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OP-ED: For whom the bell tolls

  • Published at 08:09 am March 2nd, 2021
digital security

What purpose does the Digital Security Act truly serve?

Most loyal citizens should agree with Bangladesh Information Minister Hasan Mahmud that the Digital Security Act (DSA) provides security to the people from digital harassment.

He scoffed off critics that the DSA has been misused. His comments came against the backdrop of nationwide street protests which turned violent, demanding repeal of the repressive DSA.

The protests sparked from the death of a progressive writer Mushtaq Ahmed, who died in prison due to alleged negligence by jail authorities. He was languishing in prison for nine months and denied bail six times.

Hours after the death of the writer Ahmed, who was incarcerated in a case filed under the cybersecurity law, activist Ruhul Amin was sued under the controversial law after his angry statement was posted on Facebook.

“If such writings sent Mushtaq to jail and then to death, depriving him of bail six times, then arrest me too,” read the loud Facebook post.

Plainclothes detectives picked him up from Khulna city. A senior official of the Detective Branch at Khulna Metropolitan Police said Ruhul was sued under the DSA for his threats to “destabilize” the state, creating social unrest, and over other reasons.

An appropriate statement by a responsible police officer, that a youth leader Ruhul has somehow acquired the capacity to “destabilize” the government and country alone or with a handful of youths. 

Sounds like a sequence from a Bollywood movie.

In the first place, the police officer should be reprimanded for undermining the stability of the present government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Her state stands on the pillars of democracy, pluralism, and of course, strengthened by a strong political party, the Awami League.

Although the country’s constitution promised to protect freedom of expression and freedom of the press, unfortunately, a repressive cybersecurity law was appended in the parliament as legislation at the end of 2018.

Nearly 2000 cases have been filed under the DSA since its enactment on October 8, 2018, according to data from the Bangladesh government’s Cyber Crime Tribunal.

More than 800 cases were filed in the first nine months of 2020 alone, with many of the country’s most prominent editors and senior journalists being increasingly targeted.

At least 247 journalists have been targeted in 2020 by law enforcement agencies, non-state actors, and of course, individuals acting on behalf of the government.

Last year, during the lockdown, the authorities randomly misused DSA to silence critics, doctors, netizens, and journalists who were critiquing the government’s management of the pandemic.

The use of the DSA has been so outlandish that even folk singers, minors, writers, and cartoonists were not spared from being detained.

Mysteriously, the law has not cast shadows upon Islamist groups -- one of the key groups that have been spreading disinformation on Covid-19 and also spewing hate speech.

The waz-mongers (Islamic evangelists) in waz-mahfils have dared to speak against Ekushey book fair, Ekushey February, elective democracy, gender equality, the Liberation War, the national anthem, national flag, Pahela Baishakh, pluralism, secularism, women leadership, women’s empowerment, and the list goes on and on.

Dr Syeda Aireen Jaman, secretary-general of PEN International Bangladesh said that the law has been discriminately used against critics and journalists, while the mullahs who are a threat to secularism and pluralism are deliberately left out.

Several eminent citizens, intellectuals, and civil society leaders stated that there is no doubt that the anti-democratic DSA has been born outside the elective democracy and politics to inject a “culture of fear” among the citizens.

Dr Mizanur Rahman, of Dhaka University, stated that the responsibility of the death of Ahmed rests upon the state, as he died in judicial custody, pending trial of the DSA.

He also said that the draconian law impedes freedom of expression and encourages self-censorship and contradicts the principles of democracy, pluralism, and press freedom.

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at [email protected]; Twitter @saleemsamad.

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