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ARTICLE 19: DSA a big threat to democracy and the rule of law

  • Published at 04:35 pm July 3rd, 2020
Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

It is a shame for democracy that a ninth-grader was prosecuted for criticizing the government's decision on Facebook, the statement says

ARTICLE 19 has expressed grave concern regarding the bizarre filing of cases and arrests under the Digital Security Act (DSA) 2018 across the country, for merely manifesting views on social media. 

The controversial act has further spotlighted the towering crisis in the government's capacity, efficiency, and management in tackling the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic following the arrests of a ninth-grader boy, university teachers, students, writers, journalists and cartoonists, ARTICLE 19 said in a press statement on Friday.

ARTICLE 19, a UK based human rights organization which focuses on the defence and promotion of freedom of expression, has strongly condemned these arrests and at the same time called on the concerned authorities to release those arrested under DSA immediately and unconditionally, and to withdraw the whimsical cases against them.

ARTICLE 19 Bangladesh and South Asia Regional Director Faruq Faisel said the government failed to prepare for and control the transmission of coronavirus at the outset of the pandemic. 

“Issues such as incoherence, opacity, and mismanagement in the policy making stage, to relief distribution at the local level, have gradually crystallized. We had hoped that the government would focus on closing these loopholes. 

“Unfortunately, now the policy of suppressing dissent and criticism seems to be a top priority of the authorities.  It is a shame for democracy and human rights that a ninth-grade teenager has been prosecuted and arrested for criticizing the government's decision on Facebook,” he added.

On June 20, a ninth-grade student was sent to a juvenile correction center after being arrested in a case under DSA in Bhaluka, Mymensingh, for allegedly insulting the Prime Minister on Facebook following the decision to impose an additional tax on using mobile phones. Apart from this instance, cases have recently been filed under the same act against writers, cartoonists, university teachers, students and journalists,and editors for simply expressing their views on various media, including Facebook.

Faruq Faisel also said: “Law enforcement agencies have been particularly active in arresting defendants in cases under DSA, compared to cases filed under other time-tested existing laws. Recently, two university teachers in Rangpur and Rajshahi, one of whom was a female, were arrested at midnight immediately after the respective cases were filed. 

In contrast, the accused in serious cases like attempted murder and corruption fled the country on well-arranged chartered flights; law enforcement could hardly find a clue of their whereabouts until they were on headlines. This discriminatory trend in enforcement of the law has become a major threat to democracy and the rule of law.”

"The practice of free expression needs to be unimpeded in the cause of establishing a stable society and sustainable development. Despite repeated calls for enforcement of the law in compliance with commitments Bangladesh has reiterated on international platforms such as the United Nations, the government is not taking effective steps to amend the controversial DSA,’’ he added.

In 2018, ARTICLE19 recorded 71 cases filed against practitioners of freedom of expression, including journalists, under the then section 57 of the ICT act, and then newly enacted DSA which came into effect in October of the year. In 2019, the number of recorded cases initiated under DSA was 63.  

However, in the first six months of this year, 113 cases have been recorded of this kind. 208 people of different classes and professions have been accused in these cases due to mere expression of opinion, of whom 53 are journalists. Of the accused, 114 were arrested immediately, most of whom are still awaiting bail.

The regional director for ARTICLE 19 said, even prisoners are being released on bail to curb Covid-19 infection in jails. In the last 30 days, about 45,000 people accused in various cases were granted bail in the virtual courts. 

The defendants in DSA cases are not accused of any heinous case like murder, rape, terrorism, militancy, or treason. 

Yet their bail processes are constantly facing obstacles. Shafiqul Islam Kajol, editor of Pokhsokal magazine and a photojournalist, had his bail application rejected eight times so far, which is very disappointing for his family in these tough times. 

ARTICLE 19 calls for the immediate and unconditional release of others accused, including Kajol and others arrested under this act for expressing their views.  it calls for the withdrawal of their respective cases, the statement concluded.