a citizen activist be able to reveal concerning secrets without committing a crime?
The answer is no. Allow me to clarify.
Remember the investigative TV report just a few months ago that exposed senior officials of the Ministry of Education taking bribes?
Technically, the Digital Security Act 2018 makes such investigative journalism a crime as the law defines collecting and publishing information from government premises using a digital device a crime punishable by 14 years.
The disturbing fact about this law is that it targets individuals and professionals who witness things that they believe, by their own professional obligation or ethical conviction, that they must bring to the public for scrutiny.
It criminalizes honest people — journalists, rights campaigners, social activists — just for delivering on their commitment to society.
Is this something that you can accept?
It doesn’t stop there.
Let’s say a journalist acquires a video evidence of a senior government official taking a bribe. The law allows the police to search and arrest the person without any warrant. A foolproof plan to safeguard corruption or any other government misdeed.
Many would argue that we already have existing laws that can charge journalists, let’s say the colonial era Official Secrecy Act 1923. We are not that concerned about that, why should we worry now?
That brings us to a crucial point, which is that laws are fiendishly hard to repeal. Even draconian laws such as the Official Secrecy Act 1923 or Section 57 of the ICT Act. That’s one reason why we should be more concerned about any new law that contains draconian provisions.
But, moreover, the scopes of this legislation broaden the definition of “security” to include not just the matters that are considered as a security concern in the common sense, but pretty much everything else, even constitutional rights such as free speech.
And certainly, it expands the circumstances in which a journalist or a rights campaigner can be considered criminal beyond the scopes of the Official Secrecy Act 1923 or Section 57 of the ICT Act.
It discards our right to hold the government, elected officials, and all other agencies accountable for their actions.
Can we afford to allow something like that slide by without a challenge?
There shouldn’t be any disagreement that national security matters, such as those related to defense, should be kept secret in the public interest. But under which circumstances can information that is embarrassing for the government or a government official or a deal with a foreign government or entity be considered a security concern?
This is not national security. In fact, this is the exact type of law that corrupt authoritarian regimes around the globe adapt to silence critics, campaigners, academics, journalists, and political opponents.
And given the extreme level of weaknesses of our institutions, especially the government-controlled judiciary, let’s not forget to take into consideration the recent unjust incidents. This will obviously become another means by which the government and powerful individuals could manipulate the law to arbitrarily detain and prosecute dissenting voices and critics.
No one deserves to be criminalized for exposing misconduct. None should be jailed for doing their duties.
Neither our rights to democracy, especially free speech, and independent journalism should be compromised by those who are sworn to protect it, yet seek to restrict it in practice.