Let me speak my mind
"When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When people fear the government, there is tyranny."
– Thomas Jefferson
At a memorial meeting marking the second death anniversary of writer Mushtaq Ahmed, speakers said the government had been using the Digital Security Act (DSA) as a weapon to create a culture of fear. Author and social activist Mushtaq Ahmed died in jail on February 25, 2021, after being detained and allegedly tortured for social media posts critical of the government. The police arrested him in May 2020 under the DSA. For nine months – from his arrest to his death – his family was not able to meet him once.
Were it not for the harrowing details shared by cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore with The Daily Star, we might never have known how Mushtaq really died, given the state's refusal to take any responsibility for his death in custody or to investigate it.
Mushtaq might have been the worst victim of the draconian law, but he was not the only one. Kishore himself was detained for 10 months under the DSA and tortured before being released in the face of intense protests following Mushtaq's death.
According to data collected by the Centre for Governance Studies (CGS), in the four years since the law was enacted, a total of 1,109 cases have been filed under the DSA against 2,889 individuals, with only two percent of them seeing their cases come to a close with the court handing either a conviction, an acquittal or the case getting dismissed. Of the accused, only 52 saw their cases coming to a close with the court system. Nine others found relief because their accusers withdrew the cases. The police are still investigating three quarters of a thousand or so cases, and at least 725 of them are from before 2022, meaning there has been a clear violation of the legal time limit given to law enforcers to complete their investigations in these cases.
This is because the law stipulates that an investigation report must be submitted within 60 days. The investigation officer can, if necessary, seek an extension of 15 days from the authorities. But after that, the case should fall under the jurisdiction of the tribunal. Over the last four years, however, in many cases, we have seen the accused still being held in custody and effectively being punished before trial, even if the investigation report was not given within the stipulated 75 days.
So, what the state is effectively doing is using the process itself as the punishment. On February 22, while calling on the Bangladesh government to drop the charges against investigative journalist Rozina Islam, a panel of UN experts said the protracted nature of her case "reflects a dangerous trend in Bangladesh… to bring serious charges, often on unsubstantiated grounds, against journalists and editors and then leave the cases hanging unresolved in the judicial process as a way of threatening, intimidating, harassing and silencing them," thereby acknowledging this reality.
This is nothing new. Plenty of authoritarian governments around the world have used this trick before.
That the DSA is being used for this purpose can be further corroborated by the fact that according to data, politicians and journalists ranked the highest in terms of those accused – although researchers were able to identify the profession of only around half of those accused – with ruling party affiliates specifically being the largest group of people prosecuting the journalists. In fact, according to Dr Ali Riaz, distinguished professor of political science at Illinois State University, "every week a case has been filed by an Awami League activist against more than two persons for almost four years under one law."
But even if we were to consider that the intention behind enacting the DSA was not to create a culture of fear, but for a benevolent and all-powerful government to allow only truthful statements while identifying and outlawing false claims, the reality is that human nature makes such a reality impossible. For a thousand years prior to Enlightenment, most societies were ruled by all-powerful institutions – monarchies, empires, etc – that claimed to possess absolute truth and so outlawed any views that deviated on the ground that they were "false." Since then, one of the greatest intellectual advancements of human liberation has been the realisation that all human institutions are fallible, that they endorse false claims either due to error or corruption – which is why every individual must retain the right to question and challenge their orthodoxies.
Error is the inevitable condition of even the most well-intentioned humans. Which is why at the heart of every censor resides one of the most toxic human traits – i.e. hubris.
Only in authoritarian cultures would citizens trust politicians or government officials with the power to declare what the absolute truth is, and then, using the force of law, bar any expression that deviates from it. Therefore, the fact that our society has accepted living under laws such as the DSA, under whatever pretext, is extremely concerning.
At The Daily Star's 32nd anniversary programme, human rights activist Hameeda Hossain said, "We can see from Bangladesh's struggle for independence how important it was to have freedom of thought, freedom of expression and for people to discuss their various diverse views and opinions." The fact that, five decades after liberation, these are no longer our core collective values is very dangerous.
At the same event, writer and activist Noorjahan Bose said that, if necessary, she was willing to live in a "hut or go hungry," but she must have the right to freely express herself. She even said that she was willing to sacrifice her life for it. That is the kind of attitude we must have towards our core moral values; we must not be willing to compromise on them, no matter the cost. Only collective efforts by individuals who see the world like that can get us out of the current oppressive environment we are in, where the space for free speech, free expression and free thought is rapidly disappearing.
Eresh Omar Jamal is assistant editor at The Daily Star. His Twitter handle is @EreshOmarJamal