Law minister Anisul Huq has said that a journalist faced with a case under the Digital Security Act, will not be arrested immediately. Summons must be issued first. And the journalist will also be able to appeal to the court for bail. The minister made these reassurances at the 'Meet the OCAB' event arranged by the Overseas Correspondents Association of Bangladesh on Thursday.
At the event, the law minister admitted that there had been misuse and abuse of the Digital Security Act. What he failed to mention was, who misused and abused this law. It has been the administration and the ruling party people who have used this law and who have misused it too. They have used this as an effective weapon to punish journalists who cannot be silenced otherwise. Those who filed these cases are well aware that it will take two to four years for the case to eventually go on trial. In the meantime, the accused journalist, or persons who have been expressing divergent views, will languish behind bars. This has two advantages. The journalist, who has been exposing the misdeeds of an individual or an institution, will be kept silent. Secondly, this will act as a deterrent, a message or warning to people who may expose misdeeds in the future.
The law minister is holding discussions with the United Nations Human Rights Commission to prevent the misuse of the Digital Security Act. However, he did not take into cognizance the recommendations put forward by journalists when this law was being enacted in 2018
We are not aware of any activities of writer Mushtaq Ahmed, journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajal or cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore that could have been a threat to state security. If persons felt they were harmed personally, they could have filed defamation charges. But the Digital Security Act was used to place them behind an iron wall. Mushtaq fell ill and died in prison in February. He had appealed for bail six times and was rejected every time.
Editor of an online newspaper Shafiqul Islam was abducted on the way to office. He was found a few months later at the Benapole border. He was first charged with not having a passport and then was arrested following a case filed against him under the Digital Security Act by a member of parliament. He is out on bail now, with the case hanging above his head. Cartoonist Kishore has also been granted bail, but he had to leave the country.
Earlier the law minister had said legal action would be taken against those who misused this law. However, there has been no report of any such action being taken as yet. Speaking at the annual general meeting of the Crime Reporters Association of Bangladesh (CRAB), he said, "You may ask what measures we have taken to prevent the misuse of the Digital Security Act. We have begun dialogue at the United Nations from last year. Discussions are being carried out to see what can be done to prevent the misuse of the Digital Security Act. Elements to ensure best practice will be included in the law so that it is not misused."
The law minister is holding discussions with the United Nations Human Rights Commission to prevent the misuse of the Digital Security Act. However, he did not take into cognizance the recommendations put forward by journalists when this law was being enacted in 2018. As the journalists are not powerful like the United Nations, our policymakers do not feel the need to discuss such matters with them.
The law minister assured the journalists that the Digital Security Act would not be used against them. But what is the reality on ground? A recent report of Article 19, the London-based human rights organisation dealing in freedom of expression, said that in 2021 there have been more violations of freedom of expression than in 2020. Journalists too have faced more cases and harassment. According to their records, there were 631 instances of freedom of expression being violated in 2020. This included 213 such incidents against journalists. Under the Digital Security Act, 172 cases were filed against 312 persons, 70 of whom were journalists.
In the meantime, in 2021 (January to November) there were 442 instances of freedom of expression being violated. The number of journalists among the victims was 462. The number of cases under the Digital Security Act was 225 and the number of accused 417. And 32 cases were filed against 68 journalists under the Digital Security Act. In the same span of time, 38 defamation and discrimination cases were filed against 133 journalists. According to Article 19, there are 26 arrested journalists at the moment.
It should be checked as to whether these 26 journalists in jail now were arrested by the law enforcement before the law minister's directives. It was the same regarding the ICT Act and the defamation cases. The government said that no journalist can be arrested in defamation cases without permission from the police headquarters, but the moment a case was filed, the police would arrest the accused and send them to prison. The main thing that is objectionable about the Digital Security Act is that 14 of its sections are non-bailable. Once the law enforcement agency files a case and sends an accused to jail, it is extremely difficult to get released.
The government should simply abolish this law entirely. The existing laws are enough to tackle the crimes committed in the digital media. There is really no need for a separate digital law
The law minister spoke of amending provisions in the Digital Security Act if necessary, to ensure that it is not misused. He assured that it would not be used erratically against journalists. But we feel that this law has been drawn up in such a manner that its misuse is inevitable. Who will determine what is a threat to state security or what harmful to relations with other countries? The police? The court?
Jhuman Das had welcomed the visit of the Indian prime minister in a Facebook status yet he was still imprisoned under the Digital Security Act for 10 months, following a case under the Digital Security Act. So rather than using any futile façade, the government should simply abolish this law entirely. The existing laws are enough to tackle the crimes committed in the digital media. There is really no need for a separate digital law.
*Sohrab Hassan is joint editor and poet of Prothom Alo and can be reached at [email protected]
* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten by Ayesha Kabir for the English edition