DSA weaponised to muzzle dissent
The Digital Security Act is a key factor, key weapon, responsible for the shrinking of Bangladesh's civic space."
Amnesty International says it has found a concerning pattern in which the Bangladeshi authorities are weaponising sections 25, 29 and 31 of the Digital Security Act to target and harass critical voices.
The cyber tribunal based in Dhaka, which holds trials of cybercrimes including cases filed under the DSA, has received 199 cases between January 1 and May 6 this year.
Amnesty International has found 134 of those cases that clearly specified the sections under the DSA. Eighty percent of those cases (or 107 out of 134) were filed under both sections 25 and 29 of the DSA, it said in a statement on its website on Sunday.
Section 25 refers to the transmission, publication, etc. of offensive, false or threatening data or information, section 29 pertains to the publication, transmission, etc. of defamatory information and section 31 criminalises a person for deteriorating law and order.
"The way in which defamation is criminalised under the DSA shows the serious shortcomings of a criminal approach to defamation, where the law has been further instrumentalised to silence dissent," the statement said.
Amnesty International called on the Bangladeshi authorities to ensure that defamation was treated as a matter for civil litigation, not criminal, the statement said.
Irene Khan, the United Nations special rapporteur for freedom of expression and opinion, also made observations down that line at a webinar, titled "No Space for Dissent -- Freedom of Expression in Bangladesh", organised by Amnesty International.
"The punishments of the law are not consistent with the international standards. This is a relic of colonial times when the sovereign was in conflict with the people and the only way the sovereign could stay in rule was to introduce criminal libel," Irene said.
She said it should be possible to take someone to court and fine them for damages. "That is protecting my [the person's] reputation. But using power of criminal law is putting too much power in the hands of the state."
The measures need to be proportionate, she said.
"There are grounds when the right to freedom of expression can be restricted, but these grounds have to be put out very precisely for example, for the purpose of national security or protecting other people's rights," added Irene. "For that, we need narrowly-defined precise laws, not vague laws."
The UN special rapporteur also said she has not received any response from the Bangladesh government regarding DSA cases like the ones against cartoonist Ahmed Kishore and writer Mushtaq Ahmed.
"In terms of official responses from the government, I have not gotten any on the individual cases, but I have been told that I will, so I am waiting," said Irene.
On March 31, she wrote to the government requesting information. The letter was also signed by the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and the special rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.
They had asked the government to explain under what legal grounds Kishore and Mushtaq were arrested. They had also asked the government to provide details on what investigations the government had carried out following the custodial torture of Ahmed and Mushtaq.
"The government needs to take the UN international system seriously, we are here to help the government live up to its obligations," Irene said at the webinar.
Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, said, "This draconian law [DSA] with vague provisions criminalises legitimate forms of expression online. This is a key factor, key weapon, responsible for the shrinking of Bangladesh's civic space."
Eminent lawyer Jyotirmoy Barua commented, "For the last couple of years, there has been no political dissent in Bangladesh. We have removed offline dissent from the Bangladesh dictionary. So all sorts of dissent is completely online.
"That is currently under attack."
Amnesty International said that the cyber tribunal in Dhaka has dismissed nearly 50 percent of the cases (or 97 out of 199) during the period under review for lacking merit and evidence.
"The volume of DSA cases turned down by the tribunal demonstrates the way in which powerful people in Bangladesh have weaponised the law to silence dissent," said Saad Hammadi, Amnesty International's South Asia campaigner.