Abuse of DSA worries editors | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 07, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 03:44 AM, March 07, 2021

Abuse of DSA worries editors

Journalists and free speech advocates are constantly being harassed and tortured by the execution of the Digital Security Act, Sampadak Parishad (Editors' Council) said in a statement yesterday.

The parishad said the controversial act must be amended immediately.

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"We have feared such when the act was being formulated. It is no exaggeration to say that in some cases the implementation of the Digital Security Act is more concerning than what we feared," said the statement. 

"Mushtaq Ahmed, a free-spirited writer, had to prove it with his life. We thank the honourable court for granting bail to cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore. But the way journalists and writers are subjected to cruelty after their arrest under the Digital Security Act is unexpected. 

"It's needed to be mentioned here that journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol had been missing and then was in jail for a long time just for sharing an article on social media. Although he was granted bail, cases against him are ongoing. Kajol, who is financially, physically and mentally disadvantaged, has to deal with the case." 

According to Article 19, a UK-based media watchdog, 456 people were prosecuted and arrested in 198 cases under the DSA last year. Of them, 65 are journalists of whom 32 are now facing trial.

Against the backdrop, Law Minister Anisul Huq, in a recent interview with BBC Bangla, said the law would be reviewed. He said steps would be taken so that none can be arrested before the end of investigation in a case under the Act. 

"Initially, we welcome this statement from our law minister. We demand that steps must be taken immediately to make the statement of the law minister legally effective. We demand necessary ordinance or legal initiative in this regard immediately," the parishad said in the statement.

During and after the formulation process of the law -- from the draft to its cabinet approval, placing before parliament to the president's approval -- different journalists associations, political parties, the Editors' Council, different local and foreign bodies voiced concern over several sections of the law. 

"On behalf of the government, several ministers and members of the parliamentary standing committee sat with us and heard our points of concern. But our demands were ignored. Even the speech of the minister concerned while he was placing the bill in parliament and the opinion of the media representatives placed before the standing committee was not taken into consideration," said the statement.

The representative of the media pinpointed the questionable sections of the law and recommended their amendment. Had those recommendations were taken into consideration, today's situation might not have arisen, it said.

The Editors' Council on September 29, 2018, had given a detail explanation as to why it was concerned over the act. 

In the explanation, the Editors' Council expressed concern over 9 sections (8, 21, 25, 28, 29, 31, 32, 43 and 53) of the act.

In trying to make a law prevent crimes through digital devices and provide security in the digital sphere, the act ends up policing media operations and controlling the media contents.  Sections 8, 21, 25, 28, 29, 31 and 32 are contradictory to freedom of the press, guaranteed by the constitution, it said.

These sections will create a scope for controlling people's freedom of speech and expression. For example, section-8 says the law enforcers can request the BTRC to remove information or block it if it deems any information that are published or circulated in digital media undermining unity of the country or part of it, economic activities, security, defence, religious sentiments, or public rules and order, or creates hatred, hostility towards any ethnicity. 

Section-21 says that if any person, through digital media, spreads propaganda or assist it against Liberation War, Spirit of the Liberation War, Father of the Nation, National Anthem, and National Flag, such action will be considered a crime.

Section-25 says if any person using a website or any digital device deliberately or knowingly spreads any information or data that is attacking or intimidating in nature; or if a person publishes or distributes any information, despite knowing that it is false, to irritate, humiliate, defame or embarrass or to discredit a person, or damages the image and reputation of the state or spreads confusion or with the same purpose publishes or distributes fully or partially distorted information or data despite knowing that it is false, and if any one assists in such actions, then all such actions of the individual will be considered a crime.

Section-28 states that if a person or group with the intention of hurting or inciting religious values or sentiments intentionally or knowingly publishes or promotes something on a website or in any other electronic format, which hurts religious feelings or religious values, then this act of that person will be a crime.

Section-31 states that if a person intentionally publishes or broadcasts something on a website or digital format that causes hostility, hatred or animosity between the various classes or communities concerned or destroys communal harmony or causes instability or disorder or deterioration of law and order or if it happens or is about to happen, then it will be a crime.

Section-32 states that if a person commits or assists in committing any crime under the Official Secrets Act through computer, digital device, computer network, digital network or any other digital means, the person will then be sentenced to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 14 years or a fine not exceeding Tk 25 lakh or both.

The statement also said the DSA will create an atmosphere of panic and intimidation where journalism, especially investigative journalism, will become virtually impossible.

This law will create fear among all the users, including media workers, who uses computers and computer networks.

Section-43 of the act gives the police unlimited powers in terms of entering homes to search them, search offices, search people's bodies and seize everything related to computers, computer networks, servers and digital platforms. The police will be able to arrest any person without a warrant under the powers given by the law. In this case, there is no need to get any kind of approval from any police authorities.

The statement adds that there is ambiguity in this law and many words have been used which can be misinterpreted and easily used against the media.

Another concern of the Sampadak Parishad is that out of about 20 sections of the law relating to crime and punishment, 14 are non-bailable, five are bailable and one is negotiable. This has inevitably created an atmosphere of fear, where the normal practice of journalism has become even more risky.

Those who commit criminal acts on digital platforms must be brought to justice. However, the law needs to be amended immediately to ensure that it is not applied against the media and free-spirited writers, the statement added.

"We demand that all the cases filed against journalists under the Digital Security Act [are withdrawn], all journalists and free-spirited writers who have been arrested and imprisoned under the act be released immediately. We expect the government's due diligence in considering this issue."

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