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As far as Asia is concerned, the world’s news agenda is dominated at the moment by Hong Kong and Myanmar – the bail hearings for 47 Hong Kong democrats charged under the national security law and the increasingly bloody suppression of crowds protesting the against Myanmar’s coup.
Meanwhile, Myanmar’s often under-reported western neighbour Bangladesh is using similar tactics to suppress free speech, freedom of the press, and dissent even as it approaches its golden jubilee on March 25. Just as the law is used to justify the coup in Myanmar and arrest opposition politicians in Hong Kong, it is being employed in Bangladesh to silence those who speak out against the government.
In Bangladesh that law is the Digital Securities Act, enacted in 2018 and seen by both journalists and rights organisations like Amnesty International as a tool to silence the press and quell free speech and dissent.
The act is vaguely worded and contains harsh penalties for those found to violate it. One passage states that engaging in propaganda against the “spirit” of the 1971 war for independence, the national anthem, the national flag and the nation’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman are all crimes. Another states that it is a crime to disseminate data which is “invasive,” “intimidating,” or “a well-known lie,” with the intention of “annoying, insulting or humiliating.”
Those who violate “the solidarity, financial activities, security, defence, religious values or public discipline of the country” are in violation of the law.
Basically, it has become a crime to publish or disseminate any information that the government perceives as a lie, can be considered an insult against the government, goes against the official government line on a topic, or is perceived as dissent against the government. Arrests do not require a warrant.
According to Amnesty International, at least 2,000 cases have been brought under the law since it was passed. And in the last few weeks the law has once again been used against journalists, and with deadly consequences, leading to street protests, violence and arrests on the streets of Dhaka.
On February 4 authorities charged three journalists under the Digital Securities Act. Writer Mushtaq Ahmed and cartoonist Kabir Kishore were accused of publishing propaganda, false information and information that could destroy communal harmony and create unrest, according to documents reviewed by The Committee to Protect Journalists.
Ahmed was arrested last May with 10 others and has since been held in prison, having been denied bail six times. Kishore was arrested at the same time and has also been in jail. The charges all stemmed from their posting on social media content that alleged mismanagement and corruption in the ruling party, the Awami League, and by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in their response to the Covid-19 outbreak.
Photographer Shafiqul Islam Kajol was the third journalist to be charged. On March 10, 2020 Kajol disappeared off the streets of Dhaka, only to resurface on May 3. He was found by Bangladeshi Border guards along the border with India, hundreds of miles from where he was last seen in Dhaka, blindfolded and bound hand and foot according to Reporters Without Borders.
Kajol disappeared the day after an investigation began into him for publishing “false, offensive and defamatory” information. It stemmed from his posting on Facebook about the names of people associated with a sex-trafficking ring run out of an upscale Dhaka hotel by members of the Awami League. After he resurfaced he was held in detention until being granted bail in late December.
Kishore and Ahmed appeared in court on February 23 for a bail hearing. While Ahmed appeared to be in good health, Kishore passed a note to his brother stating that he had been subjected to severe physical abuse in custody and sustained a leg injury and ear injuries that led to an infection due to a lack of treatment. In the end the two were returned to police custody.
Two days later, on February 25, Mushtaq Ahmed was found unresponsive in his cell. He was taken to hospital but pronounced dead from unknown causes. An outpouring of shock and grief was followed by anger and outrage.
Protests began on February 26. Hundreds took to the streets to demand justice for Ahmed and the release of Kishore, clashing with police who fired tear gas and used batons. At least six protesters were arrested and 30 injured that first day. At least 18 police officers were also injured, according to reports from AFP.
Over the next five days, protestors returned to the streets, to be met by rubber bullets, tear gas and batons. Dozens were injured and many arrested.
Ambassadors from 13 countries, including the United States, France, Britain, Canada and Germany spoke of their “grave concern” over the death of Ahmed and sought an independent investigation into his death.
On Wednesday March 3, the high court granted Kishore bail for six months on the grounds of failing health. His lawyer hopes he will be released within two or three days.
But this is not the end of the story for Kishore, just as being granted bail in December is not the end of the story for Kajol, or any others caught under the Digital Securities Act.
Kajol’s son Monorom Polok told me by e-mail the family cannot relax. “He is on bail currently but that does not guarantee him to be on bail for indefinite time. We are scared to even think about that. We go to sleep every day in fear of what would happen to us next. Now that one writer died in custody, our fear now is insuperable. We are in constant fear of collapsing mentally and physically.”
Kajol has also been unable to resume his work. Polok told me: “He did not work for one year that he was in prison, also after he came back he still does not have the physical health to do any sort of job, which puts us in a very difficult position as we do not have financial security.”
This is the state of affairs for many of those released on bail. Along with knowing that they could be sent back to prison at any time, their livelihoods are on hold and their financial situation is perilous because of lack of work and legal expenses.
As Kajol told me though his son: “All I want is to be a free man, free out of these three digital cases and live with my family peacefully. The economic constant that we are facing as a family because of these draconian laws, goes against the government commitment of development progress. How could I have progressed if I have to spend over nine months in imprisonment away from family? This law destroys the nation’s narrative of development and it ruins the country’s prestige around press freedom. This law needs to be abolished as soon as possible.”
Kajol’s words resonate in Asia, where repressive laws continue to be used to silence free speech and the free press and arrest journalists and other government critics.
No matter the country or city, the effect of silencing the press, jailing dissenters and trying to drown out the truth serves to embolden the oppressors. This in turn only weakens the position of the rest unless we shine a light on what is happening and speak up for those cases that would otherwise be lost in the shuffle.