The government did not take into cognizance any objections raised by different quarters before and after the promulgation of the controversial Digital Security Act (DSA).
The DSA bill was passed in the Jatiya Sangsad (national parliament) on 19 September 2018 and the president signed the bill into a law a month later, on 8 October 2018.
Various journalist organiations, political parties, the Editor’s Council, as well as different local and international organisations had raised objections to the DSA, from its drafting to president’s approving it as a law.
Several ministers and the members of parliamentary committee met with the editors and noted their objections but eventually the law was enacted without any amendments sought by the editor’s council.
Only an objection on the jurisdiction of police was taken into cognizance. The parliamentary committee recommended adding a clause in Section 43 of the act regarding seeking the permission of the director general of DSA before any search or arrest was made.
But at the eleventh hour, the matter of approval was scrapped, which allowed police officials to search and arrest anyone without warrant.
Prothom Alo has scrutinised 197 cases filed last year under this act. Most of these cases were of defamation, malicious speech, sharing tampered pictures, spreading rumours and conspiracy against the government. The plaintiffs in around 80 per cent of the cases were the police and ruling party men. In accordance to profession, the most arrested persons are journalists.
The non-government Center for Governance Studies (CGS) on Saturday published a survey report on DSA, which shows a total of 783 cases had filed from 1 January to 25 February last year. They said, after the analyses of 402 cases, most accused persons are journalists.
Stricter law implemented instead of Section 57
The ICT Act was drawn up in 2006 to control, prevent and take action against the use of internet and social media to commit crimes in the country. In 2013 the law was amended and Section 57 added.
Under this section, the number of cases increased against defamation, criticism, tarnishing the state’s image, and a number of other allegations, through writings in the electronic media.
The law was abolished under strong criticism and in October 2018 the Digital Security Act was promulgated. But the essence of Section 57 was included in this new law. In fact, certain even stricter clauses regarding information and expression were included.
Parliamentary committee did not take demands in consideration
The cabinet approved the draft of DSA in 29 January 2018.Then the parliament asked the parliamentary committee on 9 April to scrutinise the draft bill.
The parliamentary committee met twice with the delegations of editor’s council, Bangladesh Federal Journalist Union (BFJU) and Association of Television Channel Owners (ATCO) to discuss over the bill.
The committee assured to make necessary amendments but eventually no major changes were made. Some of the controversial clauses were just clarified linguistically with the amendments of sentence tenure.
The then general secretary of the editor’s council, Mahfuz Anam, vice-president of ATCO, Mozammel Babu, and former president of BFUJ Monjurul Ahsan Bulbul gave a joint statement after the law was enacted (22 September, 2018).
Expressing deep concern over the act, they said that the parliamentary committee unilaterally presented its recommendations in the parliament without holding the promised final meeting with them. So, the views of journalists’ community have not properly reflected.
Promises of three ministers
The editor’s council feared the DSA would undermine the right to freedom of expression and the freedom of the media. They expressed their concerns and arguments in various ways.
The council released an explanation to the media 10 days after the DSA bill was passed in parliament on 29 September 2018. The statement highlighted the reasons why they are expressing concern and to which sections they have objections.
On 30 September, the Editor’s Council met with the information minister Hasanul Haq Inu, law minister Anisul Huq, post and telecommunication minister Mustafa Jabbar and the then information affairs adviser to the prime minister Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury.
The three ministers then promised that the concerns of the Editor’s Council would be raised at a cabinet meeting and further discussions would be held to amend the law. But the next two cabinet meetings did not hold any discussion regarding the issue.
The president of Editor’s Council and the editor of the Daily Star Mahfuz Anam told Prothom Alo on Saturday night that, the government never called the Editor’s Council to discuss on the act after it was promulgated.
He said under this act, punishment can be given in 20 areas. Of these, 14 are non-bailable. There is also a lot of vagueness in the law. Along with that when it is misused, it gets hard and harder. That’s what is happening now.
When asked whether any demand would be raised to amend the act on behalf of editor’s council, Mahfuz Anam said, “We are taking initiative to discuss the issue among ourselves”.
Objections of different local and international organisations ignored too
After the law was passed in the parliament in 2018, various organisations requested the president not to sign the bill.
Among the organisations that raised concerns were Amnesty International, Article 19, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), Citizens for Good Governance (Sujan), Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ), Dhaka Union of Journalists (DUJ) and 12 other journalist organisations.
The UN Human Rights Council also called for a review of the law after the president signed it. Now, different organisations are issuing statements on this law after the custodial death of writer Mushtaq Ahmed.
Diplomats from 13 countries said in a statement on Friday that the governments of the OECD countries were "deeply concerned" about the provisions of the DSA and its implementation.
The TIB said in a statement on Saturday that it would not be an exaggeration to say that the DSA is being used to curb the freedom of expression of dissenters and critics.
Bring amendments to nine sections
Expressing grave concern, editor’s council urged the government to amend the sections 8, 21, 25, 28, 29, 31, 32, 43, and 53 of the Digital Security Act appropriately to safeguard the freedom of the media and the freedom of speech.
This report appeared in Prothom Alo print and online edition, and has been rewritten in English by NH Sajjad