According to Article 19, a UK-based media watchdog, 457 people were prosecuted and arrested in 198 cases under the DSA in 2020. Of them, 75 are journalists of whom 32 are now facing trial.
Incidentally, law minister Anisul Huq in a recent interview with BBC Bangla, said the law would be reviewed. He said steps would be taken so that none can be arrested before the end of investigation in a case under the Act. “Primarily we welcome the statement of the law minister. We also demand that steps be taken immediately to make the statement of the law minister legally effective. We demand necessary ordinance or legal initiative in this regard immediately.”
The statement further said the media representatives pinpointed the questionable sections of the law and recommended their amendment. Had those recommendations been taken into consideration, the present situation might not have arisen.
On 28 September 2018, the Sampadak Parishad explicated ‘Why we oppose Digital Security Act’. In the explanation, the Parishad highlighted its concern regarding nine sections (8, 21, 25, 28, 29, 31, 32, 43 and 53) of the act. The Parishad said, “In trying to make a law to prevent crimes through digital devices and provide security in the digital sphere, the act ends up policing media operations, censoring content and controlling media freedom and freedom of speech and expression as guaranteed by our constitution.” Sections 8, 21, 25, 28, 29, 31 and 32 are contradictory to the freedom of press that the Constitution guarantees. The aforementioned sections will also create scope of controlling the freedom of expression of the citizens as well. For example, Section 8 says if it is evident to the law enforcing agencies that something published and disseminated through any digital device or digital medium can create disunity in the country, disrupt economic activities and security, defence, hurt religious values, create communal hatred or bad feelings, create law and order situation then the law enforcing agencies can request the BTRC (Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission) to remove such content or block it.
Section 21 says that if an individual spreads propaganda against The Liberation War, Spirit of Liberation War, Father of the Nation, National Anthem and National Flag or assists in such a process then such action will be considered a crime.
Regarding this, the Samapdak Parishad on 28 September 2018 said, “We are fully committed to the preservation of the dignity and correct history of our Liberation War and given the past experience of attempts at its distortion we understand the need to do something in this regard. However “Spirit of Liberation War” is rather vague term. Without further defining the “crimes” under this section and clearly specifying what constitutes a “crime” we run the risk of serious abuse of this law and harassment of journalists and the punishment is up to life-term or (and) Tk 30 million in fine or both.”
Section 25 says if any person using a website or any digital device - (a) deliberately or knowingly distributes any information or data that is attacking or intimidating in nature; or if a person publishes or distributes any information despite knowing that it is false to irritate, humiliate, defame or embarrass or to discredit a person
(b) Damages the image and reputation of the State or spreads confusion or with the same purpose publishes or distributes fully or partially distorted information or data despite knowing that it is false, and if any one assists in such actions then all such actions of the individual will be considered a crime.
Section 28 says if in any website or electronic system publishes or broadcasts anything that hurts religious values and religious sentiments etc: (1) if any person or group deliberately and knowingly and with the intention of hurting religious values or sentiments or with the intention to provoke such sentiment publishes or broadcasts information then such actions will be considered a crime.
Section 31 says if a person deliberately publishes or broadcasts via a website or any digital platform anything that creates enmity, hatred or acrimony among different classes or communities, or upsets communal harmony, or creates unrest or chaos, or causes or begins to cause deterioration in law and order, then that activity of the said person will be considered a crime.
Section 32 says if a person commits a crime or assists someone in committing a crime under the Official Secrets Act, 1923 (Act No XIX of 1923) via a computer, digital device, computer network, digital network or any other digital media, they will get a maximum penalty of 14 years in jail or Tk 2.5 million in fines, or both.
The Parishad said the Digital Security act has created an atmosphere of panic and intimidation where journalism, especially investigative journalism, has become virtually impossible. This law has been creating fear among all the users, including media workers, who uses computers and computer networks. Section 43 of the act gives the police unlimited powers in terms of entering homes to search them, search offices, search people’s bodies and seize everything related to computers, computer networks, servers and digital platforms. The police will be able to arrest any person without a warrant under the powers given by the law. In this case, there is no need to get any kind of approval from any police authorities.
The Parishad statement also said that there is ambiguity in this law and many words have been used which can be misinterpreted and easily used against the media.
Another concern of the Parishad is that out of about 20 sections of the law relating to crime and punishment, 14 are non-bailable, five are bailable and one is negotiable. This has inevitably created an environment of fear, where the normal practice of journalism has become even more risky. Those who commit criminal acts on digital platforms must be brought to justice. However, the law needs to be amended immediately to ensure that it is not applied against the media and free-spirited writers, the statement added.
“We demand that all the cases filed against journalists under the Digital Security Act (are withdrawn), all journalists and free-spirited writers who have been arrested and imprisoned under the act be released immediately. We expect the government’s due diligence in considering this issue.”