Number of cases tripled in 2020 comparing to 2019
Law enforcement agencies, government officials and ruling party leaders in Bangladesh filed 80% of all Digital Security Act (DSA) cases in 2020, according to UK-based human rights organization Article 19.
Out of 145 DSA cases filed between January and September last year, 69 were filed by leaders and office holders of the ruling party, 51 by police and the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), three by government officials, five by journalists, and 17 by others, as per Article 19 data.
A total 198 DSA cases were filed in 2020, as compared to just 63 in 2019.
Among the DSA cases filed last year, 99 cases were filed over defamation or criticism of the prime minister, MPs, or local administrators, 17 filed for hurting religious sentiment and 13 for spreading rumours about Covid-19.
The data shows a spike in cases in the first few months of the Covid-19 outbreak, with a drop-off from August 2020.
Dhaka Tribune research found that 10 DSA cases had been filed in the first two months of 2021, and five arrests have been made.
DSA spreading fear among the people
The DSA is spreading fear among the people and leading them to feel insecure, Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua told Dhaka Tribune.
“We have come to a point where people are losing their right to say anything online,” he said.
The barrister also doubted the validity of the DSA charges against writer Mushtaq Ahmed, who died in custody after nine months in jail on Thursday.
“If someone wants to bring criminal charges against a person, they need to be very specific about the offense of the accused. Mushtaq was charged for several vague reasons and the evidence in the case is one of his Facebook Messenger conversations. How did a private conversation become an element for the DSA?” Jyotirmoy Barua asked.
The charges against Mushtaq include propagating disinformation about the government on social media. Cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore is still in jail and facing the same charges.
Barua said law enforcement agencies arrest the accused before the filing of most DSA cases.
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“This does not make any sense. Law enforcement agencies are supposed to gather evidence before arresting someone, but the process has been reversed for DSA cases for some reason,” he added.
The mother of all bad laws
Speaking to Dhaka Tribune, Article 19 Regional Director for South Asia Faruq Faisel described the DSA as the “mother of all bad laws.”
“This law was designed to protect the people in power and harass the common people. Self-censorship among journalists and writers has become commonplace because of the law,” he said, mentioning that the military government in Myanmar was in the process of making a similar law to the DSA.
Regarding the DSA, Article 19 said: “Not only does the 2018 Act expand existing restrictive provisions, it includes several provisions that are in breach of international human rights law. In particular, several definitions contained in the 2018 Act are too vague.”
The act vests sweeping blocking powers in a government agency and contains several speech offenses that would criminalize a wide range of legitimate expression, the organization added.
Notable DSA cases
On March 10, photojournalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol went missing after leaving his office. After being missing for 53 days, he turned up in police custody on May 3 when Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) arrested him on charges of trespassing at the Benapole border in Jessore.
After being shown as arrested for eight months, Kajol was released from Dhaka Central Jail in Keraniganj on December 25 last year.
On February 4, investigators pressed charges against photojournalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol in a case filed under the Digital Security Act with Dhaka’s Hazaribagh police station.
In another incident, a DSA case was filed against the editor-in-chief of bdnews24.com, acting editor of Jagonews24.com and two others for running reports containing "misinformation" on the misappropriation of OMS rice in Thakurgaon.
Syed Abdullah Al Ahsan contributed to this report