Why this bar to get information on Digital Security Act?

Digital Security Act
Prothom Alo illustration

The Information Commission of Bangladesh has been facing a test. This is because of a complaint filed with the commission by a rights activist as he did not receive certain information about the Digital Security Act from the police. This probably has provided a chance for the commission members to prove whether this constitutional institution has any autonomy or not.

Media reports say, rights activist Saad Hammadi in June 2021 sought information from the Bangladesh Police as regards to the number of cases filed, number of people accused and arrested under the Digital Security Act. Saad Hammadi filed the complaint with the commission under the Right to Information Act, 2009 as the police declined to provide him the information. The commission heard his complaint and fixed 2 February as the date of verdict. Police did not provide the information to Hammadi saying that this would “hamper the implementation of the law”.

This complaint needs to be considered as important for three reasons. Firstly, different aspects and the implementation of the law under discussion. The way the law empowered the police and law enforcement agencies directly contradict the rights of the citizens. According to the law the persons who are not even aggrieved can file cases. This is synonymous with “vigilante justice”. Besides, the law includes issues like the image of the country and spirit of Liberation War whose interpretation would be different for different people.

Discussion abounds about the Digital Security Act which has been passed in 2018. Institutions from the Editors’ Council to local and international rights organisations have been saying that the citizens’ rights, which are internationally acknowledged and given by the constitution of Bangladesh, are being violated because of the law.

At the initiative of Centre for Governance Studies (CGS) of Bangladesh, along with a few research assistants I have been conducting a research about the implementation of the law from January 2020. We have observed that the means to get reliable information about this is limited. In the first report of this research project we mentioned that the government and the law enforcement agencies have an aversion to provide exact and transparent information about this. (Digital Security Act Kibhabe Proyog Hocche [How’s the Digital Security Act been implemented] CGS, October 2021). Under the CGS project we could collect information of 754 cases between 1 January and 30 October 2021.

All of us know one thing about the implementation of this law, that it is being used indiscriminately. As a result not all cases are being disposed of even after setting up cyber tribunals in eight divisions of the country. Writer Mushtaq Ahmed died in police custody on 25 February 2021. Just because of the lack of information we don’t know how many people are detained, for how many days, on what allegations and whether they are serving sentences even before the trial. That’s why Saad Hammadi’s seeking this information is extremely significant.

Our research has evidence on how this law is being used to serve the interests of the ruling people. Almost 80 per cent of 169 complainants, about whom we could get information, are members of ruling Bangladesh Awami League and its associate bodies. It could have been clearer to us about the misuse and how this law has become a political party’s tool of coercion to suppress dissent, if there were transparency and a chance to get full information.

This law has been hanging as Damocles' Sword over journalism. Recently, this has once again been proved that the government too understands this. The law minister said special action would be taken against journalists who are accused in cases filed under this act so that they do not face arrest. The minister knows it very well that different accused under the same law in a country cannot get different treatment. Questions could be raised about the motive of this special concession. This is clear that the law and its implementation, both are defined by politics. As a result, when police decline to provide the information, we must realise politics is the main reason behind that decision. Now it needs to be seen whether the Information Commission takes this into consideration or not.

The second reason for which this hearing and the probable order of the Information Commission that demands our attention is, the chance to find out whether the Information Commission of Bangladesh works independently or not. What’s the work of this commission? The Wikipedia says the main task of the commission is to ensure people’s right to know about the concerned authorities by creating an environment to facilitate getting information to stabilise the democratic system of Bangladesh as a state. [Through this] establishing good governance, accountability to the people, raising transparency and decreasing corruption of different authorities. Since 2009, we have not seen many instances as to how far this statement is true.

The third reason, for which this case is important for us all, is the statements of police and the police's lawyer Taiful Seraj. The police declined to provide the information saying that that would hamper the implementation of the law. Information about an act known to all is necessary to ensure transparency of trial and appropriate implementation of the act. The police’s logic goes against this.

Rule of law does not mean trial by law only, rather citizen’s knowledge of whether the law is appropriate or not, whether it is being implemented appropriately or not, is an indispensable part of rule of law. Why are police declining to provide information if the law was not misused? The police’s lawyer said the information sought is “sensitive”. But he did not elaborate. The question is what could be the thing under the Digital Security Act that the rights activists cannot have the right to know? Will that information not be revealed even during the trial to be held in open court? Are those “camera trials”?

Lawyer Taiful Seraj raises questions about where the applicant stays. Saad Hammadi lives in Sri Lanka because of his profession. He could be anywhere else. I don’t understand why a Bangladesh citizen’s seeking information exercising his right staying abroad would be dubbed by a lawyer as “ill-motivated”? Does staying abroad curtail his right to information?

I hope the Information Commission would not consider in this manner. At the same time, this is also true that the scope of hope is limited especially after observing the election commission the and National Human Rights Commission. Expecting transparency from any certain commission is tougher when the government itself does not have any transparency and accountability. But at the same time, it must be remembered that as a constitutional institution, this is the responsibility of the commission. That’s why we will wait until 2 February to see the results of Information Commission of Bangladesh.

* Ali Riaz is distinguished professor at the department of government and politics, Illinois State University in the US, a non-residential senior fellow at Atlantic Council and president of American Institute of Bangladesh Studies.

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Shameem Reza