Two human rights bodies have expressed concern over the escalation in the use of Digital Security Act, 2018 against the media, journalists and rights activists.
Amnesty International and Front Line Defenders issued separate statements yesterday criticising the government for intolerance towards human rights defenders and all those critical of its actions.
The statements were issued marking two years of the draconian law coming into force.
According to 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Bangladesh ranks 151 among 180 countries.
Quoting data of Cyber Crime Tribunal, Amnesty said nearly 2,000 cases have been filed under the DSA since its enactment on October 8, 2018.
More than 800 cases were filed in the first nine months of this year alone, with many of the country's most prominent editors and senior journalists being increasingly targeted, the rights watchdog said.
"Since its inception, the Digital Security Act has been wielded as a weapon to silence critics and suppress dissent. The Bangladeshi authorities have exploited the law's vague and broad provisions to escalate attacks on independent journalism and media freedom," said Sultan Mohammed Zakaria, South Asia researcher at Amnesty International.
"The recent crackdown and increased targeting of prominent journalists is clearly a cynical effort by the authorities to use the Covid-19 crisis as a cover to ramp up these efforts. Bangladesh must substantially reform the DSA and bring it into line with the country's constitution and its human rights obligations," he added.
The Amnesty statement said the DSA imposes multiple undue restrictions on the right to freedom of expression, including up to 10 years' imprisonment for "spreading propaganda" against Bangladesh's Liberation War, the national anthem and national flag using digital devices. Repeated offences carry the maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
The statement listed incidents of arrests and filing of cases under the DSA.
Zakaria said journalists were being targeted simply for reporting on stories critical of the authorities and holding the powerful to account. "The charges against them must be dropped and those detained must be released immediately and unconditionally."
In its statement, Front Line Defenders said the government passed the DSA despite intense criticism and condemnation from human rights defenders, students, civil society organisations and the international community for its overly broad and vague provisions, which lack legal certainty and precision.
The DSA gives the government absolute power to initiate investigations into anyone whose activities are considered a "threat" by giving law enforcement agencies power to arrest without warrant, simply on suspicion that a crime has been committed through the use of social media, said the rights body.
The law also allows the government to order the removal and blocking of any information or data on the internet it deems necessary, thereby providing broad scope to silence those critical of its policies or who share information on human rights violations in the country, the statement said.
The Act allows for invasive forms of surveillance by permitting authorities to ask service providers and other intermediaries for data without requiring a court-obtained warrant, it added.
Front Line Defenders said at a time when governments should be reducing the prison population to protect against the spread of Covid-19, the authorities in Bangladesh have been arresting people for their legitimate defence and exercise of human rights.
Didar Bhuiyan, a human rights defender, was arrested on May 5 after he shared a report on social media criticising the government's response to the pandemic.
The rights watchdog urged the government to ensure that its laws are sufficiently precise so as not to arbitrarily target human rights defenders or their work.