During the past month, about 20 journalists reporting in Bangladesh have been arrested or charged under the Digital Security Act (DSA). These controversial arrests have raised concerns about freedom of speech in the country.
A study by ARTICLE19, a human rights organization based in the UK, as of May 6, about 60 cases involving 100 people, 22 of whom were journalists, under the DSA. The arrests have only spiked in the past months due to the coronavirus pandemic. Journalists and activists have been criticizing how the Bangladesh government is handling the epidemic.
“It is shocking that during the coronavirus pandemic the government is using the Digital Security Act to prevent journalists from doing their job. This act criminalizes freedom of expression and is characterized by vague definitions, broad provisions and sweeping powers,” said Faruq Faisel, Regional Director of ARTICLE 19.
“Both journalists and members of the public must be allowed to express criticism of the Government's response to the coronavirus pandemic without fear of arrest.
“The government should immediately release all journalists and ensure that the rights to freedom of expression and access to information are respected in Bangladesh.”
Perhaps the most famous recent arrest under the DSA is that of Shafiqul Islam Kajol. Kajol mysteriously disappeared in March after allegedly posting defamation content on Facebook against a member of the ruling party.
Saifuzzaman Shikor, the politician who filed the case against Kajol and 31 others, was not happy about being linked to an escort service.
Fifty-three days later, Kajol reappeared in a police station near the Indian border. As a result, he's now facing an additional charge of trespassing into the country. Add that to the three charges under the DSA, and he is facing a 7-year sentence.
On May 6, Amnesty International released a statement demanding the immediate release of Kajol.
On that same day, another 11 people were arrested for criticizing the government's response to COVID-19. The charges were anti-government activities and spreading rumors.
Another activist, Didarul Islam Bhuiyan, was arrested for a post he made on Facebook.
“He is innocent, who merely posted some write-ups on social media criticizing the corruption in the relief distribution process; we all have that right to expression under the constitution,” said Bhuiyan's wife.Other renowned journalists arrested under the DSA laws include US-based reporter Shahed Alam, Tasneem Khalil, a Swedish-Bangladeshi reporter, and Asif Mohiuddin, a political blogger.
According to activists, these arrests are not justified. The government is using the DSA law to suppress the media and the freedom of expression.
We are alarmed by nature and procedure followed by authorities to prosecute people in some of the cases under The Digital Security Act,” said Saad Hamadi, a representative of Amnesty International in South Asia.
Hamadi continued to explain that there should be more justification behind an arrest. The police should not simply arrest a person because their words did not sit well with some politicians. Instead, they should first assess the necessity of the arrest relative to the severity of the alleged crime.
Rights activists are not the only ones concerned. The UN has urged Bangladesh to review the DSA to conform with international laws on human rights.
Reporters Without Borders ranked Bangladesh in position 150 out of 180 in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index. These arrests only prove the ranking was quite accurate.