229 journalists sued under Digital Security Act

Digital Security ActProthom Alo illustration

A total of 229 journalists have been indicted under the controversial Digital Security Act in the last three and a half years. Some 56 of them have been arrested. They were arrested immediately after the case was recorded without any scrutiny.

Article-19, an UK-based international agency working on freedom of expression, came up with these figures analysing different media reports published from January 2020 to March 2023.

The rights activists say the implementation of this act itself is a misuse. A large portion of the defendants in these cases are journalists. And the leaders and activists of ruling Awami League are plaintiffs in most cases.

Article-19 has analysed the data of some 1,150 cases filed under the DSA and 115 of these cases were lodged against the journalists. Some 229 journalists were made accused in these cases.

On 5 June, law minister Anisul Huq, while addressing the parliament said a total of 7,001 cases had been filed across the country as of 31 January, 2023.

However, he didn’t provide any separate figure on the number of DSA cases filed against newspersons.

Center for Governance Studies (CGS) reviewed some 1,295 cases filed under this contended law. These cases were filed between October 2018 to April this year. The CGS analysis revealed that journalists were made accused in 27.41 per cent of these cases filed under the DSA.

Controversy right from the beginning

Despite widespread criticism, the government passed the law on 19 September 2018. Several local and international rights organisations expressed concerns about the possible misuse of the law.

Several organisations of journalists, including the Editor’s Guild and the Dhaka Union of Journalists, have been repeatedly raising concerns over the misuse of the law. Although the demand to amend the objectionable sections of the DSA was pressed strongly, the government hasn’t taken any effective initiative in this regard.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights office has written to the government with some recommendations for the amendment of the law.

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In a statement on 31 March last, UN high commissioner for human rights Volker Turk said, “It’s very  worrying that the Digital Security Act is being used to harass and intimidate the journalists and human rights activists to suppress the critics online across Bangladesh. I am urging the authorities again to suspend its implementation immediately and bring necessary amendments to make it in line with the international human rights law.”

However, the government has not taken any initiative to amend or repeal the law, though law minister Anisul Huq recently told parliament that the law would be amended within September.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, National Human Rights Commission chairman Kamal Uddin Ahmed said that the Human Rights Commission regularly reminds the law minister over the amendment of the DSA.

He said, “The law minister has been reminded again over this very recently. The government has already formed a committee for this. The law minister has assured us of bringing necessary amendments to this law.”

DSA being used to harass people

Fazle Elahi, a district correspondent of a national daily, was arrested in June last year for publishing news. Naznin Anwar, daughter of Rangamati district Mahila Awami League president and former member of the parliament (MP) Firoza Begum, filed the case against him.

She lodged another case under the same act against six journalists for protesting the arrest of Fazle Elahi. Fazle Elahi was indicted in the second case too.

Fazle Elahi is on bail at the moment in both cases. Speaking to Prothom Alo over the phone on Friday, he said an Awami League leader filed both the cases against him. He is being harassed for publishing a report, he said.

Several plainclothesmen identifying themselves as members of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) picked up Prothom Alo’s staff correspondent in Savar, Samsuzzaman, from his house near Jahangirnagar University in the early hours of 29 March. It was later learnt that a case was lodged against him under the DSA with the Tejgaon police station around two hours before picking him up.

Another case was filed against Prothom Alo correspondent Shamsuzzaman with the Ramna police station under the same law 19 hours after he was picked up by men in plainclothes. Prothom Alo editor Matiur Rahman too was made accused in this case.

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Samsuzzaman was released on bail five days after being picked up. Prothom Alo editor Matiur Rahman is also on bail in the case filed at Ramna police station under the digital security act.

Faruq Faisal, regional director of the Article-19 in South Asia, believes that the Digital Security Act was legislated to protect the people in power now. “We don’t need a law which could be used to harass the journalists and common people,” he added.