With the Digital Security Act in Bangladesh, journalists, bloggers, critics and even doctors are under fire as the Dhaka continues to muzzle freedom of expression. EurAsian Times analyses the Digital Security Act implemented by the Bangladesh government.
While the Bangladeshi Constitution under Article 39 safeguards freedom of expression and speech and freedom of the press, the current government with its Digital Security Act does little to uphold it.
The South Asian nation is reeling from the coronavirus, however, this has not stopped Bangladesh from going after journalists who are unearthing stories about the government’s mishandling of the pandemic.
At least 20 journalists have been charged or arrested by Bangladesh in the last one month. Action against the media persons has been taken under the controversial and draconian Digital Security Act (DSA). According to reports from Bangladesh, arrests are based on social media posts critical of the government and its dealing of the coronavirus pandemic.
Digital Security Act
At the heart of the attack against activists, bloggers and journalists is the Digital Security Act which came into effect in 2018. The government introduced it as an improvement on the Information Technology Act under which nearly 1200 people were arrested.
However, Amnesty International has labelled the Digital Security Act even more repressive than the IT Act and claims that vague and overly broad provisions of the DSA could be used to intimidate and imprison journalists and social media users, silence critics and carry out invasive forms of monitoring.
In a nutshell, the Digital Security Act of Bangladesh gives police 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.
The Bangladeshi government claims that the law is enacted to prevent cybercrime and not to control the role of the media but the reality on the ground says otherwise.
Nearly 60 cases have been filed against more than 100 people, including 22 journalists, under the Digital Security Act this year until May 6, according to a study by Article 19, a UK-based human rights body.
The Dhaka Tribune reports that it is not just voices journalists that are being muzzled. Medical professionals are barred from speaking to the media, the government is keeping a tab on social media and government officials have been directed not to share, like or comment on any social media post that is critical of the government.
Government cronies have not been shy in displaying their brutal tactics as physical attacks against journalists have surged too. According to media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, 15 journalists have been attacked in the last few weeks for their coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic.
German Broadcaster Deutsche Welle covered the plight of Sajal Bhuiyan, a journalist based in Narsingdi district. Bhuiyan was beaten up for reporting on misappropriation of food grains and was prevented from being taken to a hospital by his attackers.
Although he wants to see the attackers behind bars, the culprits backed by the Awami League are likely to escape unscathed.
Dhaka has made sure that even journalists based out of Bangladesh are not spared. A Swedish-Bangladeshi journalist Tasneem Khalil and US-based journalist Shahid Alam have been charged with under the Digital Security Act.
Khalil claims that three officers of the intelligence wing have questioned his mother about his reporting. He says that it was an attempt to intimidate him and dissuade from being critical of the government in his reporting.
The case of senior journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol is perhaps in the most chilling example of misuse of the state power. Kajol disappeared on March 10 after a defamation case was filed against him by a politician from the Awami League.
It would be 53 days before Kajol was seen again. He reappeared on May 8, near the border with India and now faces up to 7 years in prison for posting “false, offensive, illegally obtained and defamatory” content on Facebook and for trespassing into his own country.
Police Defends Actions
Police officials in the country have defended their actions and say that investigation would go in accordance with the law. Masudur Rahman, Dhaka Metro Police deputy commissioner media, spoke to Al Jazeera, confirmed that the arrests were made by the Rapid Action Battalion for various social media posts and that the fate of the journalists remains with the courts.
More than 1,000 cases have been filed in Bangladesh under the Digital Security Act since it was implemented in 2018. On May 6, at least 11 people, including a cartoonist, two journalists, and a writer, were charged with “spreading rumours and carrying out anti-government activities.”
Bangladesh National Press Club (BNPC) and Bangladesh Editors’ Council (BEC) have voiced their concerns over the arrests of journalists and activists for exercising their freedom of speech.
General secretary of the BNPC, Farida Yeasmin, said that the Digital Security Act should only be used for handling cyber crimes and not for detaining and targeting media persons. The BEC also issued a statement and said that no concern is being shown over the merit of the complaints before making arrests.
Bangladeshi human rights monitor Odhikar claims that the Digital Security Act is mostly being used by businessmen and politicians for targeting critics. Statistics from Odhikar, a Bangladeshi Human Rights monitor, shows that 550 people have disappeared in the country since the Awami League government was sworn in 11 years ago.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has called on Bangladesh to urgently revise the Digital Security Act to ensure that it complies with international human rights laws.
Press Freedom is relatively poor in South Asia. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal are all ranked above 100 while Bhutan and Maldives are the only two countries ranked below 100 in the Press Freedom Index.
The latest Press Freedom Index Reports by RSF ranks Bangladesh at 151 out of 180 countries. It has the lowest ranking compared to neighbours India and Myanmar who rank 139 and 142 respectively. In fact, since 2013 the press freedom ranking for Bangladesh has been consistently poor and in 2020 it was the lowest in the last 7 years.