Why should cases continue under a repealed law?

I recently went to Kuakata in Patuakhali to join a workshop for journalists related to the election. Around 25 or 26 journalists of Greater Barishal attended. Talking to the journalists, I learnt that certain local leaders of the ruling party had filed cases under the Digital Security Act (DSA) against at least two of them, in an attempt to stifle their voices. Another journalist friend there said he too had faced the DSA, but the case was later dismissed.

If three journalists out of the 25 or 26 were faced with cases under DSA, it is not difficult to discern the state of the rest of the country. On 25 March Prothom Alo’s Savar correspondent Samsuzzaman had quoted a day labourer in his report. Based on a photo card made from that report, he was picked up from his home by persons claiming to be from CID and then, 20 hours later, a case was brought against him under the DSA. He is now on bail. A case was filed against Prothom Alo editor Matiur Rahman under this act too.

In an interview with Prothom Alo, a lawyer said that when the government tries to defend itself by saying that the Digital Security Act has been abused, that is wrong. The very use of this law is an abuse.

I want to categorically state that not a single one of our suggestions was accepted
Mahfuz Anam, editor, The Daily Star

The government has declared that the Digital Security Act is being cancelled and the Cyber Security Act will take its place. The draft of this law has already been finalised at the cabinet meeting. Stakeholders in the media had asked that their views be taken into cognizance before the law was passed. The law minister said that once the bill was placed in parliament, the stakeholders would get a change to discuss the matter at the parliamentary committee meeting.

The Daily Star editor Mahfuz Anam on Friday, writing about the Digital Security Act experience, said, “I want to categorically state that not a single one of our suggestions was accepted. In fact, on the day the bill was tabled in the House, we saw a more stringent version of it – giving police greater power – than the one we were shown during discussions.” (‘DSA to CSA, a sham of a reform’, Daily Star, 1 September 2023).

Within a few days it will be made clear as to whether the government will this time, too, pass the Cyber Security Act just as it is on the website or take the stakeholders’ recommendations into cognizance and give it a ‘democratic’ shape’.

The government may say that at least 10 sections of the proposed law, which were non-bailable in the previous law, have been made bailable. They may further say, the sentences have been reduced in several sections too. In 29 sections only fine has been retained instead of prison sentence (the fine being Tk 25 lakh, or prison sentence if failure to pay).

This will not assuage the public concern and alarm. There is no difference between the character of the two laws. While the law was ostensibly enacted to control crime in the digital media, it was actually formulated to silence dissent, to scare the media stakeholders. The offences mentioned in the law are not specified. The spirit of the liberation was does not mean one and the same thing to everyone. Those in power talk about the rule of law, but have retained Islam as the state religion. Anyone may differ from this.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had called for two sections (21 and 28) of the Digital Security Act to be repealed. But the proposed law has kept the content intact. In Section 21, there is provision for sentence against any form of propaganda or publicity against the liberation war, the spirit of the liberation war, the father of the nation, the national anthem or the national flag.

The Editors Council had called for amendment of nine sections of the Digital Security Act (8, 21, 25, 28, 29, 31, 32, 43 and 53) as, they said, these would harm independent journalism and freedom of expression. The proposal law also has failed to clearly define the offences.

Meanwhile the law minister has informed us that the Digital Security Act would be nullified the moment that the Cyber Security Act is passed. Yet he has also said that even though the law will be nullified, the pending cases will continue under the old law. The problem is, 90 per cent of the cases under the Digital Security Act are still pending. These cases were filed with the intention of scaring the political rivals and media stakeholders. And according to the statement of the law minister, the curbing of sentences in the new law as well as making non-bailable cases bailable, will not apply to these accused persons. Why will they be tried under a law that has been declared void?

Under the Digital Security Act, a complaint must be filed within 90 days. Yet the investigating officer cannot complete investigations in over a few years even. They should be tried too. And those who languish without trial month after month in prison, must be compensated.

Article 19, which works on rights to information and expression, says that 40 per cent of all the cases under the Digital Security Act in 2021 have been filed for criticising the prime minister, ministers and leaders and activists of various levels in the ruling party. Other than for criticising the prime minister and ministers, cases under the DSA have also been filed for criticising leaders of Awami League affiliated organisations such as Jubo League, Chhatra League, Swechchhashebok League and so on.

We can still here Khadija’s mother pleading, “Will my daughter not be released from jail?”

A total of 19 organisations including Amnesty International, Article 19, Asian Human Rights Commission, Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters Without Borders, have sent a letter to the prime minister asking for all cases filed under the DSA to be withdrawn.

The appeal is justified. We also believe that no cases can be continued under the law which has been repealed in face of criticism at home and abroad. The organisations also demanded that the repressive sections of the new law be dropped and that people’s right to freedom of expression, personal secrecy, civil rights, a free press and human rights must be ensured.

As I write this column, the despondent face of the Jagannath University student Khadijatul Kubra floats before us. She has been in jail for over a year. She hasn’t been able to attend classes or take any exams this year. She did not commit any such offence against the state for which she has to stay month after month in jail. After the trial court rejected her bail appeal twice, she approached the High Court and was granted bail. But the Appellate Division stayed the bail and set the hearing date back by four months.

As I write about this law, the faces of journalist Shafiqul Islam alias Kajol, cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishorj, Prothom Alo’s journalist Samsuzzaman appear before our eyes. What terrifying experiences they had to go through.

We can still here Khadija’s mother pleading, “Will my daughter not be released from jail?”

* Sohrab Hassan is joint editor of Prothom Alo and a poet. He may be reached at [email protected]

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