A STEEP increase in rights abuse related to the freedom of expression by way of an increased application of the Digital Security Act 2018 has been evident in statistics that show that the number of cases filed and of people arrested under the law in 2020 have been three times the figures of 2019. Statistics of Ain O Salish Kendra show that 130 cases, in which 271 people were arrested, were filed under the law in 2020 while the number of cases filed under the law in 2019, as records available with the London-based rights group Article 19 say, was 63, showing more than a three times increase in the number of cases filed under the law in a year. Article 19 figures for 2020 show that 368 people, including 79 journalists, were arrested in at least 197 cases filed under the law in the year. Statistics of local rights group Odhikar say that 42 people were arrested in cases filed under the law in 2019 and the number sharply increased to 131 in 2020, again showing more than a three times increase in the figure of arrests. A situation like this betrays intolerance on part of the authorities that borders on an authoritarian rule, which is good neither for the country nor for the people.
The act appears to have increasingly been applied to stop the criticism, especially on social media, of failures of the government. Cases have been filed under the law against the people who have criticised the government’s mishandling of COVID-19 mitigation plans and corruption in the health sector and relief management. Such an abysmal state of the health sector naturally prompted people to be critical of government ways which were dealt with by the application of the Digital Security Act 2018 as in many cases the cases were filed under the law by people of the ruling party or its fronts; the police in such cases seek to say that they take legal action on specific allegations of the violation of the law. Most of the accused were arrested immediately after they had made comments on social media and there are instances that the police raided the house of the accused in the middle of the night to arrest the accused. There may be issues that may need to be dealt with and they should be dealt with keeping to the appropriate law. But the way the issues have been dealt with by way of the application of mostly the Digital Security Act has raised concern. The government on many occasions earlier, however, said that no Digital Security Act provision would be used to limit the freedom of expression.
The government, which needs to accommodate its criticism by people to act on such criticism in the furtherance of democracy, should not respond to criticism with high-handedness. The government should rather take the criticism of irregularities positively to contain them for a better governance in the state of affairs. If the freedom of speech stands threatened, if dissenting voice is muzzled and if criticism of the government, governance and government agencies is muted by force, there hardly remains any space for the government to know where it should mend the holes. While the government should be able to learn from criticism, the government should repeal the provisions of the law that restrict civic space.
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