Bangladesh's Digital Security Act needs amendment, not abolition

The Bangladesh government should quickly consider the amendment to safeguard dissident voices in a democracy. An amendment should find the middle ground between the activists and the government, considering the necessity of such a law.

Shafiqul Elahi Apr 23, 2023
DSA Protest in Bangladesh (Photo: New Age)

The Digital Security Act-2018 (DSA) appears to be the most discussed law in Bangladesh in the past few years. The narrative is also perhaps the most dichotomous. While dissidents and anti-establishment activists see it as a draconian law, the ruling party supporters see it as an imperative. It seems the outlook regarding the law is now between the devil and the deep blue sea.

The recent Prothom Alo incident and fragmented response from the journalist society at the national level have further amplified the debate. 

From ICT Act to DSA

As Information and Communication Technologies spread rapidly, the Bangladesh government introduced ICT Act 2006. But the law had several weaknesses. Only 426 cases were filed between 2006-2013. In 2013, the law was amended and the result was visible. In 2017, 568 cases were filed under the ICT Act; and in 2018, the number increased to 676. However, the law still had limitations, as hardly any cases were solved.

To address the limitations of the ICT Act and address emerging security threats, the government introduced DSA in 2018. Such laws to ensure security in cyberspace is common around the world. Take, for instance, India’s ICT Act 2000. During the formulation process, the government engaged stakeholders such as civil society and prominent journalists in developing the draft bill.

However, upon enactment, the law became a tool for misuse by the government. Arbitrary arrests, vague FIRs, tardy investigations, and delay in prosecutions led to many controversial events. Soon, the law became known as a draconian law in Bangladesh.

But charges of misuse were also exaggerated. The Center for Governance Studies (CGS) published a report on DSA cases that presented a grim picture of the use of the law. But the data also showed something interesting. According to CGS, 3000 people faced lawsuits since 2018 under DSA. Among them, 280 are journalists (9.25 per cent) and 287 are politicians. The rest 2400 are of various backgrounds. Another CGS report also shows that 115 cases were filed on religious sentiment while 44 cases were filed for financial fraudulence and 74 cases were filed on harassment.

The narrative of repressive use may not be as strong as depicted. Moreover, the law is important to safeguard issues related to religious sentiment, tackle financial fraudulence and strictly curb cyber harassment, especially for women.

Is the DSA against journalists?

In the era of post-truth politics, due to a wide range of fabrications, done intentionally or unintentionally, rampant propaganda, and misinformation campaign, there have been many question marks on the quality of journalism. Copyright laws and press laws also require journalists to maintain rigorous methods and procedures. Unfortunately, in Bangladesh, journalists at both local and national levels quite often fail to maintain the highest ethical standards expected of the profession.  

Take, for instance, the Prothom Alo incident. Even if we consider the DSA case against the newspaper as a draconian act, Prothom Alo surely violated the copyright and press law related to captioning. It failed to clearly state what their picture is stating, leaving room for ambiguity. Many Bangladeshi media often infringe copyright laws by failing to source properly. There is an indifference to maintaining the best practices. As a result, journalists often face lawsuits for defaming or spreading falsehood.

Like journalists, politicians also often walk on thin ice. Their aggressive rhetoric often ends up hurting sentiments or harassing individuals or groups.

But there is no denying that loopholes in laws are often used worldwide to suppress dissident voices. Yet, controlling freedom of expression is not the primary target here; instead, the law's loopholes and inefficient enforcement are the reasons behind the harassment of journalists and political leaders.

An amendment, not repeal 

DSA is important for safeguarding emerging security threats in cyberspace. It is primarily aimed at preventing the spread of extremism, terrorist propaganda, hatred against religious or ethnic minorities, financial fraudulence, and harassment through social media, print media, or any other electronic media. Institutions and companies with digital footprints often face cyber fraud or harassment. So, repealing DSA would mean no law to fall back on for cyber victims.

Mainly, loopholes and poor enforcement, and a few irrational features such as non-bail provisions are the reasons behind the misuse. UN Rights Chief Volker Turk also called upon Bangladesh to suspend the application of the law and reform it during the 52nd Human Rights Council Session as it "is being used across Bangladesh to arrest, harass and intimidate journalists and human rights defenders, and to muzzle critical voices online." 

The Bangladesh government should quickly consider the amendment to safeguard dissident voices in a democracy. An amendment should find the middle ground between the activists and the government, considering the necessity of such a law.

(The author is a retired Bangladesh government official. Views are personal. He can be contacted at

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