DSA cases represent a high number of expression-based offences, call for immediate amendment

The application of the Digital Security Act (DSA) 2018 for expression-based offences is more than five times higher than core cyber offences. Of around 250 DSA cases examined from media reports, only 18 per cent were filed for core cybercrimes, while 82 per cent of the cases represent expression-based offences. The DSA disproportionately targeted journalists, with almost one-third of the lawsuits involving them.

Such a trend has emerged in a research conducted by the Society for Media and Suitable Human-communication Techniques (SoMaSHTe), namely, Journalism and Policy Frameworks was revealed in an event at the Dhaka Reporters’ Unity (DRU) auditorium on February 24, which followed by a discussion on the protection of journalism.

The discussants pointed out that many cases filed under the DSA were being dismissed as they did not have the substance to form a complaint, indicating instances of abuse of the law. Lawmakers, academics, journalist leaders and senior journalists have called for the government to take immediate steps to review and amend the law, saying that many cases are uncomfortable for the government.

Senior journalist Manjurul Ahsan Bulbul presided over the event. Hasanul Haq Inu MP, Chairman, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, attended the occasion as chief guest. Member of Parliament Ahsan Adelur Rahman also took part in the discussion. Professor Dr. Mofizur Rahman and Dr. Hafizur Rahman Karzon from the University of Dhaka presented their views on current trends and patterns related to independent journalism and policy frameworks.

Rezaul Haque, research director of SoMaSHTe, presented the research findings, while the organization’s director Mir Masrur Zaman gave welcome speeches.

Hasanul Haque Inu said that the recent decision to consider cases filed against journalists under the DSA was discriminatory to other citizens. He added that DSA should be amended, and the Official Secrets Act should be repealed immediately. He also called for updating the Press Council Act.

Hasanul Haque Inu said the Mass Media Employees Act and the Broadcasting Act have been in the draft stage for a long time. If these are passed quickly, the media and journalism will get more protection. Emphasizing the development of the skills of journalists, the former minister for information called upon the journalists’ organizations to prepare annual reports by analyzing the trends and patterns of journalism in the country. He said such documentation would help the government in making policy decisions.

SoMaSHTe’s research highlighted the developmental aspects of journalism, restrictive elements, and policy-related trends conducted through group discussions, opinion polls and news analysis. It found that 79 per cent of the 461 journalists surveyed felt that the DSA had been negatively impacting independent journalism. Of the respondents, 94% voted in favour of reforming or repealing the law. Eighty-five per cent of them feel that the law needs to be thoroughly reviewed and the necessary amendments need to be made, while 29 per cent favoured repealing the law entirely. Journalists participating in the survey think that MPs, journalists’ organizations and concerned ministries can take the initiative in this regard.

The study found that between January 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, news reports from 250 cases showed that only 18% of cases represent core cybercrime. In the remaining 82% of cases, allegations were made for publishing information or opinions in online media or newspapers.

More complaints have been lodged under Section 25 (47%) in cases relating to the disclosure of information and opinion. Sections 26 and 29 (16.31% and 12.17% respectively) are next. The other two most widely used sections are 29 and 31, found in the study. Political party affiliates filed 46% of cases, while law enforcement members filed 23%. Other plaintiffs were journalists, lawyers, government officials, teachers, artists, business people, students, private servants, religious leaders, freedom fighters and judges. At least 554 people, including 20 women, were charged in the cases. In 153 cases, multiple accused, including the main accused, were arrested immediately after the case.  Among the defendants, 37% persons were related to politics, 29% were journalists, and 14% were students and teachers. The rest were private jobholders, religious leaders, business people, artists, lawyers, and government employees. In other words, journalists have been accused in about one-third of the total cases.

In his speech, Ahsan Adelur Rahman MP also called for amending the Digital Security Act. He emphasized more interactions between journalists and their counterparts, including politicians.

Discussants said the DSA is inconsistent with international standards of expression. The abuse of this law is embarrassing for the government. They also emphasize taking integrated, modern and decentralized initiatives for journalists’ skills, educational qualifications, and training.