Can the RTI and OSA co-exist?
The passing of the Digital Security Act 2018 became the talk of the town last week.
With a straightforward approach to curb cyber crime, attacks on religious sentiments, or spreading propaganda, this law has sparked controversy among journalists.
The bill expresses zero tolerance against people spreading hate speech and propaganda that may tarnish the image of the nation.
Amongst other approved amendments, the bill incorporates the objectives of the Right to Information Act 2009, and The Official Secrets Act 1923. The changes brought to the bill create confusion regarding whether the RTI and OSA can co-exist in the same frame.
Section 3 of the Digital Security Act 2018 states that it is supplementary to existing laws. It made an inclusion of the RTI through this section. This is positive, since the RTI ensures free flow of information.
The RTI is an example of how the government prioritized the freedom of thought and expression mentioned in the constitution.
It was enacted with the aim to maintain accountability and transparency in all public, autonomous, and statutory organizations.
But the aims of the law contradict legislations left by the colonial regime -- primarily the OSA. This draconian law was introduced by the British rulers under significantly different political circumstances, namely to protect its rule over India.
It attends primarily to cases of espionage -- for example, making sketches, plans, or models, and circulating them to the enemy, directly or indirectly, that might hamper the sovereignty of a country.
This culture of secrecy is still rampant among bureaucrats in the sub-continent.
Human rights activists and pressure groups in Bangladesh have called to scrap this black law while the RTI was being enacted.
However, The RTI’s “right of the citizen to know” overlaps with OSA’s “right to secrecy.”
Surprisingly, the Digital Security Act hosts an unsettling rendezvous of both these laws. An amendment of Section 32 of its bill suggests that a person will face punishment if he or she commits a crime mentioned in the OSA through a computer, digital device, computer network, digital network, or any other digital media, or help someone else commit such crimes.
Under Section 32, any act of entering illegally into a government, semi-government, or autonomous organization, and secretly recording information and data through any electronic device will be considered as “spying” and carries a maximum sentence of 14 years or a fine of Tk25 lakh, or both.
The amendment was approved by a vote, and the OSA was reincarnated. But the question still remains: Isn’t the new act creating a contradiction within itself?
The Digital Security Act 2018 has undergone numerous amendments and propositions with a view to tackle one of the major problems of the 21st Century -- cyber crime. But along with this change, it leaves certain areas vague, which are prone to be misused.
However, one cannot completely disregard the possibility of espionage through online publication. The act tried to shed light on this activity, but with an old fashioned torch.
While it is praiseworthy to incorporate the RTI, it is equally surprising to give OSA such unwanted attention. The existence of such an act from 1923 in such an updated act of 2018 is ill-fitting.
The Digital Security Act can function solely on its own provisions regarding the offenses. There is right to information, but one should not take this right for granted.
It is on journalists and the media to be careful about the information they handle.
Online activists, bloggers, and even casual users must be aware of what they publish. Lastly, the culture of secrecy among policy-makers must be sidelined by the free flow of information on demand, especially in an era when citizen journalism is on the rise.
Aiman R Khan is a trainee lawyer at Dhaka Judge Court.