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Upsurge in Digital Security Act cases during the Covid-19 pandemic

  • Published at 03:42 pm June 28th, 2020
Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

People irrespective of age and profession being sued; most plaintiffs ruling party supporters

Covid-19 has put a halt on almost everything but cases lodged under the Digital Security Act saw a manifold increase recently against people voicing any criticism, particularly people raising their voice against the corruption and mismanagement in the health sector.

People of all ages—be it a juvenile or an adult—and professions have been accused under the Digital Security Act for posting "abusive" posts on social media, sharing those posts, and drawing cartoons and caricatures.

Moreover, some were even charged for communicating through social media.

Analysts and human rights bodies have expressed their concerns over this sudden rise in case under the Digital Security Act and accused the government of using the law for silencing journalists and citizens to cover up its own failures even during this coronavirus crisis.

ARTICLE 19, a British organization promoting freedom of speech and human rights, in their report said a total of 89 cases were lodged against 173 people under the Digital Security Act from March till June 22 when the first Covid-19 cases were detected and saw a sharp rise in Bangladesh.

In addition, 22 cases were filed against 41 journalists from March 1 to May 31, it added.

Faruq Faisel, regional director of ARTICLE 19 Bangladesh and South Asia, accused the government of trying to handle the coronavirus situation using the law which is unscientific.

“The government cannot control the coronavirus situation, and there have been reports of corruption in relief distribution,” he said. 

“People are talking about it but the Digital Security Act cases are being filed under various pretexts to prevent that and intimidate people,” he alleged.

ARTICLE 19 mentioned that 63 cases were filed under the act in 2019. A comparative analysis shows that the number was surpassed and almost doubled within the first six months of 2020 with 108 cases.

Contacted, Police Headquarters officials failed to inform how many cases were lodged and how many people were charged under the Digital Security Act between March and June.

They said 1,135 people were arrested in 632 cases overall under the act in 2019. But in the first two months of this year, 339 people were arrested in 165 cases. 

When the data is compared, 30% of last year’s arrests and 26% of last year’s cases were reached within the first two months this year.

However, analysts said the real scenario is more worrying as many cases are not reported by the media, making the human rights organizations unable to trace those.

Human rights activist Nur Khan Liton said the state actors could not take it positively when journalists wrote about government’s mismanagement, corruption, and repression of criticism by any citizen on social media during the coronavirus situation.

“The government thinks that such small criticisms can unite the people and give birth to a well-organized movement,” he said.

“They have created a fearful environment to suppress them. Arrests and lawsuits are being filed under the Digital Security Act to suppress the truth,” Liton added.

According to media reports, 327 cases were filed under the Digital Security Act in the first three months of this year with the Cyber Crime Tribunal. 

As many as 86 were filed in January, whereas 119 were lodged in February, and 122 in March—the cases are clearly on the rise.

The number of cases filed under the act was 1,189 last year with 721 filed with police stations and 468 filed with courts, the reports added.

An analysis of recent cases: Who lodges them?

Most of these cases were lodged by either ruling party members, or members of affiliated bodies of the ruling party, or their supporters, Dhaka Tribune has found.

A case was lodged against Daily Manab Zamin Editor Matiur Rahman Chowdhury and 31 others under the Digital Security Act on March 9.

Md Shifuzzaman Shikhor, the Magura 1 constituency lawmaker, filed the case with Dhaka’s Sher-e-Bangla Nagar police station.

Apart from that, two leaders of Juba Mohila League have also filed separate cases against Shafiqul Islam Kajol, photographer and editor at the Daily Pakkhakal. 

Kajol disappeared shortly after the case was filed, remained traceless for months, and is now in custody after his reappearance recently. 

On May 26, police arrested journalist Md Sirazul Islam Ratan, the Gaibandha upazila correspondent for Daily Manab Zamin. He was arrested in a case filed under the Digital Security Act by the owner of a transport company named Fatema Paribahan.

Meanwhile, journalist Mohammad Mahtab Uddin Talukder, editor and publisher of Daily Haorancholer Katha and a district correspondent for SATV, was jailed in a case filed under the act on charge of “spreading rumours” against Sunamganj 1 MP Mouazzam Hossain Ratan on Facebook on May 5.

Very recently, a 14-year-old school boy was arrested by the police, and sent to the Juvenile Correction Centre in Gazipur after a local Jubo League leader filed a case against him with Bhaluka police station. Charges were brought under the act over posting a defamatory post against the prime minister.

A teacher of Rajshahi University and another of Begum Rokeya University in Rangpur were also arrested recently for their allegedly critical and satirical posts on the recently deceased Awami League politician and former health minister Mohammed Nasim on social media.

DSA being used to suppress freedom of speech?

Police Headquarters, very recently, instructed police stations to look into the allegations before filing a case.

On the condition of anonymity, some police officers said that the police cannot but take the cases. 

If people from the upper echelon of the government, MPs or leaders are defamed, they are often forced to accept the lawsuits if anyone comes forward with such allegations.

Rights activist and eminent jurist Shahdeen Malik told Dhaka Tribune that in times of crises, the government usually tries to suppress freedom of speech by enacting laws to cover up its failures.

“The government is enforcing the Digital Security Act so that we do not discuss the failures of the government all the time,” he said.

“From the very beginning, everyone, including journalists, were vocal about the opportunity to misuse the law. And our fears about abuse have now been proven true,”he added.

What the law enforces have to say

Police Headquarters Assistant Inspector General (media) Md Sohel Rana said the cases have been filed on charges of cybercrimes such as harming people through the internet or digital fraud and forgery, spreading rumours, and trying to destabilize the law and order situation by being deceitful.

Police always try to fulfil the necessary conditions before taking a case, he said.

“If there is a deviation in that process, we will look into it based on specific allegations,” he added.

Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) Legal and Media Wing Director Lt Col Sarwar Bin Kashem said they appreciate constructive criticism on social media, but legal actions are taken against those who try to disrupt the society by spreading rumours or making sarcastic remarks.