At least 63 people, including online and cultural activists and journalists, have been arrested under the Digital Security Act since its coming into being enactment on October 8, 2018, mostly for their activities against the prime minister, her father and the government on social networking sites, especially Facebook and YouTube.
President Abdul Hamid on October 8, 2018 assented to the Digital Security Bill, passed by parliament on September 19, 2018, transforming it into an act, ignoring calls from national and international journalists, freethinkers and rights groups for returning it to parliament for a revision.
The Rapid Action Battalion arrested at least 37 people, including YouTubers, online activists and a retired air force pilot, while Dhaka Metropolitan Police’s cyber security and crime division and Police Bureau of Investigation arrested at least 15 people between October 10, 2018 and January 9, 2019.
The Criminal Investigation Department of police arrested at least 11 people on charge of cheating in admission tests.
The police in Khulna on December 1 arrested a journalist for his report on wrongly calculated election result while Daily New Nation publisher Mainul Hosein was showed arrested for his comment in a TV talk show.
Another man was arrested in Bhola on October 10 for his ‘maligning comment’ on prime minister Sheikh Hasina on Facebook.
Information activists alleged that most of the arrested people were linked with opposition parties or ideologies.
They said that no pro-government propagandists had so far been held or prosecuted although Facebook identified 15 pages and accounts designed to look like
independent news outlets and having pro-government and anti-opposition contents.
CID officials said that they arrested five people on October 10, 2018 on charge of cheating medical college admission seekers by providing them with fake question papers on social media.
Three days later, Dhaka University authorities filed another case under the act accusing six people of leaking admission test question papers.
The CID is yet to compile their list of cases filed under the act, officials said.
In recent weeks, a number of pro-opposition online activists were arrested under the act for sharing ‘misinformation, fake information, distorted information or photos’ of prime minister Sheikh Hasina, her cabinet members, chief election commissioner KM Nurul Huda and top officials of army and other forces.
The battalion arrested seven people in Uttara of Dhaka, Rajshahi, Chattogram, Madaripur, Cumilla, Bagura and Kishorganj in January 8-9 for posting distorted photos and ‘derogatory’ remarks on the prime minister and other state dignitaries.
Of them, RAB-5 arrested Akhlakuzzaman Ansari at his rented house in Rajshahi city reportedly for spreading ‘distorted pictures’ of the country’s founding president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Hasina, KM Nurul Huda, army chief General Aziz Ahmed, battalion director general Benazir Ahmed and Dhaka Metropolitan Police commissioner Asaduzzaman Miah, among others.
In Chattogram, the battalion arrested carpenter Md Tafazzel Hossain Helal, of Doulatkhan in Bhola, at Bolirhat of Chandgaon on January 9 for posting comments against Hasina on Facebook.
Battalion officer Major Mehedi Hasan said that scrutinising his Facebook account, it seemed that he was a Bangladesh Nationalist Party supporte.
Before the December 30 general election, the battalion arrested several others on similar charges, mostly in Dhaka.
On December 21, 2018, the battalion arrested retired squadron leader Wahid Un Nabi, a member of BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia’s security force and online activist, for his posts on Facebook.
At the same night, two more pro-opposition online activists were arrested and another was prosecuted under the Digital Security Act with Sher-e-Banglanagor police station.
The battalion said on December 29, 2018 that they arrested eight ‘information terrorists of pro-Jamaat cultural group Saimum Shilpi Goshti’ in Dhaka, who were using 152 accounts on social networking sites to share ‘negative’ contents, parodies, songs and drama on the Election Commission and other ‘sensitive’ issue. Of the eight, two were singers and one was actor, battalion officials said.
On December 7, 2018, the Police Bureau of Investigation arrested Mahfujul Hoque for sharing posts on Facebook ‘demeaning the prime minister’.
On October 10, 2018, detectives in Bhola arrested Md Shamsuddin Bacchu, 25, at his house in a case filed under the act on charge of ‘posting vulgar comment and sharing distorted photos’ of the prime minister and others.
Information technology expert Tanveer Hassan Zoha said that he observed 17 cases that basically targeted anti-government individuals.
‘Impartial investigation into the cases is crucial to ensure justice,’ he said.
Between 2013 and April 2018, the police submitted 1,271 charge sheets, mostly under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act, replaced by the Digital Security Act. A number of teachers, retired military officers, and pro-opposition online activists were arrested under the section.
Cyber Tribunal special public prosecutor Md Nazrul Islam Shamim said that one-fourth of the cases filed on charge of defamation of the prime minister, her cabinet colleagues, other state dignitaries and head of the government of different countries.
In September 2017, Nazrul Islam Shamim said that 65-70 per cent of the cases filed under the Section 57 could not be proved in court while many cases were totally fabricated and were filed to harass people.
In mid October 2018, the Editors’ Council demanded proper amendments to nine sections of the Digital Security Act for the sake of independent journalism and freedom of expression.
On November 1, Jatiya Oikya Front organiser and former advisor to army-backed caretaker government Mainul Hosein was arrested in a case filed under the Digital Security Act for his alleged derogatory comments about journalist Masuda Bhatti in a TV talk show on October 16, 2018.
Dhaka Tribune’s Khulna correspondent Hedait Hossain Mollah was taken to a Khulna court in handcuffs on January 1 in a case filed under the act.
Local administration accused Hedait and another journalist of publishing ‘false, fabricated and provocative information’ on the voting.
A video went viral that showed their reports based on the announcement of the returning officer of Khulna 1 parliamentary constituency.
The Committee to Protect Journalists’ Asia programme coordinator Steven Butler said, ‘Arresting a journalist for reporting on alleged election irregularities and raising legitimate questions is a disappointing way for prime minister Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League party to respond to their re-election. The government should reaffirm its commitment to democratic values and refrain from abusing the Digital Security Act to attack press freedom.’
Qadaruddin Shishir, co-founder of BDfactcheck, which has been monitoring since February 2017, said that in many cases comments against any particular party were considered to be ‘anti-state activities’.
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