DSA: A law used to ‘muzzle dissent’

28 February 2021

Arifur Rahman Rabbi :
Over 2000 cases have been filed under the Digital Security Act (DSA) since it was enacted by the ruling Awami League government in 2018.
In most cases, journalists, writers, cartoonists, teachers, doctors and free thinkers have been booked under the law, which critics say is used to 'muzzle dissent.'     
Writer Mustaq Ahmed death in jail on Thursday, months after his arrest under the DSA, sparked protest and outcry from rights groups and eminent citizens who asked for the immediate scrapping of the DSA and demanded punishment for the people involved in formulating the law.
Mustaq Ahmed among four people detained May last year after he criticised the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
The 53-year-old, a crocodile farmer who became a well-known government critic, was charged with spreading rumours and conducting "anti-state activities" on Facebook.
"It is a matter of grave concern that many free thinkers and journalists continue to book under growing number of DSA cases only for criticizing government," Gonoshasthaya Kendra Trustee Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury told The New Nation.
He said the civil society from the very outset have voiced fears that the DSA would be misused to obstruct freedom of expression and suppress divergent views. Now, it becomes a reality and the law has been mostly applied against free thinkers, journalists and critics of the government.  "DSA is a 'black law' and it cannot exist in a democratic country. It is time for burial of DSA and there must be actions against people who were involved in formulating the law," added Dr Zafrullah.
Concerned people say the number of cases under the DSA is creasing day by day, as it has become a tool of curbing freedom of speech of the media, the people and free thinkers.
Most DSA cases have been filed against people accusing them of 'tarnishing the image' of the government and or 'anti-state' activities.
The cases under the previous ICT Act and the present Digital Security Act are being tried at the Dhaka Cyber Tribunal. Till September last year, there have been 2,682 cases at this court. Over half of these were filed under Section 57 of the ICT Act.
According to UK-based human rights organization ARTICLE 19, there were 198 cases under DSA in 2020, which were only 63 in 2019. That's means the number of cases tripled in 2020 compared to the preceding year 2019.
 In the case filed in 2020, 456 people have been charged. Of which 75 are journalists. The number of cases against them is 41 and 32 journalists have been arrested.
Law enforcement agencies, government officials and ruling party leaders in Bangladesh filed 80 per cent of all Digital Security Act (DSA) cases in 2020, according to Article 19.
Out of 145 DSA cases filed between January and September last year, 69 were filed by leaders and office holders of the ruling party, 51 by police and the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), three by government officials, five by journalists, and 17 by others, as per Article 19 data.
Among the DSA cases filed last year, 99 cases were filed over defamation or criticism of the prime minister, MPs, or local administrators, 17 filed for hurting religious sentiment and 13 for spreading rumours about Covid-19.
The data shows a spike in cases in the first few months of the Covid-19 outbreak, with a drop-off from August 2020.
Over the last seven years, the Dhaka Cyber Tribunal has settled 990 cases. Over 450 of these were settled after the submission of the final report in the cases. In many cases, the accused were acquitted, as there was no substance to the cases.
According to records, the public prosecution could only prove allegations with due evidence in 25 cases. Of these, 24 were under the ICT Act and one under the DSA. "People feel insure and get panicked to express their views on social media platforms due to frequent use of controversial DSA law. Even a number of journalists have been charged or arrested under the law for social media posts critical of the government, raising concerns about free speech and journalism in the country," said Supreme Court Lawyer Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua.
He said writer Mushtaq Ahmed, who died in custody after nine months in jail on Thursday, was arrested for prosecution under the DSA act as he crtisized the government over handling the Covid-19 pandemic.
"I am in doubt over the validity of the DSA charges against writer Mushtaq Ahmed," said Barua, the lawyer of deceased Ahmed.
Condemning Ahmed's custodial death, Barua also demanded an 'independent investigation' to the incident.
Rights activists have expressed grave concern over the rising number of cases being filed against journalists and critics of the government. They say the DSA law is being used to "gag media and freedom of expression".
They also called for scrapping the controversial DSA as it was seriously curbing the rights to free thought, expression, right to information and press freedom.

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