Bangladesh: Increase in charges under DSA as government seeks to silence criticism

ARTICLE 19 expresses grave concern at the recent spate of charges and arrests under the Digital Security Act (DSA) 2018 for comments on social media. The increasing use of the Act has further spotlighted the crisis in the government’s capacity, efficiency, and management in tackling the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with the arrest of a 15-year-old boy, university teachers and students, writers, journalists and a cartoonist. ARTICLE 19 condemns these arrests and calls on the relevant authorities to release those arrested under the DSA immediately and unconditionally and to withdraw the absurd charges under the law.

Faruq Faisel, Regional Director for ARTICLE 19, Bangladesh and South Asia, said: “The government has failed to control the transmission of coronavirus since the outset of the pandemic. Instead, however, of focusing on addressing incoherence and mismanagement in the face of the crisis, it has opted for a policy of suppressing dissent and criticism. The fact that a teenager has been arrested for criticizing the government’s actions on Facebook speaks to its absurd and misguided efforts to lash out against critics instead of tackling its own incompetence.”

On 20 June, a ninth-grade student was sent to a juvenile correction center after being arrested under the DSA at Bhaluka in Mymensingh, for allegedly insulting the Prime Minister on Facebook following the decision to impose an additional tax on using mobile phones. Law enforcement have been particularly active in arresting defendants under the DSA compared to cases filed under other laws. Recently, two university teachers in Rangpur and Rajshahi were arrested at midnight immediately after the respective cases were filed, after they posted criticism of the previous health minister and his impact on the country’s health system, saying this was leaving coronavirus patients with insufficient care. In contrast, the accused in serious cases like attempted murder and corruption have been able to flee the country on well-arranged chartered flights with no attempts at prevention by police. This trend in enforcement of the law against critics instead of criminals has become a major threat to democracy and the rule of law in Bangladesh.

In 2018, ARTICLE 19 recorded a total of 71 cases filed against practitioners of freedom of expression including journalists under the then section 57 of the ICT act and then newly enacted DSA which came into effect in October of the year. In 2019, the number of recorded cases initiated under DSA was 63. However, in the first six months of this year, 113 cases have been recorded of this kind. A total of 208 people have been accused in these cases due to mere expression of opinion, of whom 53 are journalists. Of the accused, 114 were arrested immediately, most of whom are still awaiting bail.

ARTICLE 19 has repeatedly called on the government to review the DSA and repeal provisions incompatible with international human rights law. In its current form, the Act criminalises a wide range of speech and gives the government sweeping blocking powers. Its continued use against those simply expressing their views online threatens freedom of expression and democracy in Bangladesh.

Currently, many prisoners are being released on bail to prevent the spread of coronavirus in prisons. In the last 30 days, about 45,000 people accused in various cases were granted bail in the virtual courts. However, defendants in DSA cases are constantly facing obstacles in their bail processes. Shafiqul Islam Kajol, editor of Pokhsokal magazine and a photojournalist, had his bail application rejected eight times so far. Not only are those facing charges under the repressive law being punished for simply exercising their right to free expression, their health is also being put at significant risk by efforts to keep them in prison during the pandemic, when they pose no threat.

ARTICLE 19 calls for the immediate and unconditional release of the all those charged under the DSA, including Kajol, and at the very least their release on bail to protect their health. We urge the government to focus its efforts on protecting the public from the threat posed by coronavirus, not protecting itself from online critics. The DSA must immediately be reviewed and brought into line with international standards on freedom of expression.