‘Politicians, journalists implicated the most in Digital Security Act’

Cyber Security ActProthom Alo illustration

Politicians and journalists were implicated the most in cases filed under the controversial Digital Security Act (DSA) in the last five years, with most of the complainants being from the governing Awami League.

The count of the cases was the highest in 2021, finds a study that was led by Ali Riaz, distinguished professor of politics and government department at Illinois State University.

The study report was made after analysing 1,436 cases filed between October in 2018 and September in 2023.

News reports, court documents, lawyers, victims and relatives of the victims were used as source materials.

The findings were presented at a webinar ‘The Ordeal: Five Years of the Digital Security Act 2018-2023’ that was organised by Centre for Governance Studies, a non-government research organisation Tuesday.

At the wake of criticisms, the government in September last year “amended” the Digital Security Act and rebranded it as Cyber Security Act.

In the webinar, Ali Riaz presented the research findings that showed as many as 4,520 people were accused  under the Digital Security Act in the five years while 1,549 were arrested. On average, 24 cases were filed in a month while 26 were arrested.

Politicians featured as the highest percentage of the accused with the number being 32 per cent followed by journalists (29.4 per cent). Nearly 78 per cent of the complainants are involved with the politics of governing Awami League.

Journalists have been implicated the most for publishing news reports. Most of the accused newspersons are from outside of Dhaka.

As many as 190 cases were filed on charges of defaming the prime minister.

Some 908 cases under the Digital Security Act were filed for posting comments on Facebook while the remaining 528 cases filed for hurting religious sentiments.

Ali Riaz said most of the cases were filed in Dhaka but there was no district from where at least one case was not filed. Some 28 children were accused in the cases while 22 of them were arrested.

He highlighted some concerning issues. Those are: lack of transparency, procrastination in trial, pre-trial detention, bringing children and adolescents to book, and use of the law as per the whim.

The recommendations presented in the webinar include granting bail to the people arrested under this act, and constituting an independent commission of civic society members and experts to review the cases filed under this law in the last five years.

Speaking about the journalists implicated in cases, Ali Riaz said, “Various challenges have emerged for journalists these days -- media ownership, journalists' stand in favour of a party, and acts like DSA. DSA is not only affecting journalism but also academic and research activities.”

“Coalition has to be formed for independent journalism. Otherwise, the challenging situation would be long lasting,” he insisted.

Civic body Shushashoner Jonno Nagorik (SHUJAN) secretary Badiul Alam Majumder said in the webinar, “The peaceful situation prevailing in the country since the (parliamentary) election is like that of the grave… But this is not warranted. The reason is that there are acts like DSA.”

Civic societies have been pushed towards an uncertainty, remarked the SHUJAN secretary.

He said, “The acts are being used against political opponents. This is why the opponents don’t have any space in the field and they cannot play crucial roles. As they (political parties) are not able to be active, in this situation expecting such a role from the civic society is nothing but luxurious.”

Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) executive director Faruq Faisel remarked that there remains scope to abuse a law if it is enacted to give protection to the government, a political party and its associate bodies and one or two families.

“The incumbent government has been in power for the last 15 years but the Digital Security Act in the last five years is enough to malign them,” he observed.

News agency AFP’s Bangladesh bureau chief Shafiqul Alam said, “The objective of DSA was to criminalise freedom of expression. The movement should have been waged to repeal the DA completely because whatever the form of DSA or CSA is, it will be abused.”

CGS executive director Zillur Rahman moderated the webinar where its chairman Manjur Ahmed Chowdhury and Supreme Court lawyer Shihab Uddin Khan.