Awami League wants us to love DSA. It’s too late now
Think Awami League will finally bring reforms in the Digital Security Act (DSA) to restore public trust in the democratic process in the lead-up to the general election? Think again.
Recently, two ministers, within the space of two weeks, talked in rather glowing terms about the law. On June 15, the foreign minister, perhaps bolstered by the "satisfaction" expressed by a top US official about the "tremendous progress" achieved in reducing extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh, categorically said, "The DSA is a very good law."
Then, on January 28, the law minister underscored its importance again, saying it was needed in the "present context", rejecting complaints that the law was being abused to curtail free speech and press freedom. Rather than initiate the process of amending or rectifying the law, as promised by key members of the ruling class in the past, the government appears to be in no hurry to do so. On the contrary, it wants us to accept DSA as it is, identify with it, and maybe develop Stockholm syndrome if even it doesn't want to appear as abusive!
While the manner in which the DSA is being defended – short on logic, long on rhetoric – is nothing new, the timing of the defence, in an election year, bears significance. It signals that Awami League is unwilling to lose its prized possession at this critical juncture. At the very least, it will try to hold off any amendment as long as possible.
The law, after all, has been tremendously beneficial. It has been like a political bonfire on which critics and rivals could be roasted, without a bitter aftertaste. As a recent review of the four years of DSA has shown, on an average, one case has been filed every week by ruling party activists during this period. It proves – if any proof were needed – that the DSA has been every bit the tool of repression that it was feared all along to be.
There are more insights to be drawn from this review based on data collected by the Centre for Governance Studies (CGS), which logged cases filed under the DSA between October 2018 and August 2022. Overall, it recorded 1,109 cases, of which around 60 percent were over Facebook activities. Predictably, politicians and journalists formed the majority of those accused. Politicians – or ruling party affiliates, to be more specific – were also the largest group of people prosecuting journalists, mostly on charges of defamation.
However, those complainants were not the "victims" of said defamation, as they were filing cases on behalf of someone else. A point to be noted in this regard is that as many as 140 cases – mind the number – were filed for allegedly defaming Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who recently invited the opposition to "point out my failures." One wonders how encouraged the latter will feel given how previous attempts at criticism often ended up.
What's equally alarming, of the 2,889 individuals accused in all cases, only 52 – or two percent – saw their cases disposed of by the court. This means that the vast majority of the accused have been kept hanging. Also, at least 725 of the cases being investigated by police are from before 2022 – which indicates a clear violation of the legal time limit given to wrap up investigations.
This, as well as the extremely cumbersome and unfriendly justice process, can expose the accused to pre-trial horrors – including prolonged stay in police custody, struggle to secure bail, prolonged uncertainty over their fate, etc. This is harassment, plain and simple, with one out of every three people accused being arrested.
All this is just for exercising their constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech. This is where the "beauty" of repressive laws lies, which perhaps explains why the ruling party wouldn't let go of the DSA yet. It can be defended without looking monstrous on paper – because, as the law minister claimed, "misuse of any law is not unusual," right? It offers an illusion of justice, pinning any "misuse" on the system. It also doesn't draw as much scrutiny as physical violence or extralegal excesses – recall the US sanctions on Rab imposed in December 2021 – but still has the same intimidating effect.
It may be hard to believe now but before the trauma of DSA began to unfold fully, there was actually an expectation that Awami League, as the party accused of introducing the law as a tool of political repression, would err on the side of restraint – rather than of excess – when using it, even if merely to prove the critics wrong. It was a fleeting hope of a people desperate to turn the page on the infamous Section 57. But the DSA was not meant to be just a replacement. It was brought on to serve a purpose. And serve it did.
Unfortunately, Bangladesh seems to be increasingly turning into ground zero for the experiment of "one nation, one version," with one law to rule them all. Everyone must speak the same, think the same, see the same. Hence the attempt to Right-wash school textbooks and curricula. Hence the attempt to monopolise historic narratives. Hence the ban on dissident publishers from participating in Ekushey Boi Mela. Hence the shrinking of civic and political spaces under various pretexts. The wolves are always at the door. Any challenge to the status quo or failure to accommodate it will be frowned upon and punished.
But in such a culture of fear, even prolonged silence can be deceptive. It can be prolonged calm before the storm. The authorities would be wise to remember that, if played wrong, the Stockholm syndrome may give way to the Streisand effect. Silencing tactics like the DSA can only take them so far. After four years, there should be enough sobriety on the part of all concerned to understand that this law, regardless of whatever legal vacuum it had filled, has since been nothing but a tool of repression, and it's too late to change public opinion about it now.
Bangladesh can and should be able to contain multitudes of opinions. This is the only way forward.
Badiuzzaman Bay is assistant editor at The Daily Star.