The arrest of the Prothom Alo journalist, Samsuzzaman Shams, for reporting on the cost of living crisis in Bangladesh has - quite rightly - triggered an unusual level of denunciation from the international community about media freedom in Bangladesh and in particular the role of the Digital Security Act.
On Thursday, March 30th 2023, just hours after the arrest, 13 governments banded together under the name of the Media Freedom Coalition to issue a statement of concern about the arrest and two other attacks on journalists (or their relatives) in recent days. At the same time, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Reporters without Borders also criticised the arrest.
Now, today, March 31st the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk, colloquially referred to as the “UN Human Rights Chief” has issued a strong rebuke to the Bangladesh government calling for the immediate suspension of the Digital Security Act, the law under which Samsuzzaman has been imprisoned. Here it is in full:
UN Human Rights Chief Volker Türk today called on Bangladesh to suspend immediately its application of the Digital Security Act.
“I am concerned that the Digital Security Act is being used across Bangladesh to arrest, harass and intimidate journalists and human rights defenders, and to muzzle critical voices online.
“I call again on the authorities to impose an immediate moratorium on its use and to reform comprehensively its provisions to bring them in line with the requirements of international human rights law. My Office has already provided detailed technical comments to assist with such a revision.”
More than 2,000 cases have been brought under the Act, which came into force on 1 October 2018. The latest, on 29 March, involved Shams Zaman, a journalist working for the country’s largest daily newspaper Prothom Alo. He was detained and his laptop, phone and other equipment seized during a house search. His application for bail was rejected.
A second case has been filed against the editor of Prothom Alo, Matiur Rahman, and a photographer. The case is based on their reporting of the cost-of-living crisis in Bangladesh.
In February, a young man, Poritosh Sarkar, was sentenced to five years in prison under this law after being accused of hurting religious sentiments in a post on Facebook.
“My Office has consistently raised concerns about the overly broad and ill-defined provisions of the Digital Security Act,” Türk said. “The Government has promised there will be safeguards against the arbitrary or excessive application of the law but that is not enough when arrests continue. The law itself needs a proper overhaul.”
The High Commissioner called for the creation of an independent judicial panel to review all pending cases brought under the Digital Security Act with a view to those accused being released.
Türk also reiterated his concern about the ongoing trial of Adilur Rahman Khan and Nasiruddin Elan from the now de-registered Odhikar human rights organisation, accused of falsely reporting about alleged human rights violations in a case dating back to 2013.