The Sampadak Parishad (Editors' Council) yesterday issued a statement condemning the recent spate of cases and arrests of editors, journalists, writers, university teachers under the Digital Security Act (DSA) for expressing critical views about mismanagement in dealing with Covid-19.
"In the last few months, close to 40 journalists have been charged under the Digital Security Act (DSA) out of whom 37 have been arrested. These arrests have created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation making normal journalistic work extremely risky if not nearly impossible," said the statement.
The statement, undersigned by Sampadak Parishad President Mahfuz Anam, and Secretary General Naem Nizam, expressed grave concern about the increasing instances of police action against the media professionals.
"This attack on journalists and the media is occurring when Bangladesh, in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, needs reliable and independent media the most to protect itself from fake news and panic generated by misinformation," noted the statement. "An attack on the media at this time is to endanger our possibility of stable recovery."
It observed that DSA is the most frequently used law even though other time-tested laws to dispense justice exist, simply because under DSA, the police can arrest on suspicion and without warrant, and because 14 out of its 20 provisions are non-bailable which ensures the person arrested remains in jail.
"As such whenever a case is lodged, the police promptly arrests and when an accused is brought before a magistrate he or she is almost automatically sent to jail," pointed out the press release.
The Parishad observed that the most common reasons for arrests under DSA are criticising local administration, spreading rumours, covering protests, making defamatory remarks, harming religious harmony, writing false news, and said, "These reasons for arrest are by definition vague and subject to wide and arbitrary interpretation."
"The Parishad feel that the DSA has become a plaything in the hands of a vested quarter who use this anti-press and anti-freedom of expression law whimsically and at will to harass and intimidate journalists and to prevent them from exposing corruption and misuse of funds that the government is presently allocating for the people, especially the poor."
Statistics show that more journalists, teachers, and intellectuals have been arrested under DSA than cyber criminals, especially in the last six months, said the Parishad.
"From the outset Sampadak Parishad opposed this law as we knew of its evil consequences on free media and freedom of speech. At that time the law minister assured the media that DSA was enacted only to prevent cyber-crime and will never be used to curtain freedom of the press," it added.
"Given our original objection and the experience of the last two and half years we are more convinced than ever that DSA must be scrapped if freedom of speech and freedom of the press is to have any meaning," said the statement.
The Parishad urged the parliament to take expeditious steps to remove this anti-freedom law from the country's statutes.
It also demanded the immediate release of all journalists arrested under DSA and withdrawal of the cases against them, and furthermore, called for measures against those who have blatantly misused this law for personal gains.