The Official Secrets Act, 1923— anti-espionage law of Bangladesh

According to Article 149 of the Constitution of the People's Republic of Bangladesh and the Bangladesh Laws (Revision and Declaration) Act, 1973, the Government of Bangladesh has adopted 'The Official Secrets Act, 1923' written by the then British government.

An Official Secrets Act is one of the major laws or legislation for a country that prohibits unauthorized collection and distribution of information related to the national security of a sovereign country. In this article, it is attempted to highlight some important points of the secrets law in Bangladesh.

What is an Official Secrets Act?

An Official Secrets Act is a legislation that provides with the protection of a sovereign state secrets and official information related to national security.

There is another definition of the Official Secrets Act— “The Official Secrets Act is a piece of law that protects state secrets and official information that isn’t disclosed to the public”. The main aim of an official secret act of a country is to protect against espionage.

The Official Secrets Act in Bangladesh

The Official Secrets Act, 1923 is the anti-espionage law in Bangladesh held over from the British colonial period to protect the country from double agents and unauthorized parties. This Act was first written and enacted by the then British Government in 1923 and came into force on April 2 of that year. The Viceroy at the time of drafting and enacting the official secrets act was Lord Curzon.

The Secrets Act of 1923 was based on the Secrets Act of 1889. In 1904 the Act was amended and made more stringent. At that time the name of the Act was ‘The Indian Official Secrets Act, 1904’; Finally it reached the 1923 edition. Later after partition of the subcontinent, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh kept the Act in force through amendment process.

According to Article 149 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh and the Bangladesh Laws (Revision and Declaration) Act, 1973, the Government of Bangladesh has adopted ‘The Official Secrets Act, 1923’ written by the then British government.

Why was the Official Secrets Act, 1923 enacted?

This Act was enacted to ensure the confidentiality of various government matters. The act was made by the British government so that no one could harm the country through espionage. Besides, the purpose of this law is to safeguard important government information. For the same reason that the British government enacted this law, the Bangladesh government has kept this law in force in the country for the same reason.

What does the Official Secrets Act, 1923 say?

Section 3 of the Official Secrets Act, 1923 provides that no one shall enter any prohibited place declared by the Government. And designs and photographs of some places designated by the government cannot be sent anywhere; If anyone does or attempts to do so, will be considered a criminal.

Some features of the Official Secrets Act, 1923 of Bangladesh

  • As per Article-149 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, it has been assimilated in Bangladesh under the ‘Official Secrets Act, 1923’ enacted by the British Government.
  • Violation of this Act is a punishable offence.
  • It is an offense to enter or attempt to enter any place designated by the government without government permission.
  • It is an offense for a person to enter or attempt to enter any prohibited place or source declared by the government.
  • It is an offense to collect and publish any design, photograph, model, note, document or anything else of a place restricted or prohibited by the government for security or other reasons.
  • It is a crime to communicate directly or indirectly with a foreign agent or member of an intelligence agency. Even attempting to associate with a foreign agent or intelligence agency will be considered a crime.
  • If any citizen of the country is identified or suspected of being involved directly or indirectly in any act against the security and interests of the country inside or outside the country, then the person will be considered a criminal, and can be declared as a foreign agent too.
  • If any citizen of the country meets a foreign agent or intelligence member or goes to the address of that foreign agent, then that citizen will be considered to be in contact with the foreign agent and it will be considered as a crime against the country.
  • No information of the country can be illegally transferred to anyone in any way. Anyone involved in such acts shall be held criminally liable.
  • If any person has or controls any official code or password, or any sketch, model, article, document or information, that person must keep them secret from the government. Otherwise the person will be called a criminal.
  • If a person is previously appointed by the government to any duty, then after the end of the duty given by the government, no document related to that duty or any copy thereof shall be kept with him. Besides, whatever that person has learned during the performance of that particular duty, he cannot tell it verbally to anyone. Considering the security of the state, all the important information should be kept secret by the person after the end of duty. If anything else happens i.e. disclosure of information and if it is considered as a threat to the security of the state then the person will be identified as a criminal.
  • The Official Secrets Act, 1923 prohibits the manufacture and sale of any seal, stamp or anything related thereto without lawful authority or unlawfully or without reasonable cause. A person involved in such an act is a criminal.
  • This Official Secrets Act, 1923 allows the arrest of criminals without the order or warrant of a Magistrate. If any person is arrested without any order or warrant, he should be produced before the Magistrate or any police officer in charge or any police station without unnecessary delay.
  • If arrested by the police, a criminal can be sent to jail and may not be bailed.
  • The offender faces a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison for espionage and for obtaining or smuggling information related to the defense of a state.
  • If the crime is not serious, an offender has been kept in the provision of maximum 3 years imprisonment according to this law.

Why is the Official Secrets Act, 1923 important?

Why this Act enacted in 1923 is important can be roughly confirmed by looking at its title. Every free and sovereign country should have such laws in force. The Official Secrets Act is abbreviated as OSA.

The Official Secrets Act, 1923— anti-espionage law of Bangladesh
The Official Secrets Act, 1923— anti-espionage law of Bangladesh

This law was introduced mainly to prevent espionage against the country. Anti-espionage laws are effective not only to prevent espionage but also to keep any important information of the country secret. Thus keeping official information confidential is very important for any independent and sovereign state. By exercising the powers conferred by this Act, the country can be protected from unwanted troubles or dangers.

First case under the Official Secrets Act in Bangladesh

The Government of Bangladesh assimilated ‘The Official Secrets Act, 1923’ in 1973 with nominal amendments. Ever since this Act came into force in Bangladesh, there had been almost no discussion, and criticism before the date of May 17, 2021. On May 17, 2021, an investigative journalist from a daily newspaper called the Prothom Alo, Rozina Islam, was arrested under this law; this is the first case of arrest under the Official Secrets Act in Bangladesh.

Following the case of Rozina Islam of Prothom Alo, some are trying to say that a British era law should not be prevalent in Bangladesh; However, many people are not willing to accept such comments. In this case, the legal experts will definitely think whether there is a need for some coordination or clear statement in some cases between the ‘Right to Information Act, 2009’ and ‘The Official Secrets Act, 1923’ in Bangladesh.

Sources

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