Jagannath University’s political science department student Khadijatul Kubra moderated a programme on social media two years ago. A guest at that programme made a controversial remark. A sub-inspector of police filed a case with the New Market police station under Digital Security Act (DSA) over the remark against Khadija and that guest speaker. The case accused Khadija of trying to destabilise the country and instigate against the democratic government and anti-state activities. Khadija has been languishing in jail for 24 days in the case. She sought bail three times by this time, to no avail.

Khadija’s sister Manira told Prothom Alo over the phone that Khadija was 17 years old at the time of moderating the programme. She did not give any personal opinion there, but she has been accused in the DSA case by merely conducting the programme. Police submitted the charge sheet to the court against Khadija and the guest. Khadija was later shown arrested from Mirpur on 26 August. The police were overenthusiastic and filed this case against Khadija. Now uncertainty looms over Khadija and her family.  

Rights groups are alleging that the law enforcers and the ruling party men are using the controversial DSA against cross-section of people. Over 1700 cases have been filed under the act in the last four years since its enactment.

Rights groups are alleging that the law enforcers and the ruling party men are using the controversial DSA against cross-section of people. Over 1700 cases have been filed under the act in the last four years since its enactment. Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK) has collected data on 353 DSA cases. According to the data collated by the ASK, police and people from the ruling party and its associate bodies filed 165 or 47 per cent of those cases.  A total of 36 per cent of the cases under DSA were filed on allegations of defaming and spreading propaganda against the government, the prime minister, the law enforcement agencies, the ruling party and the party's leaders and workers.

The government passed the DSA on this day (19 September) in 2018 amidst a huge outcry. Journalists, rights activists and people from different backgrounds expressed their apprehension about the law from the very beginning. They feared that the DSA would be misused just like Article 57 of the ICT act. Now they say their fear has come true. The ruling party men have been accused of using this law to muffle dissent alongside harassing the common people.

A report published by the US authorities on the human rights situation in Bangladesh this April said the journalists are paying prices for their reports criticizing the government.  Writer Mustaq Ahmed arrested under the DSA died in jail. Cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore was released from jail amid serious illness. Photojournalist Abul Kalam, journalists of Khulna Gazette and Dainik Loksamaj were sued under the law.

The report further said that not only news media, but also many people face obstacles in practicing knowledge and culture in Bangladesh due to the law. A case has been filed against Baul singer Rita Dewan under the DSA.

Mostafa Jabbar, the then information and communication technology minister, tabled the law in National Parliament. Jabbar, now post and telecommunication minister, told Prothom Alo that the misuse of the law took place at the individual level in 95 per cent of cases. Sometimes due to the failure of law enforcers to understand or investigate properly, sometimes for other reasons the law has been misused. Although meant to punish offenders, the law has sometimes been used to victimize innocent people.

The minister said he expressed regret for such instances but added that there would not have even an ‘iota’ of digital security of the state if this law was not in place. 

Misuse against journalists

Article-19, an international human rights organisation that works on freedom of expression, collected data of 514 cases filed under DSA from 2020 to September 2022.  93 or 18 per cent of the cases were filed against journalists. A total of 974 persons were sued in these 514 cases and 19 per cent of them are journalists.

Photojournalist Shafiqul Islam is one such victim of DSA. He was found near Jashore’s Benapole border, 53 days after he went missing from Dhaka's Chawkbazar on 11 March, 2020. Later the police arrested him. Being arrested in three cases under the Digital Security Act and serving 10 months in jail, he was granted bail in December 2020 by a writ in the High Court. Among the plaintiffs in the three cases filed against him, one is an Awami League member of parliament and two are leaders of Mahila League, an associate body of the AL.

 Shafiqul told Prothom Alo that he is still afraid of becoming a victim of enforced disappearance. No one wants to give him a job out of fear.

 Shafiqul told Prothom Alo that he is still afraid of becoming a victim of enforced disappearance. No one wants to give him a job out of fear.

Faruq Faisel, South Asia regional director of Article-19, told Prothom Alo that this law was made to intimidate people, especially journalists. Its main purpose is to ensure that people don’t speak up.

Journalist leader Manjurul Ahsan Bulbul told Prothom Alo that this law is being misused sometimes for political reasons, sometimes for administrative reasons and sometimes only for harassing journalists. Not a single case of DSA against the journalists was enforced for legitimate reasons but the law is misused only to cater to vengeance.

DSA enforced to stifle dissent

Pekua upazila BNP’s general secretary Iqbal Hossain made a controversial remark about prime minister and Awami League. A video of his speech went viral on social media and a case was filed against him under DSA in July. As the programme took place at Mognama union parishad, Awami League leader and Mognama UP chairman Yunus Chowdhury was also made accused of abetment in the case. Upazila AL’s general secretary Abul Kashem filed the case.

Accused Yunus Chowdhury told Prothom Alo that the case was filed six days before the council of upazila AL.  Yunus said Abul Kashem made him accused in this case as he was a rival candidate for the secretary post.

Misery of victims

Rajshahi University teacher Kazi Jahidur Rahman was a victim of a DSA case. A pro-AL lawyer on 17 June 2020 filed a case against him with Motihar police station for criticizing former health minister and AL’s presidium member Mohammad Nasim. He was arrested the same day and got bail after serving 71 days in jail. The High Court exempted him from the case in November 2021. Kazi Jahidur told Prothom Alo that he was dismissed from the job due to this false case. He was socially humiliated and had to go through a very difficult time.

The non-government Center for Governance Studies in a study found that most DSA cases are filed under section 39 of the act. This clause is mainly about the dissemination of defamatory information. Section 25 is the most widely used in this act considering the number of accused persons. This section deals with disseminating or publishing offensive, false or intimidating information.

Many are being accused under the DSA of commenting on religions. Assessing the ASK data revealed that 10 per cent of the cases were filed for commenting on religious affairs. There are, however, allegations of inciting communal tensions by opening fake ids on Facebook and impersonating others.

ASK’s executive director Nur Khan told Prothom Alo that overenthusiastic ruling party men often file cases under DSA. Even many people were sued for criticising the government's actions rationally. From journalists to politicians, teachers, students, lawyers, and people of all professions have been victims of this law. This law fetters freedom of expression and there is no justification for keeping the law in most cases.