Journalists and politicians are a majority among those arrested under the draconian law, study finds
Nearly 1,500 cases have been filed under the Digital Security Act in 20 months, according to the think tank Centre for Governance Studies (CGS).
The CGS, a governance and research platform, in the course of a study funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), tracked and documented the cases filed under the draconian law since January 1, 2020.
The findings were shared on the occasion of October 1, marking three years of the government’s passing the law, which many, including human rights bodies, termed an attempt to curtail freedom of speech in Bangladesh.
The law has severely curtailed freedom of expression in Bangladesh, a CGS press release said, adding that journalists and citizens of various walks of society had been victimized for speaking out in cyber space.
More than 1,500 cases were filed under the DSA-2018 between January 1, 2020 and September 15, 2021.
The CGS tracked the details of 668 cases till September 7 this year and found that the total number of accused in these cases was 1,516. Among them only 571 people’s professions could be identified. One hundred forty two were journalists, 35 were teachers, 194 politicians and 67 students.
The Principal Investigator of the project, Professor Ali Riaz, a distinguished professor at Illinois State University, USA, described the trend as highly disturbing and immensely disconcerting.
“It reveals how a law has become a tool of emergent authoritarianism. It is nothing short of criminalizing dissent,” he said.
“The wanton use of the law has created a culture of fear in Bangladesh. Repealing the law has become necessary,” he added.
The CGS said that the number of cases filed about alleged cyber crimes began to increase significantly since the DSA was introduced.
According to them, law enforcing agencies and activists of the ruling party have used and continue to use the draconian law against dissenting voices.
The study found that among those arrested under the draconian law, the number of journalists was disproportionately higher.
Out of the 499 arrested, 42 were journalists, 55 politicians and 32 students.
Moreover, as many as 13 people below the age of 18 were charged in the 668 cases they have tracked so far, said CGS.
The study found that a majority of these cases are filed by ruling party activists for their leaders.
The CGS identified that nearly 85% of the accusers belong to the ruling Awami League while law enforcement agencies filed nearly 20% of the cases.
The study also found that during the period under review, 74 cases were filed for allegedly defaming the prime minister, with the largest number of 13 cases being filed in April 2021.
Meanwhile, in June 2020, 11 cases were filed, the second highest number in a single month. Among the 44 individuals who were arrested on these charges, two have secured bail.
As many as 41 cases were filed against individuals on allegations of defamation of ministers, of which only 4 have been filed by aggrieved parties or their families, while 34 were filed by other individuals.
The CGS also found that Sections 25, 29, 31 and 35 were the most widely used in a levelling of accusations.
Most importantly, the judicial process is extremely slow in trying these cases, with only two cases being settled so far.
Mushtaq Ahmed, a writer and social activist, died in prison on February 25, 2021 while being held under the DSA, with the lower courts denying him bail six times.
Another accused, artist Ahmed Kabir Kishore, was granted interim bail in March 2021 following Mushtaq’s death.
Moreover, allegations of being held in custody illegally after being picked up by plainclothes men have also surfaced, says the CGS.
Cases where probe reports were not submitted within the stipulated time but the accused were in custody, being punished even before trial, have also surfaced.
Journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol, who was charged ten months after his arrest, was missing for 53 days after the first case was filed.
The Digital Security Act 2018 (DSA) came into effect on October 1, 2018 after Parliament passed the law following the elimination of five controversial Sections--- 54, 55, 56, 57 and 66 --- of the Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT Act).
The DSA provides the government with absolute power to initiate investigations into anyone whose activities are considered a “threat” and gives law enforcement agencies the power to arrest without a warrant, simply on suspicion that a crime has been committed through using social media.
Since the DSA Act-2018 came into force, journalists, social and human activists, educators, members of civil society, diplomats and various international organizations have strongly objected to nine Sections- 8, 21, 25, 28, 29, 31, 32, 43 and 53 of the law, which they described as detrimental to freedom of speech.
They have asserted that these sections are unclear and many of their terms have not been defined properly.
Of the 20 provisions of the law that deal with offences and punishments, 14 are non-bailable. Five are bailable and one can be negotiated, with the lowest punishment being 1 year in prison and the highest a life term.