Dhaka, Oct 8 (efe-epa).- Rights watchdog Amnesty International on Thursday alleged that Bangladesh had intensified persecution of independent media and journalists in 2020, increasingly using the controversial Digital Security Act 2018 against the press during the Covid-19 pandemic.
On the second anniversary of the controversial law’s inception, the nonprofit said more than 800 cases had been filed under the DSA within the first nine months of this year, with the total number of cases nearing 2,000 since 2018.
“Since its inception, the Digital Security Act has been wielded as a weapon to silence critics and suppress dissent. The Bangladeshi authorities have exploited the law’s vague and broad provisions to escalate attacks on independent journalism and media freedom,” Sultan Mohammed Zakaria, Amnesty International’s South Asia researcher, said in a statement.
He said the authorities had used the Covid-19 crisis as a cover to ramp up the crackdown against media.
The DSA, which provides lengthy jail sentences for publishing “propaganda” against the state and “spreading rumors,” also has provisions of life imprisonment for revealing state secrets and publishing “false or distorted” information.
However, Bangladesh Law Minister Anisul Haque rejected Amnesty’s criticism as “biased” and said it would not be used to curtail press freedom.
“The crimes mentioned in the DSA are more or less mentioned in our penal code, (…) the law was made because these crimes were perpetrated in digital medium (…) It became necessary to combat cyber-crime, due to the (arrival) of new technology,” Haque told EFE.
“If the law is misused or abused of course we will take measures about that.”
According to Amnesty, at least 10 editors of national and regional newspapers and online news platforms have been charged under the law, ostensibly due to critical reporting against leaders of the ruling Awami League Party.
In a prominent case, editor of Daily Pokkhokal, Shafiqul Islam Kajal, disappeared from Dhaka on Mar. 10, a day after an Awami League lawmaker filed a case against him under the DSA for a critical Facebook post.
Kajal’s whereabouts were revealed 53 days later, and he continues to be in pre-trial detention facing two more charges under the DSA.
Some 31 other people – including Matiur Rahman, the editor of leading Bangla newspaper ManabZamin – have also been named in the case for sharing the post.
Similarly, on Apr. 19, the acting editor of website Jagonews24.com and editor-in-chief of bdnews24.com were sued under the DSA by a ruling party leader for publishing reports about alleged corruption in Covid-19 relief efforts.
On May 1, police arrested several journalists from multiple outlets over a news report about a custodial death.
On May 22, the editor of Amar Habiganj, Shushant Dash Gupta, was arrested under a DSA case for publishing a report implicating an Awami League leader in corruption.
“These journalists are being targeted simply for reporting on stories critical of the authorities and holding the powerful to account. The charges against them must be dropped and those detained must be released immediately and unconditionally,” said Zakaria.
The DSA was approved in the Bangladesh Parliament on Sep. 19, 2018, and came into effect just three months before the general election in which the ruling Awami League and its allies returned to power for a third consecutive term.
The law, severely criticized by press guilds and rights groups since its inception, has also been used in cases of alleged blasphemy online and linked with enforced disappearances carried out by authorities. EFE-EPA