Cybercrime laws continue to axe journalists, writers, and whistleblowers
The global outburst after a series of arrests, detentions, harassments, and intimidation of journalists and whistleblowers in Bangladesh amid lockdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic has shaken the myth of transparency and accountability of the Covid-19 healthcare management and food aid to disadvantaged people.
The outburst of civil society and rights group after 11 persons, including journalists, writers, cartoonists, bloggers, and micro-bloggers on social media were arrested and booked under the controversial Digital Security Act, allegedly for “spreading rumours and misinformation on Facebook.”
Among the dozen accused under cybercrime laws, the arrests of writer Mushtaq Ahmed, cartoonist Ahammed Kabir Kishore, social justice activist Didarul Islam Bhuiyan, and stockbroker Minhaz Mannan Emon have sparked protests by the civil society and media too.
An aide-memoire, that Minhaz Mannan’s brother is Xulhas Mannan, who was brutally hacked to death in April 2016 for publication of a gay rights magazine Roopbaan.
The four whistleblowers were slapped with cybercrime laws Section 21, Section 25(1) (b), Section 31, and Section 35 for “knowingly posting rumours against the father of the nation, the liberation war, and the coronavirus pandemic to negatively affect the nation’s image,” and to “cause the law and order situation to deteriorate,” which their colleagues and relatives denied.
Regrettably, the cybercrime laws were never applied for the disreputable sermons of the “waz-mongers” on social media for spreading rumours regarding the coronavirus pandemic.
The “waz-mongers” often dare to vilify the Liberation War, state constitution, national flag, national anthem, women’s empowerment, women’s leadership, secularism, Ekushey February, Pahela Baishakh, and whatnot.
Possibly, I have not missed hearing any of the Muslim zealots been booked under the Digital Security Act? The controversial law is deliberately misapplied to silence the journalists, writers, and whistleblowers.
The digital security laws, instead of checking for cyber crimes, hackers, mongers, fake news, and sexual harassment on social media, the laws were discriminately applied only against journalists and whistleblowers.
In a flashback of my ordeal in November 2002 during the repressive regime of Khaleda Zia, I was arrested and tortured in police custody. British TV Channel 4 hired me as fixer for a documentary on the widespread persecution of Hindus post-elections on October 1, 2001.
I was arrested along with two British and Italian TV crew, war-crimes historian Prof Muntassir Mamoon, and writer and documentary filmmaker Shahriar Kabir. We were charged under sedition laws and accused of defilement of the image of Bangladesh.
Fortunately, the superior court had rescued us from being awarded the death penalty.
It was understood how much the High Court judges were angry with the regime. How much the mainstream media in Bangladesh was frustrated with Khaleda’s administration for hobnobbing with the anti-liberation nexus.
The Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists criticized the detention of several journalists under the controversial Digital Security Act. Since 2018, 180 journalists have been intimidated by the cybercrime law, which challenges the justice system, the statement read.
Finally, the Sampadak Parishad (Editors’ Council) has once again reiterated its demand to repeal the notorious Digital Security Act.
If the state allows the police and civil administration to discipline the media, they will surely shrink the space for freedom of expression, which will undermine the tenets of democracy and the elected government too.
Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellow, and Hellman-Hammett Award. Twitter: @saleemsamad; he could be reached at [email protected].