Dhaka, July 26 (EFE).- The nonprofit Amnesty International on Monday accused the Bangladeshi authorities of “criminalizing free speech” by using a cyber law to stifle dissent on social media and other digital platforms.
In a press release titled “No space for dissent”, the United Kingdom-based rights group urged the authorities to end the crackdown on people’s right to freedom of expression on internet platforms and immediately withdraw or amend the Digital Security Act (DSA).
The DSA was passed by the parliament on Sep. 19, 2018, and came into effect just three months before a general election in which the ruling Awami League and its allies held onto power for a third consecutive term.
Bangladesh has at least 433 people imprisoned under the DSA, most of them for allegedly publishing false and offensive information online, according to AI.
Those targeted include journalists, cartoonists, musicians, activists, entrepreneurs, students and even a farmer who cannot read or write, among others.
“The actions taken by the authorities under the purview of the DSA demonstrate just how dangerous it has become to speak out and voice dissenting views in Bangladesh today,” said AI’s South Asia Campaigner Saad Hammadi in the statement.
“These undue restrictions on different forms of expression have sent a chilling effect across Bangladeshi society and have severely curbed the space for independent media and civil society organizations. Bangladeshi authorities must release all prisoners held solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression,” he stressed.
DSA gives arbitrary powers to law enforcement agencies to conduct searches, seize devices and their contents, and arrest individuals without warrant simply for a comment they may have shared online.
The authorities have refuted Amnesty’s claims, describing it as “fictitious.”
“There is no example of Digital Security Act blocking freedom of speech. If there was no freedom of speech, how politics and media exists in the country,” Telecomunications Minister Mustafa Jabbar told EFE.
However, Amnesty noted that it has found a concerning pattern in which the Bangladeshi authorities are weaponizing certain sections of the law to target and harass critical voices.
The Cyber Tribunal in Dhaka, which tries cybercrime cases including those under the DSA, has registered 199 cases between Jan. 1 and May 6 this year.
Amnesty International said 134 of those cases specified the sections under the DSA and 107 of them were filed under 25 and 29 concerning defamation.
“The way in which defamation is criminalized under the Digital Security Act shows the serious shortcomings of a criminal approach to defamation, where the law has been further instrumentalised to silence dissent,” said the rights group.
The Cyber Tribunal in Dhaka has dismissed 97 out of 199 cases filed this year due to lack of merit and evidence.
“That, however, did not waive the human rights violations that people have suffered including facing detention for various periods even before the cases appeared for trial,” AI underlined. EFE