The number of arrest under the Digital Security Act has been on the rise. In the name of preventing rumour about the novel coronavirus, many youths have been detained and arrested under this act. With unjust and rising number of cases under this act, grew the demands to repeal the Act, writes Nahid Riyasad
FOR the large majority of the population, life was already mired with many uncertainties even before the pandemic COVID-19 hit our socio-economic world. The growing unemployment among the university graduates, rising number of terminations in apparel sector affecting workers in the sector were already a public concern. The outbreak of COVID-19 made the situation even more difficult for public at large.
People, with the first confirmed cases recorded in Bangladesh on March 8, encountered the outbreak with little to no information about the ways to prevent it. New ideas of health safety quickly entered people’s vocabulary with little understanding of how to practice these rules. Social distancing, self-isolation and institutional quarantined became the much talked about concerns. Returnee migrant workers, even workers who have returned from worst COVID-19 affected countries, were allowed to go home from the airport on the condition that they will maintain mandatory home quarantine.
In the absence of pharmaceutical intervention for the novel coronavirus, the World Health Organisation have recommended ‘lockdown’ a non-pharmaceutical intervention involving physical distancing and long-stay-at-home order for citizens, the government in Bangladesh declared a ‘general holiday’ to prevent the rapid spread of COVID-19. Meanwhile, the health authorities failed to ensure adequate testing facilities and hospital facilities for COVID positive patients. The sufferings of patients with symptoms began to appear in media. A student of the University of Dhaka died without treatment. Another young tailor in Narayanganj, died in his home district with COVID-19 like symptom as the local health facility refused to treat him in fear of further contagion. A nurse from Ibn Sina Hospital died without admission at the same hospital on June 14, after allegedly being refused on grounds of her not having a Covid-19 clearance certificate.
Gripped in real fear of contagion, and frustrated at the false assurance of the government, many citizens, including young students took to social media to talk about the government’s ineffective COVID-19 response plan. Citizen’s critique of the government is generally not unfounded at a time when allegation of corruption in relief distribution and health sector mismanagement are rife. The government, instead of engaging with the public in any constructive manner chose to muzzle their online voice with the controversial Digital Security Act.
According to Bangladesh Peace Observatory, a project by Dhaka University’s Centre for Genocide Studies, at least 142 people, including journalists, have been arrested or detained since March for reporting, spreading ‘misinformed’ news, or their social media activity. This excludes people who have been penalised within their workplaces for their expression or whose cases under the Digital Security Act were not reported in the media. Article-19, an international organization advocating media freedom and free speech said that 60 cases were filed under this law in 2020 and at least 100 people were sued for their opinion on social media platforms.
Most recent victim of government’s attempt at restraining free speech is a ninth grader in Mymensingh, for allegedly defaming the prime minister on Facebook and sent him to the Gazipur juvenile correction entre. The case was filed by a local Bangladesh Awami League leader. In most such cases, the plaintiff is a local ruling party leader.
On June 14, a Begum Rokeya University teacher was arrested pertaining to a case filed under the same Act for her comment in Facebook over the death of Awami league leader and former health and home minister Mohammad Nasim. The investigation officer of the police told media that her comment had angered local Awami League and Bangladesh Chhatra League leaders and activists.
This is precisely why, citizen’s groups, as well as Editor’s Council, from have opposed the enactment of the Act because it created legal scope for power quarters to suppress free speech. On numbers of occasions, over the past two years, they have alleged that the Act has been used as a weapon to suppress dissenting voice than to ensure digital security. Even a cursory inspection at a few recent arrests will indicate that they are not wrong in their claim,
On May 3, three journalists in Narsingdi ended in jail after they ran a report on the death of a local auto-rickshaw driver. The 50-year old deceased was accosted by the police for breaking lockdown rules on April 29.
On May 5, two journalists in Sunamganj and Cox’s Bazar were shown arrested hours after they were picked up from their homes in connection with two cases filed under the act. The Sunamganj journalist was arrested for his comments on Facebook against a local lawmaker.
On May 6, at least 11 people including writers, cartoonists and journalists were charged under the act by the Rapid Action Battalion. Two journalists in Barguna were arrested under the Digital Security Act.
Rajshahi University’s computer science and engineering department associate professor Kazi Zahidur Rahman was arrested from his university quarter at the wee hours of 2:00am. This suggests that the timing of the ‘operation’ is only to intimidate others who are thinking to talk about the government on social media.
Begum Rokeya University authorities suspended its Bangla department teacher Sirajam Munira who was arrested pertaining to a case filed under the Digital Security Act against her.
University students were not spared either in the suing-spree. On June 15, the authorities of Shahjalal University of Science and Technology filed a case accusing Mahir Chowdhury, a final year student of the economics department of the university, for an alleged derogatory post on Facebook about Nasim after his death. Later on June 25, on the face of protests from the students, the authorities decided to withdraw the case.
The demand for repealing the act is growing louder by the day. On June 22, the Public University Teachers Network at different universities held human chain demanding immediate release of all student, artist, teacher and general citizens arrested under this act and strongly urged the government to repeal the act. On the same day,
hundreds of citizens who value freedom of speech showed solidarity online and off-line across the country. Social media platforms were swarmed with photos and videos of people staging protests against the oppressive law with placards saying, ‘Scrap the Digital Security Act’.
The government, as many activists have said, may have forgotten that we are still a democracy and it is the diversity of opinion that makes a democracy effective. A law, such as the Digital Security Act, that created room for political abuse of legal system to muzzle dissent, is hurting our democracy, even more so in the time of a pandemic.
Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth team.
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