Expressing deep concern over the recent arrests and intimidation of journalists and citizens across the country, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) said the constitutional right to information and expression is under threat in the name of digital security.
In a press statement yesterday, TIB demanded immediate and unconditional release of the detained journalists, teachers, writers, cartoonists and others, and stopping such undemocratic harassment in order to protect the constitutional right to free expression. They also demanded avoiding the path of arbitrariness.
It expressed deep concern over the recent attacks, lawsuits, and threats against various classes and professions across the country, especially writers and journalists, due to sharing various irregularities through news, cartoons, photographs or social media content.
"Such arbitrariness must be prevented from being normalised," the statement added.
According to media reports, journalists, teachers, writers and cartoonists across the country have been accused in cases for collecting or publishing news on various issues, especially on the irregularities in relief distribution and in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic.
TIB Executive Director Dr Iftekharuzzaman said that in most of the cases, the charges are so-called "spreading rumours", "spreading false information", "criticising the government", "tarnishing image", "threatening to kill", "defamation" etc. on the news and social media. Such cases are undermining the citizens' freedom of speech and expression.
"Unconstitutionally, many have been tortured and sent to prison in unjust cases, which are not only a threat to free speech, but is also normalising arbitrariness in the country," said the TIB official.
He added that the authorities concerned should respond to the criticism of their work, and control the alleged irregularities and corruption with due importance given to published information.
"Do not walk the path of [taking] undemocratic and arbitrary [measures] by controlling the flow of information or suppressing dissent. We demand the immediate withdrawal of such motivated and preventive cases and the release of those unjustly arrested," Zaman said.
TIB also demanded exemplary punishment of those involved in the alleged corruption by bringing them under the purview of the law and conducting thorough investigations in this regard.
He said instead of solving the mystery of journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajal's disappearance, authorities were busy arresting him in an apparently fabricated case of illegal entry into his own country.
"Such behaviour in the face of various disclosures or criticisms of corruption and irregularities is on the one hand contradictory to the prime minister's declaration of 'zero tolerance' against corruption and, on the other, against the constitutional right to free expression."
In particular, where prosecuting a citizen on charges of independent expression or publishing news is preventive, the harassment of detainees in such cases is the ultimate violation of civil rights, the TIB Executive Director said, citing the inhuman harassment of Kajal.
Criticising the arrests of different individuals in over 50 cases under the Digital Security Act this year, Zaman said, "The state should have created an environment in which the media could publish information in an independent, impartial and objective manner. Because if there is a deficit in the normal flow of information, [further] rumours and mistrust will develop, he said.
TIB said it considers the process of arresting and torturing journalists and other citizens in these cases to be tantamount to institutionalising arbitrariness by violating commitment to the rule of law in a democratic country.