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Journalist Fazle Elahi from Rangamati was arrested in a case under the Digital Security Act in June 2022 after publishing a report on corruption.

Another case was filed against six more journalists from Dhaka and Chattogram under the same act as they protested the arrest of Fazle Elahi on social media.

And a daughter of a former reserved seat lawmaker is the plaintiff of both cases.

Data from rights and research organisations shows journalists faced the second largest number of cases under the Digital Security Act with people from the ruling party mostly filing the lawsuits.

Private research organisations Centre for Governance Studies (CGS) gathered data on cases filed under the Digital Security Act between October 2018 and 11 April this year. CGS analysis showed 1,295 cases were filed under the DSA during this period. As for the accused, politicians, journalists and students constituted the largest numbers; they were – 403 (31 per cent), 355 (27.41 per cent) and 106 respectively.

The World Press Freedom Day will be celebrated on 3 May, Wednesday with the theme “Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of expression as a driver for all other human rights,” but the Day is going to be celebrated at that time when journalists and freethinkers are being suppressed across the country.

UK-based Article 19, which works to defend and promote freedom of expression and information worldwide, also maintains a database on cases filed under the Digital Security Act. The rights organised analysed 584 cases filed under this act in 2020-23. Data shows 229 journalists were made accused in 115 cases during this period with 13 of those cases being registered in the first three months of 2023.

Naznin Anwar, daughter of Mohila Awami League’s Rangamati unit president and former reserved seat lawmaker Firoza Begum Chinu, filed the case against Fazle Elahi in June last year.

She was operating a restaurant business at Rangamati DC Park after taking the land on lease from another person. A section of people allegedly drink alcohol at the restaurant, so the district administration suspended the lease, triggering a dispute.

Fazle Elahi reported on it and faced a lawsuit. He, however, was released on bail a day after his arrest. Speaking to Prothom Alo, journalist Fazle Elahi said, now he fears repercussion to publish authentic news in many aspects.

Naznin Anwar also filed a lawsuit against six journalists, who wrote on social media platform Facebook on this case, in September last year.

One of the accused is Bayezid Ahmed, who is a special correspondent at Dhaka-based private television channel Deepto TV. He said they have been the victim of misuse of the Digital Security Act.

Concern not taken into consideration

The government passed the Digital Security Act on 19 September 2018 amid huge backlash. Rights activists and organisations as well as Editors' Council and journalist unions have been expressing concern over the misuse of this act since the beginning and demanding amendment to provisions that draw controversy, but the government took no step.

Speaking to Prothom Alo journalist leader Monjurul Ahsan Bulbul said the recommendations that journalist leaders placed during the formulation of this act were not added to it. Journalists placed a written statement to the parliamentary committee before enacting the law, in which journalists expressed fear over the possible misuse of the Digital Security Act similar to the Article 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act. So, when a journalist faces an allegation it should be sent to the Press Council to find out whether the allegation is true, he added.

Monjurul Ahsan Bulbul said had those recommendations been implemented, the Digital Security Act would have not been misused. Not only journalists but also people from various professions say the act is being misused.

Law minister Anisul Huq said from time to time no journalist would be arrested immediately after a case is filed under the Digital Security Act. He even said, if it is needed, the act would be amended. Yet, many journalists were detained first and then were shown arrested in various cases.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) chairman Kamal Uddin Ahmed said there have been many talks over the Digital Security Act and the government is saying provisions of the law that need change would be amended.

If the government needs any assistance to amend the act, the commission would help so that the act cannot turn to be a harmful law for people, he added.

Plaintiffs of cases

Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK) compiles data on the Digital Security Act from reports published in various newspapers. The rights organisation collected data on 353 cases filed under the act in last four years. Their analysis shows journalists were made accused in 55 of those cases while leaders and activists of Awami League and its associate bodies were the plaintiff of 30 of these 55 cases.

Journalist Abu Tayeb, bureau chief of private television channel NTV in Khulna, is one the victims of the Digital Security Act. Awami League leaders and Khulna City Corporation mayor Talukder Abdul Khaleque file a case against Abu Tayeb in April 2021 on allegation of false information on corruption against the mayor. Abu Tayeb was in prison for a month and released on bail later.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, Abu Tayeb said he faced harassment various times for his profession and never faced a criminal case. He also said he never thought he would be made an accused in a case under the Digital Security Act for revealing information on corruption in social media.

Like Abu Tayeb, many journalists were arrested under the Digital Security Act. CGS published a report after analysing data on cases filed under the Digital Security Act between September 2018 and September 2022. It shows 84 journalists were arrested during this period.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, Faruq Faisel, South Asia regional director at Article19, said journalists are being harassed using the Digital Security Act and this law must be either amended or repealed completely.

*This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna