The Digital Security Act (DSA) criminalises legitimate expression of thoughts online, with the authorities increasingly regulating freedom of expression in particular on social media on the pretext of containing violence, so stated human rights activists at a webinar.
"What is causing further alarm within Amnesty International are the other violations associated with the DSA, such as forced disappearances, torture, ill treatments to detainees and also death in custody," Agnès Callamard, secretary general, Amnesty International, told the webinar, entitled "No Space for Dissent: Freedom of Expression in Bangladesh" on Monday.
The programme was based on Amnesty's latest report.
Secretary General Agnès Callamard said Bangladesh has 433 prisoners held under the DSA as of this month.
"Many of them have been imprisoned over allegations of publishing false and inappropriate information online. Even if that were true – which it is not – it does not warrant such punitive action," she added.
Saad Hammadi, South Asia campaigner of Amnesty International, said, "We meet at a time when authorities are increasingly regulating freedom of expression, particularly on social media on the pretext of containing violence."
Referring to Amnesty's latest report, he said it documented several cases where individuals were targeted for criticising the government or powerful people online.
Bangladesh political cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore's audio statement was shared on the webinar.
Kishore was arrested under the DSA and released on bail after ten months – shortly after writer and commentator Mushtaq Ahmed died in custody in February this year, allegedly from a heart attack.
"In the era of the Internet and social media, DSA has been designed to keep our mouths shut," Kishore's trembling voice was heard on the audio. "I was terrified and felt suffocated," the cartoonist added.
During his imprisonment, Kishore reportedly endured custodial torture. He had to go through two surgeries after the release on bail.
Kishore in the audio clip said, "We need to remember criticism does not mean rivalry, but rather a chance to recover from our fallacies."
At the webinar, Supreme Court lawyer and rights activists Jyotirmoy Barua said the DSA itself is extremely problematic in contrast to what the government claims.
Irene Khan, United Nations special rapporteur for freedom of expression and opinion, and also the first woman appointed to this mandate, said the international community continues to put pressure on Bangladesh to address human rights issues.
"It is high time Bangladesh acted its age. The country should act like an adult," she added.
She said Bangladesh was held accountable and pressed for answers at the Universal Periodic Review in 2018, but it looks like the country is reneging on many promises.
Irene Khan said she strongly believes the government should re-examine its priorities and expend efforts toward countering real threats to digital security, instead of focusing on curbing dissent.
In her closing remarks, Yamini Mishra, director of the Global Issues Programme at Amnesty International, pointed out the recommendations discussed at the webinar, both with regard to the international stage and at home.
She reiterated the importance of such a report and discussions in "putting forward a strong voice to ask for the (Digital Security Law) to be repealed".