Civil society members at a webinar on Saturday called for abolition, not an amendment, of the controversial Digital Security Act (DSA) as it is being allegedly used to choke all forms of freedom of expression.
The online seminar titled "The Digital Security Act 2018: In the Eyes of the Civil Society" was hosted by the Centre for Governance Studies (CGS). CGS Chairman Manjur Ahmed Chowdhury presided over the event while CGS Executive Director Zillur Rahman moderated it.
Manjur Ahmed said the digital security act empowers law enforcement authorities to arrest people without a warrant solely on suspicion of committing a crime through the use of mass media. Various forms of freedom of expression have been criminalised under the Act.
He also said this law and all its applications are undoubtedly malicious in nature. It needs to be revoked and new laws should be formulated instead. The DSA is not being used to fight cybercrime but to punish people who are critical towards the government.
Badiul Alam Majumdar, secretary of Citizens for Good Governance, has stated that laws like the DSA curb fundamental rights of citizens, such as freedom of speech and expression. Such rights are guaranteed under the constitution of Bangladesh.
Faruq Faisel, regional director for Bangladesh and South Asia of ARTICLE 19, said laws like DSA were being created mainly to protect the interest of the ruling party and its affiliates. "These laws were being abused, and the legislation had been designed to make such abuse possible. Moreover, the laws were being used to weaponise our history against us," he said.
At the webinar, Zillur Rahman laid out the background of the situation by stating that as per various media reports, more than 1,500 cases have been filed under the DSA from January 2020 to March 2021. The CGS has tracked 835 cases with detailed information from January 2020 to 30 January 2022. The top two most persecuted classes of people under this Act are- politicians of opposition parties and journalists. A majority of cases were filed over defamation charges, and in most cases, it was someone other than the defamed individual who pressed charges.
Muhammad Abdul Mazid, CGS board member and ex-Chairman NBR, stated that the intention behind the law's wording is not malicious. The officers and enforcers who apply the law have been given discretionary powers when deciding who broke the law. If state institutions become political institutions, there will always be a biased application of the law. In such a situation, malpractice of law is unavoidable.
Barrister Tania Amir, advocate of Bangladesh Supreme Court, stated that the DSA is no different from the Special Powers Act. Journalists need to stand up against the DSA the same way they stood up against the Special Powers Act. However, if journalists start self-censoring, they cannot rebel against this issue. All Stakeholders need to stay united and take initiative to protect their rights. She, however, disagreed with the notion that the law is right, but the application is wrong.
Despite widespread criticism and condemnation from human rights advocates, students, civil society organisations, and the international community for its ambiguous provisions, the Digital Security Act (DSA) was passed in 2018.