THE death of 54-year-old entrepreneur and writer Mushtaq Ahmed in jail custody in Kashimpur, who had been there since August 2020 after his arrest in May 2020 in a case filed under the Digital Security Act 2018, is an attestation to why journalists have so far stood against the law. Journalists have since its passage protested against the draconian law, a vigorous reincarnation of the infamous Information and Communications Technology Act 2003, that has provided the government with a strong handle to muzzle dissent in society. Mushtaq, who founded Bangladesh’s first commercial crocodile farm, Reptiles Farm Ltd, in Mymensingh in 2005, was arrested along with others, who included cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore, in the case that had 11 named and five to six unnamed accused. The charges included tarnishing the image of Bangladesh’s founding president, hurting the spirit of the liberation war and spreading rumours about COVID-19 and security forces on social media. Two of the arrested were remanded on bail, but the court refused to remand Mushtaq and Kishore on bail six times. He had been in jail for about nine months without any trial as the police only on February 9 submitted a charge sheet against Mushtaq, Kishore and Didarul Bhuiyan, the Dhaka coordinator of a platform called Rashtrachinta.
The government’s applying the Digital Security Act to deal with the apparently unfounded allegations that were levelled against Mushtaq instead of other laws that could effectively, and easily, resolve the issue, thus, also appears to be a symptom of extreme high-handedness. It is already time that the government understood that Mushtaq and the likes are, in other words, critics of the government who can ring an alarm bell when issues go awry, which should be the norm in a functional democratic dispensation. And it is high time that the government understood that the ignominy in putting such critics in jail, for such a long time and that too without charges, is far more than the ignominy that the government thinks such criticism of flaws and fallacies does bring on the government. It is far more logical, on part of the government, to accept criticism of howsoever greatest politicians than it is to deal with such critics with such high-handedness, resulting in death in custody. The government must, therefore, set out an impartial and credible investigation of the death of Mushtaq and hold anyone found guilty of this to account decisively, on the one hand, and provide compensation for the bereaved family, on the other. The government should also immediately repeal the draconian law keeping to the demand that journalists have pushed for since the passage of the act, or even the drafting of the law, and be ready to take criticism positively and seriously to build on its failures.
The government, which should be accommodative of dissenting voice, welcoming to criticism and willing to ensure the freedom of speech in public interests, must, therefore, repeal the draconian Digital Security Act 2018. The government must, moreover, do some soul searching and some introspection to make this course correction.
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