DSA amendment: A promise that rings hollow
Every time citizens and rights bodies demand that the Digital Security Act be repealed, the government buys time, saying reforms "are underway".
However, even after over a year since the government first spoke of making changes to the law to prevent rights abuses, the promised amendments seem to be stuck in a loop of prolonged assurances.
"Which part of the law would you not amend?" asked Irene Khan, the UN special rapporteur for freedom of expression, while speaking to The Daily Star.
"The recent use of the DSA against the Prothom Alo editor and journalist is an example of the appalling abuse of unlimited power that this law puts into the hands of the authorities. The government must withdraw the charges and abolish the law," she said, adding, "Keeping the law in the book will not solve the problem."
The government has routinely responded to these demands with a firm "no".
Even as recently as two weeks ago, both the information and law ministers reiterated in no uncertain terms that the law is here to stay.
Speaking at the Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry auditorium, Law Minister Anisul Huq again tried to placate the naysayers by saying "discussions are on" about amending the law.
Since the DSA was passed in 2018, concerns about its abuse had been vociferously voiced by journalists, editors and rights activists, but those were routinely stonewalled in response.
Even when the protests reached a fever pitch in March 2021, after writer Mushtaq Ahmed's death while he was incarcerated under the DSA, the government's conviction about the draconian law was steadfast.
The then UN human rights commissioner Michelle Bachelet, in a statement, said, "There needs to be a complete overhaul of the DSA".
At the same time, 13 prominent ambassadors had issued a statement questioning the DSA's "compatibility with Bangladesh's obligations under international human rights laws and standards".
In response, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen had said, "You [the media] should stop giving publicity to this sort of nuisance. This should be boycotted."
Discarding all concerns about the DSA, he used the words, "Death in jail is a common phenomenon in every country, even in the USA. The strange thing is that when someone dies in jail in Bangladesh, they [foreign envoys] create hype over it and the media in the country give that publicity."
The law minister had sternly told the media that there was no question of repealing the law – but he did also add that they were "mulling changes" so that people are not arrested right away.
After more than three years of turning a deaf ear to the calls made by rights activists, there was finally a change in tune in December 2021 when the Rapid Action Battalion was sanctioned by the United States.
For the first time, Law Minister Anisul Huq had stated that the law was being abused in certain cases, and that a six-member team has already been formed to work on addressing some of the discontent centring it.
He said this on December 30, 2021, at an event organised at the Jatiya Press Club by the Overseas Correspondent Association, Bangladesh (OCAB).
The team, he had said, comprises representatives from relevant ministries, including law, information and communication technology, and home, adding that it was formed a year ago, when the minister spoke to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
Anisul had further said the team is chaired by the secretary of the Legal and Parliamentary Division, and includes officials from the ministries of foreign affairs, home, the ICT Division, and the Law and Justice Division.
He had added that the team has been engaged with a similar one formed by the UN body to find whether enforcement of the DSA had led to any violations of human rights.
The minister had mentioned this committee again in February, while speaking at a seminar organised by International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law and Counterpart International in the capital's Pan Pacific Sonargaon Hotel.
"We have formed a committee, along with the OHCHR, composed of officers from the law ministry, foreign ministry, home ministry and ICT Division. The UN office has given some suggestions and the government is looking into those."
However, insiders within the relevant UN offices recently told The Daily Star that no such committee has been in touch with them in the two years since the minister has announced its formation.
Irene Khan said the same.
"My office has not been contacted; I have not been communicated with regard to forming any committee. I have been in direct communication with the government and I have had no response."
On the flipside, bodies and rights chiefs of the United Nations have at least four times called for the law to be abolished or fully overhauled.
The most recent was on March 31, when the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk called for an immediate suspension of the DSA until necessary amendments are made.
He said that his office had "provided detailed technical comments to assist with such a revision".
Türk had made a similar call a month ago, when he said his office has provided lengthy consultations on the law and now calls for it to be amended.
His predecessor Michelle Bachelet had also said that when she came to visit Bangladesh last year, her office too had given recommendations for repeal and revision of certain provisions of the act.
Last year, Special Rapporteur Irene Khan demanded the immediate repeal of the Digital Security Act in a report submitted to the 50th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
The law minister himself had meetings with the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva at least on three occasions since 2019 and had promised amendments.
The first meeting was as early as December 2019, as per the minister's own statement made during an event by the Bangladesh Secretariat Reporters Forum at its secretariat office in June last year.
The second meeting was with the human rights chief in Geneva last year in November. The minister exchanged views about the best international practices at both those meetings.
The third meeting was as recent as March 21, where Anisul Huq told Volker Türk that the government is committed to working closely with the OHCHR to amend the DSA.
Law Minister Anisul also said that the government is working with a delegation of the European Union on problematic sections of the law.
That is not all.
In the middle of last month, he also met a delegation of citizens, including Dr Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh; Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua; Professor CR Abrar and others, where the team explained for two hours why the law needs to go.
While the law minister presents these meetings as progress, the end is nowhere in sight.
Ministers continuously say they have instructed law enforcers to ensure that journalists are not "unnecessarily" harassed under this law.
The law minister had previously declared that journalists "cannot be arrested immediately" after a case has been filed.
Speaking at the OCAB press conference, he had said, "No journalist can be taken to jail as long as the investigation is not completed, even if there is an allegation under the Digital Security Act. If any case is filed against any journalist under the Digital Security Act, it will go to a cell of the ICT Act, 2006. The case will be accepted if the cell in its investigation finds any merit in the lawsuit."
That such assurances are all just talk can be seen from the fact that Prothom Alo's Savar correspondent Shamsuzzaman Shams was picked up from his home first, and then charged in a DSA case nearly 20 hours later.
Similarly, Naogaon's land officer Sultana Jasmine, albeit not a journalist, was arrested, injured in custody and was mere hours away from death, when a DSA case was lodged against her.
Even Anisul Huq himself said the law was misused here.
The damage, however, is already done, and Jasmine is dead.
Special Rapporteur Khan said that the ones implementing the law, such as law enforcers, need tight, clear instructions, which this law does not provide, leaving broad scopes for abuse.
For example, while the law does not codify the law minister's assurances that all arrests will be pre-vetted, it does allow the law enforcers to conduct arrests on the basis of "suspicion that a crime will occur" without any check and balance.
"This [the DSA] is an example of using the courts to chill freedom of expression. This is a measure to intimidate journalists into silence by bringing charges against them and then prolonging the case," said Khan.
This willful procrastination is costing Jagannath University student Khadijatul Kubra the precious days of her student life.
Khadija was hauled off to jail for hosting a Facebook webinar, where a guest speaker made contentious "anti-government" remarks.
She herself, however, had actually not uttered a word of the sentences which the police took issue with, and prosecuted her for.
Sued as an "adult" at the age of 17, Khadija has been in jail for nine months already.
Neither her incarceration, nor the pursuit of her release gets the nation riled the way a journalist under arrest does, and while the government dawdles over amending the law, this university freshman will be the forgotten casualty of the process.