Case Against 11 Under dsa: Charges appear to be puzzling
The charges under Digital Security Act brought against 11 people, including two journalists, on May 6 are broadly described as "knowingly posting rumours against the Father of the Nation, the Liberation War and the coronavirus pandemic to negatively affect the nation's image and to create confusion among the public through social media and to cause the law and order situation to deteriorate."
But what does this even mean?
They were charged under four sections of the law -- Section 21, Section 25(1) (b), Section 31 and Section 35.
Section 21 of the law prosecutes anyone who runs propaganda or campaign, "against the Liberation War of Bangladesh, the cognition of the Liberation War, Father of the Nation, National Anthem or National Flag".
The offence described in Section 25(1) (b) is "tarnishing the image of the nation or spread confusions" while Section 31 refers to contents that "create hostility, hatred or adversity among people or destroy any communal harmony or create unrest or disorder or deteriorates or threatens to deteriorate law and order."
Finally, Section 35 prosecutes anyone "aiding" in the above-mentioned offences.
An analysis of the social media links included as evidence by Rab in the First Information Report (FIR) may leave one puzzled as to the vague nature of the charges.
Six of the accused -- Ahmed Kishore, Mushtaq Ahmed, Saer Zulkarnain, Ashik Imran, Shapan Wahed and Philip Schuhmacher -- were named in the FIR for being the administrators of a Facebook page called "I am Bangladeshi".
The FIR provides the links of 10 social media posts in total, as evidence.
It mentioned a post from the Facebook page stating that it was spreading rumours. The post, uploaded on April 27, read: "So, when and where will the Iftar Mahfil of Mujib Borsho be held?"
This correspondent asked an administrator of the page what the post meant. "It is just mocking the fact that they can't organise iftar parties due to the coronavirus and that it must be painful for some of the party activists," said the admin, requesting anonymity for fear of reprisal.
The post drew 50 laugh reacts from its audience and two comments, both of which made it look like a joke as it was intended to be. The post was not shared by any social media user.
The FIR mentioned three posts uploaded from Kishore's Facebook profile "Ami Kishore", as evidence of "drawing anti-government cartoons of different ruling party leaders to spread rumours and create confusion".
The first post contains two cartoons drawn by Ahmed Kishore. The cartoons are from a series "Life in the time of Corona", where Kishore satirised the government's tackling of the coronavirus situation.
The first cartoon is about the coronavirus testing kit developed by Gonoshasthaya Kendra. It shows the organisation's founder Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury as a freedom fighter and parliamentarian Salman F Rahman riding a coronvavirus-shaped satellite. The caption reads, "Gono-Zafar, we have already overcome even the coronavirus of the sky, and you are still sitting around with the one on the ground."
The second photo shows writer Zafar Iqbal attempting to remember who missing photojournalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol is. The cartoon appears to be a satirical comment on the media and society's short-term focus on specific issues of human rights violations.
Kajol would be found later, only to be sent to jail.
The post got 527 "reactions", 26 comments and was shared 457 times, at the time this report was filed. Most of this interaction, however, happened after Kishore was arrested, when his cartoons went viral on social media."
The third link included in the FIR shows Kishore shared a post of another person, claiming that VIPs were getting a separate Covid-19 hospital, but Kishore did not add any comment himself. The post received a paltry 21 "reactions".
This information had already been published by many reputed news organisations, following which the government addressed the public and said this was not true. However, to date, none of the publications carrying the report was charged under the DSA, but Kishore, who shared the news, was.
The fourth link included in the FIR as evidence was not even from this profile. It was posted by a blogger who was not named in the case and Kishore seemingly had no interaction with him.
The evidence presented against writer Mushtaq Ahmed also includes links of two posts. In the first post, he shared a news article uploaded by a prominent Bangla daily on an interview of the health minister where he said that if a garment worker got affected by coronavirus, the factory would be kept closed for a few days.
Mushtaq shared it with a comment saying only saints would not feel angry reading such a news report.
The second link shows he uploaded a post saying coronavirus is not a venereal disease and therefore should not cause any deterioration in social respect. He said a lawmaker has been tested positive, but since the name is not being disclosed, how will general public have the courage to speak up if they get affected? He also added a news link from a newspaper as reference.
In addition to the links provided in the FIR, it also generically stated that Mushtaq Ahmed posted "anti-government" posts from his Facebook profile.
But most of what he posted from his profile was re-shares of different news links and posts of others, as it appeared from a preliminary glance at the profile.
The administrator of the "I am Bangladeshi" page defended their peers saying, "We grew up believing our great leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was always vocal against oppression. We exercised the same. We stand for what is right and deny all wrongdoings. We expressed our concern through cartoons and added some humour to some of our posts. But it seems this has become hard for the regime to accept."
Three posts by Swedish-Bangladeshi journalist Tasneem Khalil are mentioned in the FIR as "spreading rumours and falsehoods about law enforcement agencies" in addition to the charges mentioned above. The Rab found he communicated with the others through WhatsApp and Messenger applications.
The first post, posted on the historic Mujibnagar Day on April 17, points out the executive roles of Tajuddin Ahmed and Syed Nazrul Islam in the Liberation War, and that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was forced to give leadership from inside a prison, having been deprived of being on the ground. It got a thousand likes, and three comments and was shared 18 times.
In the second post, he too shared a news link carrying the news that VIPs would get special coronavirus hospitals if infected. The link was shared with a caption stating "Will your parents get space in these hospitals? I know mine won't. And yet you are responsible for this ugly system". He did not specify who he was addressing to. The caption also included a profanity targeting the unspecified "You". The post received around 366 "reactions", three comments, and the news link was re-shared 42 times.
The third linked included in the FIR shows he shared without any comment a link of a news item on leaked UN papers claiming many Bangladeshis may die contracting coronavirus.
Neither of the organisations was prosecuted but Khalil was for sharing the links on Facebook.
Speaking on the issue, Supreme Court lawyer Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua said, "Criticism of government is not sedition. A citizen has every right to say or write anything critical about the government and it's logical too. But in our country, we have messed up between the government and the state.
"When a government is formed with the mandate of the people, citizens have the right to criticise and make the government accountable," Jyotirmoy said.
He also said the Digital Security Act is itself draconian as it contradicts with people's fundamental right to freedom of expression.
While blogger Asif Mohiuddin, journalist Shahed Alam, activist of civic political organisation Rashtrochinta Didarul Bhuiyan and Dhaka Stock Exchange Director Minhaj Mannan Emon were also charged for "anti-government" communication with the ones mentioned above, the FIR does not specify the content of the communication.
"It is a legal error to put all the accused in the same case. If there is any specific allegation against someone, the case should be filed separately. Now for one, other 10 may suffer," said Jyotirmoy.
"They live in different places, different countries, have different opinions and Facebook posts. In terms of common intention, it is not like that they all came up with the same post on the same topic," he added.
Talking to The Daily Star from Germany, Asif Mohiuddin, said, "Democracy has no meaning without freedom of speech. The future generations of this country will have to suffer the consequences of this."
He demanded that those arrested for expressing their thoughts be released.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch decried the case in a statement released yesterday.
"It is vital for the Bangladesh government to recognise that freedom of speech is key in the battle against Covid-19. The government should stop harassing journalists, activists, doctors, and nurses for voicing concern and instead address the urgent need for aid, transparency, and resources that have them raising the alarm in the first place," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
The case was filed by Rab-3 with Ramna Police Station on May 6. Four of the accused -- Kishore, Mushtaq, Minhaj and Didar -- are in jail.