The covert recording of information held by any government, semi-government or autonomous institution will be considered espionage under the terms of the draft Digital Security Act 2018 approved by the government on Monday.
The draft legislation has raised questions as to whether anyone who clandestinely records incidents of bribery at government offices, or who secretly takes pictures of documents exposing corruption, will be subjected to punishment under the new act.
Analysts say Section 32 of the Digital Security Act 2018 draft runs contrary to ensuring transparency in state affairs, and is tougher than the controversial Section 57 of the ICT Act.
However, IT Minister Mustafa Jabbar has defended the most contentious section of the proposed new law, saying it is “necessary” and that “violating privacy is unacceptable”.
Section 32 proposes a maximum jail term of 14 years and a fine of up to Tk20 lakh for espionage, defined as illegally entering government, semi-government and autonomous institutions and secretly recording any kind of information or data with electronic devices.
Barrister Tanzib Ul Alam said the new provision will curtail access to information. “The issue of freedom of expression is involved (and) considering that, this provision is unconstitutional,” he said.
“How is it espionage if I take pictures of the note of a file which states that corruption had taken place? The people have the right to know.
“If it is spying, then the people would never know about what goes on. Actually, it is an anti-transparency law for governing the state.”
Online activist Arif Jebtik said online journalism had served to raise awareness among people of many things that take place around them.
“Illegal activities of government officials involved in corruption have been exposed (so) I think this section has been formulated to protect the corrupt officials,” he said. “This law has ensured that people who are harassed at government offices do not get the chance to collect evidence.”
Posts, Telecommunication and Information Technology Minister Jabbar said journalists had “conditional freedom” in Bangladesh.
“Why should you do something secretly? It is unacceptable?” he asked. “One can never violate state secrecy. Will you be able to force yourself into someone else’s house? Can anyone take pictures in someone else’s house without permission?”
When presented with the scenario of a journalist being denied permission to take a picture of a person, Jabbar said: “It depends on the situation. Since you are asking for permission, it is not confidential anymore.”
This article was first published on banglatribune.com