Bangladesh's controversial digital security act: A weapon to silence independent media?

Using the controversial Act as a tool the Bangladesh government has tried to keep surveillance on journalists, and also to repress and muffle the independent voices in social media and traditional mass media, writes Mohammad Kepayet for South Asia Monitor

Mohammad Kepayet Sep 02, 2020
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The rulers don’t want to be questioned or criticized. When the state feels it is not performing well, as promised, in catering to the needs of the poor and the middle class or want to cling to power whatever the cost, it feels threatened of criticism. And it feels the best way to stave off this disapproval is by curbing the rights of expression and freedom of the citizen. For them creative thinkers like writers, teachers, cartoonists, and journalists are the biggest threats. They then start repressing them. 

This repression has increased manifold during the national crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic in Bangladesh. New laws, rules, and decrees have been issued that clearly states what can be written and what cannot be. The government has chosen itself to be the rightful owner for determining the truth.

Controversial Internet laws

In a developing country like Bangladesh, there has never been an environment for fair journalism. The Digital Security Act (DSA), which was endorsed in 2018, is now being used as a weapon of suppression of journalists. The controversial law has been described as draconian by the media, as it feels that they are the target of the Act.

However, when the law was enacted, the Sheikh Hasina government had said that the law will not suppress and harass the media. In fact, the government had claimed that the law was enacted to prevent cybercrime and not to control the role of the media.

But on the ground, the situation is different. The government has filed cases against 180 journalists under the DSA, while 114 were arrested immediately. Apart from journalists, writers, cartoonists, and human rights activists have also been arrested. According to Article 19, a British human rights organization, a total of 113 cases were filed from January to June this year under the DSA.

Shahidul Alam, an internationally renowned photojournalist was arrested on August 5, 2018, under Section 57 of the Information and Communications Technology Act. He was kept in jail for three-and-a-half months and was released only after an international outcry. Recently, he has awarded the International Press Freedom Award.
 
In early June, two teachers – one posted in Begum Rokeya University in Rangpur and the other in the University of Rajshahi - were arrested under the same law. They were both arrested for allegedly criticizing veteran politician and Awami League member Mohammad Nasim, who died of COVID-19, on Facebook.

In June again, a 15-year-old schoolboy was arrested under the controversial internet law for posting on Facebook on the increase in telephone call charges, amid the raging coronavirus pandemic. At the moment, he is in juvenile detention.

Police have charged 41 individuals under the Act between April 1 and May 6, according to Human Rights Forum Bangladesh.

Muffling the voice of dissent

Most of the arrests under the Act is based on social media posts critical of the government and it's dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Under the Act, police have the power to arrest journalists and confiscate their equipment without a court order, carry out searches without a warrant, ask service providers and other intermediaries for data without requiring a court-obtained warrant or subpoena and places a 60-day window on the investigation

Using the Act as a tool the Bangladesh government has tried to keep surveillance on journalists, and also to repress and muffle the independent voices in social media and traditional mass media. Media persons have raised their voices against the misuse of the controversial Act, and for trying to gag the media.
 
The Act denies freedom of the press and creates obstacles to independent journalism. Its purpose is also very clear. With such a law, the accountability of the state to the people decreases. Only independent journalism can hold the state accountable for its actions and policies. When the state wants to deprive the media of its freedom, it means that it wants to muffle the voice of dissent.
  
The implementation of DSA puts the entire criminal justice system in the country in jeopardy, rights activists said during an online video conference, held by International human rights organization Article 19 on July 27, 2020. In the webinar, 'Digital Security Act: Threats to Democracy and the Rule of Law’, speakers called upon the authorities to repeal the Act. They also demanded immediate bail for those who were arrested during the COVID-19 pandemic time under the Act.
  
Meanwhile, the US State Department on July 20 said that Bangladesh should ensure free and independent media during the coronavirus pandemic. Concerning Bangladesh, it said, “The State Department has emphasized the need for a free and independent media as the government uses the Digital Security Act to charge and arrest journalists, cartoonists, doctors, academics and other individuals who have critiqued the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

'Bangladesh worst in South Asia'

According to this year's World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Bangladesh ranked the worst position in  South Asia. Bangladesh’s ranking is worst than war-ravaged Afghanistan. Bangladesh has been ranking low in the index for the past five years. In 2019, Bangladesh ranked 150; in 2018 it was 146; and in 2016 it was 144.
 
Freedom of expression and freedom of speech is very important for building a democratic environment in the country. “They want to take away my language from my mouth” (ওরা আমার মুখের ভাষা কাইড়া নিতে চায়) - this was the popular song and slogan that was used in the Bengali Language Movement, a political movement in former east Bengal (renamed East Pakistan in 1956 and Bangladesh in 1971). The song still holds relevance. This song not only represents the right to have a free Bengali thought, but also the freedom of thought in general. 

The constitution of Bangladesh has also recognized the people’s freedom of thought. Article 39 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of expression to the citizens. But in the current rule, it has perhaps been forgotten.

(The writer is a journalist and South Asian geopolitical analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at kepayet01mcj@gmail.com)