DSA is a government tool used to silence journalists in Bangladesh

South Asia Perspectives panel discussion meeting on Dissent Criminalized: The State of Free Speech in Bangladesh.
The human rights organization, Right to Freedom (R2F) in association with South Asia Perspectives organized a panel discussion on December 05 at the National Press Club titled “Dissent Criminalized: The State of Free Speech in Bangladesh”. Participants included internationally renowned writer and photojournalist and Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018 Dr. Shahidul Alam and the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Program Consultant Dr. Steven Butler. The discussion was moderated by R2F President Ambassador (ret) William B. Milam. Representatives from the U.S. State Department, international organizations, Washington-based journalists, scholars and R2F board members were also present as participants. The Executive Director of R2F, Mushfiqul Fazal (Ansarey) gave opening remarks. The discussion centered on the current state of freedom of speech in Bangladesh and the challenges faced by journalists and activists in exercising their rights to freedom of expression.Key speaker Dr. Shahidul Alam thanked the hosts for organizing an event where he was able to speak about the human rights issues facing Bangladesh. He highlighted R2F Executive Director Mushfiqul Fazal for his tireless work in this area. Dr Alam pointed out that the Bangladesh Government had recently filed a case against Mr. Fazal under the Digital Security Act (DSA). Dr Alam has experienced the consequences of speaking out against the government, as he was abducted and detained for 107 days by police claiming to be members of Dhaka Police’s Detective Branch. He was tortured and pressured to delete his Facebook post in exchange for release. Dr. Alam refused to comply with these demands.
In his opening statement, Dr. Shahidul Alam stated that the Digital Security Act (DSA) was a custom-made judicial weapon that the government used to silence not only journalists, but also those who are against the government. He said that he has research data regarding the DSA, but does not want to present it at this moment, because there is no comparison information or data available as the government is not releasing any data on the number of arrests and acquisitions under the DSA. He also noted that one of the problems is disinformation and that ironically is that the government is the biggest disseminator of disinformation and has the resources, impunity, and control of the media to do so. He added that the government is the biggest player in spreading disinformation. According to Dr. Alam, the DSA had been used to silence journalists in Bangladesh. He claimed that those arrested under the DSA often lose their jobs, scholarships, and even their enrollment in universities or colleges. He also highlighted the irony that the government claims to use the DSA to stop disinformation but is in fact the biggest player in using it against journalists. Dr. Alam presented three specific cases of individuals who have been arrested under the DSA, including a 14-year-old boy who was arrested for a Facebook post against the Prime Minister, despite the fact that it was not even his own post but one that he had shared. Shahidul Alam also presented statistical data regarding Bangladesh elections. Dr. Alam noted that since independence, Bangladesh has conducted 11 elections, seven under incumbent government and four under neutral caretaker government. Under the incumbent governments, all seven elections were won by the ruling party, whereas under the neutral caretaker government, all four elections were won by the opposition. He also mentioned that the current government previously advocated for a caretaker government but now strongly opposes it. Dr. Steven Butler, CPJ’s former Asia Program Coordinator, began the discussion by stating that press freedom is an essential aspect of democracy and that the government of Bangladesh has effectively restricted it. He mentioned that a few years ago, editors of prominent newspapers in Bangladesh received phone calls from security forces instructing them on what to cover and what not to cover, which led to dangerous situations for the editors and staff of these newspapers. He also noted that individuals were disappearing and reappearing, but not speaking about their disappearances, and this fear was expressed to him even before the case of Dr. Alam.
Dr. Butler also discussed the shortcomings of Information and Communication Technology Act 2006 [which was later replaced by the Digital Security Act, 2018] with the Information Minister1}. He mentioned that the Minister acknowledged the widespread abuse of Section 57 by police and told him they are trying to find some new mechanism in the new DSA to stop it. But the reality is that the new DSA was implemented in 2018 without proper consultation with the media community. Dr. Butler also shared some specific cases of horrific treatment of journalists, including Shahidul Islam Kajol who disappeared in March and reappeared blindfolded near the Indian border in June, and was jailed for seven months without bail. He was released in a broken condition, unable to work, and not speaking to anyone. He also mentioned the case of Rojina, a journalist who was arrested under the Official Secrets Act and her journalist accreditation card was revoked. Dr Butler also highlighted that the government is behaving in a barbaric way towards journalists who work overseas but whose families live in Bangladesh. He mentioned that the family members of Tasneem Khalil, Kanak Sarwar, Noor Alam Chowdhury, and Abdul Moktadir were recently arrested and harassed by security forces. He also mentioned the case of Mustaq Ahmed, who was tortured and died in jail and the government has not shared any information about his death or autopsy report. During the Q&A portion of the panel discussion, Dr. Shahidul Alam spoke about the government’s control over freedom of expression and its surveillance of Bangladeshi citizens. He stated that the government controls the internet in order to increase its surveillance of social media. He said that the government is forcing telecommunications companies to provide their customers’ SIM card numbers, which they then use to hack Facebook. Media outlets do not report on this due to self-censorship. In another question, panelists asked Dr. Alam about the government’s behavior changes, especially regarding the history of Bangladesh’s liberation war. He said that this government is very skilled in co-opting the 1971 liberation war. He noted the war was actually fought by ordinary people in the country. However, the Awami League positions themselves as the owners of the 1971 war, and now anyone who questions the regime is labeled as anti-liberation. He also stated that the liberation war is a very serious issue for the people of Bangladesh and that the Awami League uses it to brand people as anti-war or collaborators with Pakistan, as Rajakar or members of the Jamaat-e-Islami party.