The Digital Security Act criminalizes various types of online speech
Poet Henry Swapon and lawyer Imtiaz Mahmood. Collage from photos shared widely on social media.
Two people were arrested on May 14 and 15, for comments they had posted on Facebook. The arrests have sparked indignation and concern on social media.
The arrest of poet Henry Swapon
On May 14, poet and journalist Henry Swapon was arrested at his home in Barishal city, located in south central Bangladesh. He has been accused of violating Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act.
A member of the small local Christian community, Swapon was previously sued, along with two brothers Alfred and Jewel Sarkar, for “hurting religious sentiments of both Christians and Muslims” on social media.
According to the Dhaka Tribune, Swapon wrote a post on Facebook criticizing Lawrence Subrata Howlader, the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Barishal. The Bishop had elected to hold a scheduled cultural program at a local Catholic church on April 22, 2019, the day after the terror attacks in Sri Lanka. Swapon felt the Bishop should have postponed the festivities out of respect for hundreds of people killed in the attacks.
Other Christians were angry about the tone he took with the Bishop and some even sent him death threats. Swapon has been vocal in social media against all the injustices and corruption in his town.
Netizen Swakrito Noman wrote on Facebook:
বাংলাদেশে ধর্মানুভূতিতে আঘাতের ব্যবসাটা একচেটিয়া মুসলমান মৌলবাদীদের ছিল। এখন দেখছি খ্রিষ্টান মৌলবাদীরাও এই ব্যবসা শুরু করে দিয়েছে। আমার তো মনে হয় এই অনুভূতি ব্যবসায়ীরা একেকজন মানসিক রোগী। রাষ্ট্রের উচিত তার অসুস্থ নাগরিকদের সুচিকিৎসার ব্যবস্থা করা। কবি হেনরি স্বপনকে গ্রেপ্তারের তীব্র নিন্দা জানাই। তাঁর নিঃশর্ত মুক্তি চাই।
In Bangladesh, the tactics of attacking activists with the allegation of “hurting religious sentiments” had been a monopoly of the Muslim fundamentalists. Now we see that conservative Christians are also at it. I think those who feel this way hearing criticism are mentally sick. The state should arrange treatment for these sick individuals. We strongly condemn the arrest of poet Henry Swapon and demand his unconditional release.
The arrest of lawyer Imtiaz Mahmood
On the morning of 15 May, police arrested supreme court lawyer and writer Imtiaz Mahmud in a case filed in 2017 under the country’s now-defunct Information and Communication Technology Act, in which a private citizen, Shafiqul Islam, alleged that one of Mahmood’s Facebook posts had hurt religious sentiments and incited communal violence in Bangladesh’s southeastern Chittagong region.
Imtiaz Mahmood secured an anticipatory bail when the case was originally brought, but a Khagrachhari court issued another arrest warrant against him in January 2019.
Mahmood had commented on ethnic tensions that arose after a Bengali motorcyclist was killed in Khagrachhari, prompting a group of Bengalis to torch a number of houses and shops of the indigenous people in the Rangamati area of Chittagong. Local sources told the Dhaka Tribune that police had taken no measures to control the situation.
Hundreds of similar lawsuits were filed from 2013 until 2018, when the ICT Act was effectively replaced by the Digital Security Act.
Writer Meher Afroz Shaon posted on Facebook:
তিনি পাহাড় ভালোবাসেন- পাহাড়ের মানুষগুলোকে ভালেবাসেন। ফেসবুকে তাদের নিয়ে লেখেন। তার ফেসবুক লেখায় কখনও ‘জালাও পোড়াও’ তো দেখিনি!
কোথাও কোনো একটা ভুল হচ্ছে..! বেশ বড় একটা ভুল… ভুলগুলোর অবসান হোক।
বি.দ্র: আচ্ছা- ফেসবুকে অশালীন গালাগালি করে যারা পোস্ট করে তাদের নামে মামলা হলেই কি এ্যারেস্ট ওয়ারেন্ট বের হয়!
He loves the mountains and the people who live there. He writes about their rights. I have never seen “violent words” in his writings.
There is something wrong… Something is very wrong. I hope the wrongs will be right soon.
PS: I have seen a lot of posts on Facebook which have violent words and slurs in them. If one sues them, is an arrest warrant issued immediately?
Many netizens have expressed condemnation against both arrests, with some demanding that the law should be repealed.
Expat Bangladeshi Leesa Gazi tweeted:
Journalist Probhash Amin wrote on Facebook:
কবি হেনরী স্বপনের পর অ্যাডভোকেট ইমতিয়াজ মাহমুদ। একে একে রুদ্ধ হচ্ছে মুক্তমত। সকল কালাকানুন বাতিল চাই। মতপ্রকাশের স্বাধীনতা চাই। কবি হেনরী স্বপন ও আইনজীবী ইমতিয়াজ মাহমুদের মুক্তি চাই।
After poet Henry Swapon, lawyer Imtiaz Mahmood (was arrested). Freedom of opinion is being restricted slowly. I want the repeal of all draconian acts. I want the freedom of expression. I want immediate release of Henry Swapon and Imtiaz Mahmood.
Despite concerns about its implications for freedom of expression, the Bangladeshi parliament approved the Digital Security Act in September 2018. The law replaced the notorious Information and Technology Act, which had also been used as a tool for silencing critical speech online.
The Act criminalizes various types of online speech, ranging from defamatory messages to speech that “injures religious values or sentiments” introducing hefty fines. It also authorizes lengthy prison sentences for using the internet to create public unrest, and for “gathering, sending or preserving” classified government documents using a digital device. The Editors’ Council of Bangladesh said that the Act is “against the freedom guaranteed by the constitution, media freedom and freedom of speech.”
The Act also provides absolute power to law enforcement agencies to initiate investigations of anyone whose activities are deemed harmful or threating.