Does the Government really need the Digital Security Act?

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The clauses and sub-clauses of the recently passed by the parliament Digital Security Act is bound to cause anxiety and fear  It has left media workers feeling helpless. Yet nobody really knows how it actually operates as most actions taken under this act in the previous edition were often against stuff posted on the FB rather than mainstream media.

The main objective appears to be control, intimidation and self-censorship encouragement.  A state certainly needs certain coercive tools to manage law and order but the best way to go about doing it may not be scaring those people into submission whom everyone needs, media. Scaring works for a while but then it starts losing its power as history shows. Carrots do much better than sticks. In this case, the DSA seems to be a case of drawing unneeded attention to an unnecessary solution.

The censorship hierarchy

In Bangladesh, there are three players in the censorship hierarchy who basically control what goes in and what stays out. They are the owners, the workers and the GOB.  Who is the DSA aimed at?

The first and the most important Censor are the Owners and Editors. In many cases they are the same. However, in cases they are not, the paid Editor has no intention of crossing swords with the Owners who ultimately control the news and opinion flow in media.

As has been stated many times before, the owners became financially enabled to invest such a huge sum of money in media through connections and network. Thus, why would the owners want to anger the government when the reason they have started an outfit is primarily to make the government happy? While people may not think much of the intellectual capacity of some owners, they as a lot are very smart which is why they are rich. So why would they risk official wrath?

The second category are the journalists themselves who mostly belong to one political cluster or another and usually each media house is under the control of one trade union group, nowadays, ruling party loyalists. It’s they who act as gatekeepers because any news negative for the government will affect their position.  These leaders and loyalists have a huge stake in the system of censorship and they ensure that nothing embarrassing makes their way to the pages.

It’s in the third category that the official censors fall and its they who play the least role in direct censoring. After all, the GOB has not arrested any journalist, any writer and opinion giver for what has been written or said in mainstream media barring several BNP activists like Mahmudur Rahman. So either the Government is very liberal as it claims it is or it has the situation under its control so well that it really doesn’t need to flex its muscles. In either case the DSA is not relevant.

Paid media the target or social media?

But the GOB seems to be committed to having a law that is meant to scare people rather than prevent security violation. The Act has made the law seem very draconian when the system really doesn’t need it. If one peruses media reporting for the last four years, it becomes obvious that both the government and media have not crossed the limits.  That is no crackdown and no boundary crossing.

If one looks at the past two movements- anti-quota and road safety- the Government crackdown was intense and no holds were barred. Even Chatra League activists beat up people and media workers and nothing happened.  Those arrested were taken in, remanded, held and some were released and some are still inside. In particular Shahidul Alam has failed to secure bail even after many call from national and international groups and individuals. It means the Government is in control and has all the power it wants to have. And for that to be exercised it doesn’t need the law, good or bad. And the activism was on social media not paid media.

Creating an unnecessary cause?

Given this, the reaction generated from the media power clusters could have been avoided because the authorities have created a cause, not needed. Media leaders have now put together a platform to protest this law. It’s true that many of the leaders are from the pro-government lobby but they have much less option to retract now as it has become a media issue and matter of identity.

The Government is not facing a confrontation but having to carry an unnecessary baggage.  Most of the laws are in operation anyway and could have been moderated given that authorities barely need it.  If it ones to pick up anyone without bail or warrant it can do so anytime and nothing will happen. Given that kind of power, which did it need to put it down into writing escapes common understanding.

The DSA was not needed at all. Existing formal and informal powers are enough.  Even the most powerful of governments does not need an extra law to defend publicly, particularly when it makes no significant difference.

  • Does the Government really need the Digital Security Act?
  • Issue 12
  • Focus
  • Afsan Chowdhury
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

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