Why are you opposing the Digital Security Act?

Article 19 works for people's right to the freedom of expression. After the Digital Security Act was formulated in 2018, we consider that the law to be against the goal of our organisation. The law department of our London office carried out an analysis. The analysis shows how this law will curb the freedom of speech of the people, especially journalists and communicators.

It also shows which sections of this law are conflicting with different international and UN conventions. We submitted this to the law ministry of Bangladesh government. At that time, the government did not take our objection into cognizance.

Later we drew the attention of Bangladesh government through the United Nations. By then things had rolled on too far. The law has been misused grossly and at three ministers have admitted this misuse. That is why we are opposing this law, to ensure freedom of speech in Bangladesh, which is justified.

How will you refute the contention of the government that this law has been formulated to prevent crimes committed on the digital platform?

The name of this law is confusing. This law is being called the Digital Security Act. But this law is pushing people, journalists, women and children into an insecure situation.

The law is only used to take away freedom of speech and create an environment of fear. If this law is formulated to control crimes committed on the digital platform, why we don't see the use of this law where there are incidents of fraudulence and defamation? It is one of the responsibilities of the government to ensure the digital security of the people. The government is doing the opposite through this law.

The government said the Digital Security Act is not being used against journalists or the freedom of expression. But what do statistics say?

We can strongly say that this law is being used extensively against the journalists and the freedom of expression.

According to statistics, a total of 34 cases were filed in two months in 2018. Sixty three cases were filed in 2019. A total of 197 cases were filed in 2020, of them 41 cases were filed against journalists and 75 were made accused and 32 journalists were arrested instantly. A total of 238 cases were filed in 2021. Of these, 35 cases were filed against journalists and 71 journalists were made accused and 16 journalists were arrested instantly. At total of 122 cases were filed in 2022. Of these, 26 cases were filed against journalists, 61 journalists were made accused and six journalists were arrested instantly. The misuse of this law is alarmingly increasing in 2023. Some 16 cases have been filed in January and February and 16 journalists are made accused. The use of this law has taken an dreadful turn in Mach.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk has called on Bangladesh to immediately suspend the Digital Security Act. Do you think the suspension of the application of this law is enough? Many organisations are demanding the scraping the law completely. What is the position of Article 19 in this regard?

We welcome the call of chief of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. We hope the government will show respect to this call. The law is now at such a stage, we can call it black law. The law should be analysed minutely. It needs to be transformed into a law that can ensure the digital rights and security of the people.

Article 19 works for the freedom of expression of the people. You are discharging duties as the South Asian director. Will you explain the situation of Asian countries in this regard?

This situation does not exist in any country of South Asia other than in Bangladesh. The situation of media and journalism in Bangladesh is deteriorating gradually. It is unfortunate that the situation of Afghanistan and Pakistan is better than Bangladesh. There are journalist protection laws in two provinces of Pakistan. A journalist protection law is also necessary in Bangladesh.

CID picked up Prothom Alo journalist Samsuzzaman from his residence in a case filed under the Digital Security Act. Then 35 hours after his arrest, he was sent to the jail through the court. How do you view the entire matter?

The way Samsuzzaman was picked up by plainclothes men at the dead of night, we consider this abduction. People have right to know where he was for about 20 hours before showing him arrest. The same thing happened in the case of photojournalist Shafiqul Islam Kazal. We always condemn such a type of abduction of journalists and general people.

In connection with the same incident, a case has been filed against Prothom Alo editor Matiur Rahman. The editor's name has not been mentioned in one case. The editor has been implicated in another case. Is this not harassment?

We consider the case filed against Prothom Alo editor Matiur Rahman is a harassment one. Earlier, Daily Star editor Mafuz Anam was harassed by filing cases in different places in the country. We think this trend of filing cases against the editor and journalists should be stopped and the Press Council should be strengthened further.

Law minister Anisul Huq repeatedly said they are taking steps to stop the misuse of the Digital Security Act. Do you notice any steps as a human rights activist?

I have personally talked to the law minister. He clearly told me that a committee has been formed to review the Digital Security Act. He also said that he will look into whether the act is not misused against journalists and will take steps to stop misuse. But in fact I see nothing of that.

You were in journalism too. Do you think the challenges of journalism have increased in comparison to your time?

Journalism is a risky profession. When we did journalism, there were challenges at that time. But that was not as dangerous as it is now. There were no so many cases and attacks.  If anybody was discontent over the publication of a report, they would send rejoinder. It was responsibility to publish that rejoinder. The statement of newspaper was also published the rejoinder. But that practice exists no more. The misuse of Digital Security Act is creating fear among the journalists and it is belittling the position of Bangladesh. If this situation continues, the journalism of Bangladesh and the position of Bangladesh will fall to a great extent.

*This interview, originally published in Prothom Alo online edition, has been rewritten in English by Rabiul Islam.