Amnesty webinar raises concerns over state of freedom of expression
Rights experts have urged the authorities in Bangladesh to end the crackdown on people’s right to freedom of expression online.
During a discussion on Monday, they also demanded the repeal of the Digital Security Act (DSA), unless it was amended in compliance with international human rights law and standards.
The virtual discussion was arranged by the UK-based rights body Amnesty International on the theme, "No Space for Dissent: Freedom of Expression in Bangladesh," on Monday afternoon.
Speakers at the event said that more than 2,000 people had been in prison since the DSA came into being in 2018. As of July, in Bangladesh 433 people had been arrested under the Act. Many of them were imprisoned for publishing false and offensive publications.
The discussants recommended that the government immediately repeal the law or amend it if it wanted to gain the trust of the international community.
Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression, alleged that writers, journalists and photojournalists had been the targets of this law.
“The DSA is weakening Bangladesh's democratic culture and democracy. The implementation of this law is abusive,” she observed.
Agnes Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, termed the law “draconian,” and said that it was responsible for shrinking the country’s vibrant civic space.
She recalled the commitments made by Bangladesh to join the UNHRC. “This is not a PR exercise,” she added.
Cartoonist and human rights activist Ahmed Kabir Kishore in his recorded speech said that in this era of internet and social media, “we got space to share individual thoughts and notions but this law is designed to keep our mouths shut and take control of our creativity. But I believe only creativity will win over artificial intelligence.”
He alleged that he was brutally tortured while he was in custody.
“I was severely injured, and after my release I'm surviving now with my ear and eye problems, and treatment. Every crime has a punishment according to the law. We want it [law] to be enforced according to the crime. But no one is safe when it’s abused,” Kishore said.
“The law provides protection for digital spaces. But the way the DSA has been implemented in Bangladesh, it has created fear amongst people who want to express their dissent,” said Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua.
“...journalists, poets, singers, whoever it is, are afraid of expressing their opinions freely in any medium, even offline,” he added.
The lawyer observed that freedom of expression had become an obsolete idea in Bangladesh. “It stays in the book but not in practice at all.”
“If someone commits a crime, they will be prosecuted accordingly, will be punished, and fined. But it is not acceptable if someone is tortured or kidnapped by unknown powerful agencies,” he said.
Jyotirmoy Barua said that the law was problematic and vague, and therefore, things would recur. “This law is not necessary, and that's why we are calling for the repeal of this law,” he added.
Irene Khan said: “Criminal libel and defamation is a relic of our colonial past. Many countries have decriminalised this. The UN High Commissioner has also asked for the decriminalization of defamation and libel, or it becomes a tool of the government to stifle speech, press freedom.”
She said that there had not been any response from the Bangladeshi government on the concerns. “The government needs to take the UN system seriously. We are there to help the government with advice and provide technical assistance,” she added.
Saad Hammadi, Amnesty International's South Asia campaigner, moderated the discussion.