It’s now a gag on the media, free speech
Legal experts and rights activists have expressed grave concern over continuous filing of cases and subsequent arrests of journalists under the Digital Security Act, saying that the law was formulated and now being enforced to "gag the media and freedom of expression".
They demanded that the government immediately amend the act by repealing the relevant sections.
A total of 60 cases have been filed against more than 100 people, including 22 journalists, under the act between January 1 and May 6 this year, according to a study by Article 19, a UK-based human rights body.
The study added that 63 cases were filed under this law across the country in 2019 and 34 cases were filed in 2018.
Faruq Faisel, regional director of Article 19, said the Digital Security Act was formulated in 2018 repealing the controversial Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act in order to prevent cybercrimes and to protect the security of the state and government.
But all the sections of the controversial ICT Act that were exercised against journalists have now been included in the Digital Security Act, he told The Daily Star.
He also said due to cases and subsequent arrests of the newsmen under the act, freedom of expression and free flow of information are being hampered, depriving people of accurate and complete information, especially about the coronavirus situation.
When contacted, Law Minister Anisul Huq told this newspaper that there is no scope to review the Digital Security Act.
"Due process will be followed in the investigation into each and every case filed under the Digital Security Act. If any accused is found innocent in the investigation, the investigation officer will submit the final report exempting the accused from the case," the law minister said, without going into further detail.
Eminent jurist and rights activist Dr Shahdeen Malik said there was a strong apprehension that the act would be misused against journalists and civil society members critical of the government.
"Partly due to their own weaknesses and mostly as a result of the government's oppression, the opposition political parties were no longer a threat to the government. In this backdrop, it was clear that the Digital Security Act would be used against the fourth estate," he told The Daily Star.
He said that the apprehension that the law would be misused is growing deeper with every case filed and every journalist arrested under the act.
"These cases and arrests are shrinking and reducing our freedom of expression and the [freedom of the] press. This lack of freedom is clearly substantiated by our very poor ranking  in the list of countries prepared by the Reporters without Frontiers," he said. "The criminalisation of freedom of expression cannot coexist with the freedom of expression and the press. Therefore, the relevant sections of this act have to be repealed."
Advocate Manzill Murshid, president of Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh, told this newspaper that it is apparent that the act is being enforced mostly against journalists.
Murshid, who has moved more than 300 cases as public interest litigations, said most of the cases have been filed against journalists for expressing opinions against and criticising the government.
He said a few sections of the Digital Security Act have been challenged before the High Court and the court has issued a rule questioning the constitutionality of the sections.
If the government does not stop misuse of the law, the High Court may scrap the sections of the law after final hearing of the rule, he said.
Advocate Khurshid Alam Khan, a Supreme Court lawyer and editor of Dhaka Law Reports, said a sense of panic is prevailing among journalists.
In most events, ministers or other members of parliament who are aggrieved themselves do not file the cases but make their agents do it under the DSA and therefore the cases may not sustain through the trial proceedings, he said.
The lawyer said journalists are being victimised by the filing of cases against them under this law.
The government should modify the act after soliciting opinions from legal experts and journalists, advocate Khurshid said.
He also said the state machineries should be cautious in recording cases against journalists before modifying the law.
HC RULE AGAINST THE DIGITAL SECURITY ACT
On February 24 this year, the High Court issued a rule asking the government to explain within four weeks why sections 25 and 31 of the Digital Security Act should not be declared unconstitutional.
Section 25 criminalises anyone who uses a website or digital device for the deliberate distribution of information "that is attacking or intimidating in nature", or false information intended to "irritate, humiliate, defame, embarrass or discredit a person" or publishing of material that defames the state or publishing of "fully or partially distorted information or data despite knowing that it is false".
Section 31 criminalises any publication or broadcast of material that creates enmity, disrupts communal harmony or causes a deterioration in the law and order situation.
The court came up with the ruling following a writ petition jointly filed on January 19 by nine people, who said the two sections imposed a blanket prohibition on publication of materials and thus violate the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under article 39 of the constitution.
They added that the sections conferred arbitrary and uncontrolled powers upon the executive and the prosecuting authorities to determine whether a particular act satisfies the vague and unspecified ingredients of offence.
The government is yet to reply to the rule and the High Court is yet to start hearing of the rule, advocate Shishir Manir, a lawyer for the writ petitioners, told The Daily Star yesterday. He added that they will take initiatives for the hearing once the courts reopen after the ongoing closure due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The DSA was passed on September 19, 2018 in parliament. The journalist community has since been protesting it and demanding that several sections be amended to safeguard freedom of the press.
Several ministers and top brass of the government -- including Law Minister Anisul Huq -- assured journalists on different occasions that the loopholes and vagueness would be removed.
That, however, is yet to happen.