UN official chides Bangladesh for using Digital Security Act against environmentalists

Ahammad Foyez
UN official chides Bangladesh for using Digital Security Act against environmentalists People stand on the bank of the Padma River in the Munshiganj district of central Bangladesh to examine the damage caused by erosion, Sept. 14, 2022.

A United Nations special rapporteur called on Bangladesh’s government to stop harassing environmental activists under a notorious online security law, as he wrapped up a 10-day visit to the South Asian nation on Thursday.

Ian Fry, the special rapporteur on human rights in the context of climate change, spoke out after meeting with climate change activists who claimed the government was going after them for protesting against new coal-fired power plants.

“While the government denies that the Digital Security Act (DSA) is being used to harass climate change human rights defenders, efforts must be made to ensure that public comment about climate change matters is allowed to be given freely,” Fry, the first independent expert for human rights and climate at the U.N., said during a virtual press conference at the end of his visit.

“The Digital Security Act needs to be amended so that climate change human rights defenders and indigenous people are not caught up in a broad definitional issues related to terrorism. These people are not terrorists,” he said.

Fry said the online law was being used to suppress public opinion regarding the power plants and to step on people’s right to free speech.

“Public protests against developments such as coal-fired power plants should never come within the definition of terrorism. Members of the public should be allowed to express their views directly or via social media without fear of harassment or imprisonment,” he said.

Echoing Fry, Bangladesh environmentalist and lawyer Syeda Rizwana Hasan said the DSA had become a new weapon for people who are involved in land grabs and destroying water bodies and forests.

She spoke of engineer Shahnewaz Chowdhury who was arrested in May 2021 in southeastern Chattogram in a DSA case filed by the Banshkhali coal-fired power plant authorities over a Facebook post by him.

In his post, the engineer criticized the power plant for its negative impact on the environment and urged people to mobilize against it, she said.

“Not only green activists, but ordinary people are also facing harassment for raising their voice to protect greenery,” Rizwana, the chief executive of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association, told BenarNews.

As activists mobilize more people via social media, land grabbers are using the act as protection, she added.

Amnesty International reported in July 2021 that Bangladesh had imprisoned more than 400 people under the DSA, “most of whom are held on allegations of publishing false and offensive information online.”

Special Rapporteur Ian Fry [United Nations media]

The DSA allows police to arrest people without a warrant. It also punishes those who produce or distribute content that “hurts religious sentiments or religious values” or “destroys communal harmony, or creates unrest or disorder” with up to 10 years in prison.

Critics – mostly journalists, cartoonists, activists, entrepreneurs, educators and students – have been targeted by the controversial law, which was passed in September 2018 after the ruling Awami League came to power for a third consecutive term.

Minister A.K.M. Mozammel Haque, chief of the Cabinet Committee on Law and Order, said the government was involved with local and international stakeholders to amend the law to prevent its misuse.

“We are working on it. Every issue and concern will be addressed. The government is against all kinds of misuse of the law,” he told BenarNews.

‘Burden of climate change’

During his trip, which included stops in Dhaka, Sylhet, Sunamganj, Khulna, and Satkhira, Fry met with local and national government representatives, international funders and organizations, community councils and members of civil society organizations. He also spoke with people living in rural areas.

Speaking to reporters, Fry called for the establishment of an international fund to assist countries recover from the impacts of climate change, adding that Bangladesh needs help.

“I have visited some of the most adversely affected regions of Bangladesh and it is clear to me that the burden of climate change should not be carried by Bangladesh alone,” Fry said.

“For too long, major emitting countries have denied their responsibility for the suffering they are causing. This must end,” he added.

He said major greenhouse emitting countries have an obligation under international law to provide funding to help Bangladesh and other highly vulnerable countries recover from the impacts of climate change.

“Countries like Bangladesh cannot afford the huge cost to their GDP [Gross Domestic Product] as a consequence of climate change,” he said.

Bangladesh is seventh among the countries most affected by extreme weather events in 20 years since 1998, according to the 2021 Global Climate Risk Index.

Fry said the government needed to develop a clear strategy on how to deal with people displaced by climate change and must provide better services to those forced to live in slums.

“Particular attention should be given to women, older persons and persons with disabilities,” he said.

Fry plans to present a report to the U.N. General Assembly focused on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change mitigation, loss, damage and participation – “an issue he said was brought sharply into focus during his visit to Bangladesh,” the U.N. said in a news release.

He then plans to present a full report on his visit to Bangladesh to the Human Rights Council in June 2023.


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