Human Rights Watch called on Bangladesh’s government Wednesday to repeal the Digital Security Act as the watchdog group joined media members and activists in demanding the abolition of the controversial law, under which dozens of journalists have been charged.
Bangladesh authorities were using the “abusive” law to harass and indefinitely detain activists, journalists, and other critics of the government and its political leadership, the New York-based watchdog group said in a statement.
“The administration of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed should immediately take steps to amend or repeal the law to protect freedom of speech,” it said.
Human Rights Watch issued the call a day after a court determined that journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol should remain locked up following a two-day remand, which allowed police investigators to question him on allegations linked to the act.
“The ruling party is literally playing with people’s lives by holding them in indefinite detention under spurious charges amid a global pandemic,” said Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director, referring to Hasina’s Awami League.
“Instead of using COVID-19 as a pretense to lock up critics, the authorities should be responding to the pandemic by releasing people like Kajol, who have been arbitrarily arrested and pose no danger to others.”
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal challenged the statement from HRW.
“We do not think that the Digital Security Act needs to be scrapped. This law is to protect people from online defamation,” he told BenarNews.
“The people who were arrested under this act had written defamatory comments against individuals on social media. Those who were aggrieved filed cases against them,” he said, adding, “It is natural that law enforcers will arrest those accused.”
The law, which went into effect in September 2018, includes harsh prison sentences for online defamation, insulting a person’s religion and other offenses. Critics have complained that it impedes free speech.
The act poses a serious threat to free speech and freedom of the press in Bangladesh because at least 40 journalists have been accused of violating the law’s provisions, according to the Sampadak Parishad (Editors Council), a group of news editors.
The home minister questioned whether the number was accurate.
“You are talking about the arrest of 40 journalists, but I think three or four of the arrested are genuine journalists while the others are fake journalists,” Khan said.
Awami League members filed cases against Kajol in March, accusing him of obtaining information illegally and publishing false, intimidating and defamatory material on Facebook and Messenger, Amnesty International said at the time.
“The main purpose of the Digital Security Act is to harass people,” lawyer Jyotirmoy Barua, who represents Kajol, told BenarNews.
Kajol, who went missing in March, resurfaced on World Press Freedom Day, May 3, near Bangladesh’s frontier with India. Border guards said he walked into the country without a passport after not being heard from for more than 50 days.
He was arrested under a section of the penal code that allows a person to be detained based on a “reasonable suspicion.”
Teen held under law
In addition to journalists, activists and others have been detained under the act.
Last month, a 15-year-old boy was arrested north of Dhaka and sent to a juvenile detention center after a local ruling party politician said he had “badmouthed … our mother-like leader” – a reference to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina – according to HRW.
The boy has yet to be released from custody.
On June 24, a court granted a two-remand for police to interrogate cartoonist Ahmed Kishore, activists Mushtaq Ahmed and Didarul Bhuiyan and business owner Minhaz Mannan Emon, whose brother, Xulhaz Mannan, was among a string of activists, secular bloggers and intellectuals killed by Muslim extremists in machete attacks between 2013 and 2018.
“They have been arrested on charges of spreading anti-government remarks and rumors regarding the coronavirus situation and various law enforcement agencies,” Police Sub-Inspector Jamshedul Alam said at the time of their arrest in early May.