Author and social activist Mushtaq Ahmed died in a Bangladeshi jail on February 25, 2021, after being detained and allegedly tortured for social media posts critical of the government. On November 8, 2021, a tribunal framed charges against journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol for circulating “objectionable” information about ruling party leaders. And farmer Abu Zaman is on the run following accusations that he influenced the posting of false information on Facebook, even though he does not own a smartphone. Several minors in the country also have been arrested for social media activity and have been sent to juvenile corrections centers.

These cases have one thing in common: all were filed under Bangladesh’s 2018 Digital Security Act (DSA). The law, which came into force on October 1, 2018, has become the government’s and ruling party activists’ preferred weapon to muzzle critics and stymie their freedom of expression, especially in cyberspace. Even before the law was passed by parliament, human rights activists and organizations criticized it as a threat to freedom of expression. The Editors’ Council, the apex body comprising Bangladesh’s leading newspaper editors, protested and demanded that the government scrap nine sections of the law. While cabinet ministers met the editors and assured them that it would not be abused, such promises proved to be empty gestures. The law became so repressive that, in May 2020, the Editors’ Council remarked, “our fear is now a nightmare-reality for the mass media.”

Ali Riaz
Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor in the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University and a nonresident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council. His research interests are democratization, violent extremism, political Islam, South Asian politics, and Bangladeshi politics.

While previous governments have used laws on the books to squelch dissent, these efforts have now reached their zenith with the DSA. The government’s use of the law has stepped up the fight against its critics to an unprecedented level. The resultant curbs on the freedom of expression in Bangladesh have done significant damage to the little semblance of democracy that is left in the country, especially after the democratic setbacks posed by two controversial elections in 2014 and 2018. The law and its consequences also reveal a lot about the country’s political trajectory.

The Digital Security Act’s Illiberal Origins

The DSA, while of recent vintage, is not the first law to curb online freedom of expression in Bangladesh. The DSA was preceded by the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act 2006 (later amended in 2013). Since 2014, the ICT Act has come under harsh criticism as it was widely used to arrest and persecute individuals for expressing their views online. According to Human Rights Watch, Bangladeshi police filed nearly 1,300 charges from 2013 to April 2018 under the ICT Act. Most of these cases were filed under Section 57 of the act, which authorizes the prosecution of anyone who “publishes or transmits . . . in electronic form any material” deemed “fake and obscene,” defamatory, or otherwise likely to “deprave or corrupt” its audience. It also allows for prosecutions stemming from any online material that may cause “law and order” to “deteriorate”; “prejudice the image of the State or [a] person; or “hurt religious belief.” In 2018, the government finally decided to repeal five controversial sections of the ICT Act, including the offending Section 57. But this repeal didn’t result in a freer environment because the DSA essentially incorporated these sections with even harsher penalties.

The DSA came into force amid serious democratic decline in Bangladesh. Weak institutions, a trust deficit between political parties, and an acrimonious political culture have hindered democratic consolidation in the country since 1991. However, the process took a dramatic turn for the worse in late 2006 following the installation of a constitutionally mandated, nonpartisan caretaker government (CTG) to oversee the upcoming general election. The incumbent Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) amended the constitution to ensure that the CTG was headed by a former chief justice sympathetic to it, while the opposition Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) was adamant about stopping the appointment of former chief justice K. M. Hasan to this post at any cost. After Hasan declined the position, then president Iajuddin Ahmed, a BNP appointee, assumed the position of head of the CTG (in addition to his presidential responsibilities).

While the incumbent president’s acceptance of the role followed the letter of the constitution, it was inconsistent with the spirit of a neutral caretaker government and therefore added to an already volatile situation. Two BNP loyalists were appointed new election commissioners, and the army was deployed even though the cabinet was not consulted. Some members of the cabinet resigned in protest. Although leading opposition figures initially agreed to join the January 2007 election (which was later canceled), they decided to withdraw due to the Bangladesh Election Commission’s decision to nix the nomination of H. M. Ershad. All-out violence leading up to the election was on the horizon. This situation encouraged the military to intervene and stage a soft coup in early 2007. The military-backed civilian government instead arranged an election at the end of 2008, which was conducted fairly and delivered a spectacular victory for the BAL.

Armed with a two-thirds majority in parliament, the BAL government scrapped the CTG provision in 2011. The CTG system, which had ensured three free and fair elections since its incorporation into the constitution in 1996, was unceremoniously thrown away. The opposition threatened to boycott the election unless it was reinstated. The incumbent BAL government did not heed this call and, amid widespread violence, held a one-sided election in January 2014. The BAL’s victory was a foregone conclusion, and 153 candidates who ran unopposed (including many with the BAL) were elected well before a single vote was cast. On the first anniversary of this election, the opposition led by the BNP launched bouts of violent street agitation, which cost more than 100 lives. By early 2018, former prime minister Khaleda Zia, the leader of the BNP, was convicted on graft charges, and opposition leaders faced innumerable frivolous criminal cases. Extrajudicial killings by the Bangladeshi security agencies skyrocketed, and enforced disappearances became widespread.

From 2016 onward, the Bangladeshi government started to tighten its control over politics, introduced a new law to weaken civil society organizations, and ramped up cases against opposition activists. In July 2018, a spontaneous movement of students demanding road safety shook the country. Although mainstream media outlets were already facing indirect state control, cyberspace became a major avenue to raise critical voices. The government began introducing the DSA in early 2018 ahead of the election that was held later that year, seeing the law as a new tool to maintain power and silence its critics.

Overly broad and vague provisions in the DSA have granted the government enormous punitive power. The DSA gives the government absolute power to initiate investigations into anyone whose activities are considered a threat. Section 21 is a case in point. The section’s first clause states, “If any person, by means of digital medium, makes or instigates to make any propaganda or campaign against the liberation war of Bangladesh, spirit of liberation war, father of the nation, national anthem or national flag, then such act of the person shall be an offence.” However, the phrase “spirit of liberation war” is not clearly defined, and the government has leveraged such ambiguity to demean, vilify, and attack critics, alleging that they have undermined the spirit of Bangladesh’s struggle for independence.

The act gives law enforcement agencies the power to arrest anyone, search any premises, and seize any equipment without a warrant, requiring only suspicion that a crime has been committed using social media. Also, the act allows the government to order the removal and blocking of any information or data on the internet that it deems necessary, thereby providing broad scope to silence those critical of its policies or those who share information on human rights violations in the country. Fourteen out of the twenty provisions in the law dealing with offenses and punishments render defendants ineligible for bail, a fact that allows the accused to be detained indefinitely. Within three months after the law was introduced, the BAL secured a landslide victory in the 2018 parliamentary elections, which the New York Times Editorial Board described as “farcical.”

The Targets of Digital Repression

In the past three years, more than 1,500 cases have been filed under the DSA. These cases are under the purview of eight cyber crimes tribunals. The author has gathered information about 754 cases filed between January 1, 2020, and October 31, 2021, as part of a project funded by the National Endowment of Democracy for the Centre for Governance Studies in Bangladesh, a project for which the author is the principal investigator.1 These data were collected from government-approved print and electronic media; the accused or their family and friends; the lawyers of the accused; and police stations and other concerned departments.

In these 754 cases filed under the DSA, 1,841 individuals were accused of committing crimes. The author was able to gather details on the professions of about 675 of these individuals. Records show that a total of 655 individuals were arrested. While some of the accused have secured bail, many are still languishing in jail and awaiting trial. A high proportion of politicians and journalists have been prosecuted under the DSA, as these groups represented 29.5 percent and 25.6 percent, respectively, of the accused parties whose professional backgrounds could be confirmed (see table 1). The accused have come from a variety of professions, including businesspeople, students, and educators.

Table 1: Professional Identities of Bangladeshis Accused Under the DSA
Profession Number Percentage
Journalists 173 25.6
Educators 35 5.2
NGO Workers/Activists 10 1.5
Politicians 199 29.5
Students 73 10.8
Government Employees 26 3.9
Private Employees 37 5.5
Businesspeople 76 11.3
Legal Practitioners 20 3.0
Religious Leaders 6 0.9
Other Professions 20 3.0

Source: Centre for Governance Studies, “DSA Tracker,” 2020, https://freedominfo.net.

Note: These figures are drawn from the project’s raw data set. The sum of percentages does not add up exactly to 100 percent due to rounding.

Of the subset of the accused who were actually arrested, the author was able to gather information on the professional identities of 245 individuals. Taken together, politicians and journalists account for more than 40 percent of the documented cases of those arrested (see table 2).

Table 2: Professional Identities of Bangladeshis Arrested Under the DSA
Profession Number Percentage
Journalists 50 20.4
Educators 21 8.6
NGO Workers/Activists 6 2.5
Politicians 56 22.9
Students 41 16.7
Government Employees 7 2.9
Private Employees 21 8.6
Businesspeople 26 10.6
Legal Practitioners 3 1.2
Religious Leaders 4 1.6
Other Professions 10 4.1

Source: Centre for Governance Studies, “DSA Tracker,” 2020, https://freedominfo.net.

Note: These figures are drawn from the project’s raw data set. The sum of percentages does not add up exactly to 100 percent due to rounding.

Most of those accused (83.6 percent) and arrested (84.1 percent) under the DSA are between eighteen and forty years of age (see tables 3 and 4). In the cases for which data were available, at least seventeen children under the age of eighteen have been accused of breaking the law, and twelve of them have been arrested.

Table 3: Ages of Bangladeshis Accused Under the DSA
Age Number Percentage
Under 18 17 2.4
18–25 years 264 37.4
26–40 years 326 46.2
41–55 years 92 13.0
Over 55 years 7 1.0

Source: Centre for Governance Studies, “DSA Tracker,” 2020, https://freedominfo.net.

Note: These figures are drawn from the project’s raw data set.

Table 4: Ages of Bangladeshis Arrested Under the DSA
Age Number Percentage
Under 18 12 2.8
18–25 years 170 39.6
26–40 years 191 44.5
41–55 years 55 12.8
Over 55 years 1 0.2

Source: Centre for Governance Studies, “DSA Tracker,” 2020, https://freedominfo.net.

Note: These figures are drawn from the project’s raw data set. The sum of percentages does not add up exactly to 100 percent due to rounding.

The Accusers in Digital Repression Cases

The DSA contains a provision that allows individuals, even those who are not aggrieved, to file cases. It is an unusual provision because defamation laws typically are meant to protect the individual who is subjected to the act of defamation and being harmed. But to file a case under the DSA, the individual does not need to be defamed personally but only to have felt that someone else has been defamed or insulted. Of the 418 accusers for whom data are available, eighty-seven (20.8 percent) are from law enforcement agencies such as the Rapid Action Battalion, an elite anticrime unit of the Bangladesh Police. Additionally, forty-one government officials (9.8 percent) have filed cases against individuals for allegedly violating the DSA. Taken together, cases filed by government-affiliated parties account for over 31 percent of the total. Of the remainder, 169 accusers (40.4 percent) are affiliated with political parties (see table 5).

Table 5: Professional Identities of the Accusers in DSA Cases
Accuser Number Percentage
Rapid Action Battalion 11 2.6
Police 72 17.2
Other Law Enforcement Agencies 4 1.0
Private Employees 23 5.5
NGO Workers/Activists 3 0.7
Individuals Affiliated With Political Parties 169 40.4
Government Officials 41 9.8
Businesspeople 14 3.4
Educators 16 3.8
Journalists 22 5.3
Legal Practitioners 14 3.4
Others 18 4.3
Students 11 2.6

Source: Centre for Governance Studies, “DSA Tracker,” 2020, https://freedominfo.net.

Note: These figures are drawn from the project’s raw data set.

Among the 169 party-affiliated accusers, 135 belong to the ruling party (the BAL) and its various offshoots like the youth and student wings (see table 6). Altogether, almost 80 percent of accusers whose political identities are available belong to the ruling party.

Table 6: Political Identities of the Accusers in DSA Cases
Accusers’ Political Affiliations Number Percentage
Bangladesh Awami League 52 30.8
Bangladesh Awami Jubo League (youth front of the BAL) 21 12.5
Bangladesh Awami Swechasebak League (volunteer front of the BAL) 11 6.5
Bangladesh Student League 51 30.2
Bangladesh Nationalist Party 1 0.6
Others 33 19.5

Source: Centre for Governance Studies, “DSA Tracker,” 2020, https://freedominfo.net.

Note: These figures are drawn from the project’s raw data set. “Others” refers to individuals affiliated with other parties besides the BAL and the BNP. The sum of percentages does not add up exactly to 100 percent due to rounding.

A further breakdown shows that thirty-three of these 169 BAL-affiliated activists hold elected positions at various levels, including five members of parliament and four mayors.2

Conclusion

These numbers show that Bangladeshi government officials and their supporters have extensively used the DSA to silence detractors. Their wanton use of the law has created a culture of fear, leading journalists to self-censor to avoid retribution. While the law itself is causing a precipitous decline in freedom of expression in Bangladesh, it is also indicative of the state of Bangladeshi politics and needs to be seen within that larger context. In the past decade, the space for opposition parties has shrunk remarkably, and they have faced persecution, often by way of frivolous legal cases. Citizens’ right to assembly and free speech are now in serious jeopardy. The government is condoning and has engaged in extrajudicial measures.

The DSA is a telltale sign of Bangladesh’s ongoing slide toward authoritarianism. Indications of digital authoritarianism such as increasing surveillance and repression of the country’s citizens in cyberspace akin to the practices at work in other authoritarian countries have become the reality. State institutions are used to muzzle critics and strengthen the grip of the ruling party. Meanwhile, activists who support the ruling party are given free rein to use existing laws to effectively criminalize free speech.

Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor in the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University and a nonresident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council. His research interests are democratization, violent extremism, political Islam, South Asian politics, and Bangladeshi politics.

This article is part of the Politics of Opposition in South Asia initiative run by Carnegie’s South Asia Program.

Notes

1 Unless otherwise stated, the numbers in this piece come from the raw data set of the author’s Centre for Governance Studies research project. See Centre for Governance Studies, “DSA Tracker,” 2020, https://freedominfo.net.

2 This information is based on the author’s research in connection with the research project for the Centre for Governance Studies. See Centre for Governance Studies, “DSA Tracker.”