This article is part of Pandemic of Control, a series that aims to deepen public discourse on the rise of digital authoritarianism in Asia-Pacific amid COVID-19. Pandemic of Control is an initiative of EngageMedia, in partnership with CommonEdge. This edited version of Zayed Siddiki’s article is republished in Global Voices as part of a content partnership.
Over the past decade, Bangladesh has not only experienced digitalization and economic growth, but also a worsening human rights situation and increasing authoritarianism. Reporters Without Borders describes the current government as “more authoritarian and ready to suppress press freedom”. With critics muzzled, there is currently no effective political opposition in the country, reflecting Bangladesh’s long-standing struggle to maintain a fragile democracy since independence in 1971.
Early in the pandemic, citizens spoke out on social and mainstream media about the government’s ineffective response and the corruption of ruling party leaders. People have criticized the uneven application of lockdown rules, corruption in the purchase of health protection equipment, the diversion of relief packages and the lack of case detection information.
These questions have created enormous controversy. With the exception of a few arrests of local leaders linked to corruption, the government’s response has been to go after anyone who voices criticism. He fiercely enforced legal instruments against journalists, academics, ordinary citizens, and even government officials and doctors who spoke out on these issues. An oppressive law, the Digital Security Act (DSA), has been used to track down and punish these dissenting voices.
Using the Digital Security Act to Silence Dissent
Prior to the entry into force of the DSA, freedom of expression in Bangladesh was already under attack by the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act. Passed in 2006, the law contains the controversial section 57, which authorizes the prosecution of anyone who publishes electronic material deemed to be false, obscene, defamatory or which “tends to deprave or corrupt” its public. Civil society and human rights organizations have said that Article 57 tightens the stranglehold on freedom of expression on digital platforms.
The DSA was passed in 2018, replacing the ICT Act. But the DSA is considered more repressive and draconian than the law it replaced, and is deeply problematic for three reasons:
- Vague sections of the law that may lead to the criminalization of legitimate expression of thought or opinion;
- Broad powers given to authorities – such as the power to arrest people and search premises without a warrant, requiring only suspicion that a crime has been committed using digital media;
- Provisions that permit the removal or blocking of content and the seizure and search of devices without sufficient safeguards.
From 2012 to 2020, over 2,000 cases have been filed under the ICT Act and the DSA. Of these, only 2% resulted in convictions, suggesting that the law has been used more as an instrument to harass dissenting voices.
ARTICLE 19 has sounded the alarm over the growing number of charges and arrests being made under the DSA based on comments on social media. According to an April 2022 report by the Center for Governance Studies, at least 2,244 people were charged with violating the DSA between January 2020 and February 2022. During that time, 842 people were arrested. Most striking in the report was the clear indication that members of the ruling party were using the DSA to target media and political opponents. Among the defendants whose professions are known, 30.98% were politicians and more than a quarter were journalists.
The pandemic has seen the surgical use of the DSA against journalists and critical voices. Citizens from all walks of life have been targeted, including a 15-year-old boy who criticized the prime minister on social media. Other notable cases include:
- The arrest and torture of cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore, who was arrested in May 2020 for a series of images entitled “Life in the time of Corona”, posted on Facebook. The cartoons were a satire of the government’s response to the pandemic. Kishore was released in March 2021 after 10 months in detention. Upon his release, he was unable to walk and was mentally devastated. He also complained that he was denied medical treatment in prison.
- The arrest and death in custody of writer Mushtaq Ahmed is the most notorious; he was arrested in May 2020 for allegedly spreading disinformation about the pandemic. While in detention, he was allegedly tortured before dying in February 2021.
- Minhaz Mannan Emon, director of the Dhaka Stock Exchange, and Didarul Bhuiyan, activist and coordinator of the Facebook page “Rashtrachinta” (Reflections on the State), were arrested for spreading alleged rumors about the government’s response to the pandemic . They were accused of tarnishing the image of the state and of the founding president of the country. However, no specific charges have been brought against Minhaz. According to the indictment, Minhaz was found to have had a private chat with one of the defendants on WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, although there are no details of this conversation.
As a result, the DSA has cultivated a culture of fear and self-censorship among citizens. Members of civil society, journalists, political activists and ordinary citizens are now forced to think twice before writing or commenting online. There were several demonstrations and militant actions calling for the abolition of the draconian law, but the government did not follow up on these calls.
Mass surveillance using movement passes and big data collection
Besides the DSA, another tool in the government’s increasingly authoritarian agenda is an attempt to monitor citizens’ movements. In April 2021, Bangladeshi police launched a “movement pass app” that would allow movement outdoors during the strict lockdowns imposed at the time. To register, one had to use the app or visit movementpass.police.gov.bd and provide a cell phone number, name, date of birth, date and time of movement, photographs and maps of identity. A person was entitled to a maximum of five passes per day for emergency travel such as going to the hospital, buying medicine and grocery shopping.
In the first five days of implementation, over 600,000 passes were issued. Passes had to be presented before checkpoints; failure to provide a pass resulted in on-the-spot fines and penalties such as detention and imprisonment. The system has caused confusion and chaos, and hundreds of people have been fined and arrested for breaking lockdown rules. It also created controversy as those without a smartphone or internet connection could not apply for the passes. Implementation of the lockdown rules also varied, as ordinary citizens faced tough restrictions, while those who supported the government enjoyed an advantage.
This type of data collection has major implications for digital rights. In a media report, information technology expert Sumon Ahmed Sabir pointed to the risk of mass surveillance through the collected data – an even higher risk if a third party could access the data. Furthermore, Supreme Court lawyer Jyotirmoy Barua pointed out that the police have no jurisdiction to control people’s movements and that the system only serves to advance the process of mass surveillance.
There is also no law in Bangladesh to protect personal data, although a Data Protection Act is being drafted. However, this has also been a point of contention. Analysts have pointed out that the bill contains loopholes that, instead of protecting citizens, may further suppress digital rights, especially where there is already a culture of mass state surveillance.
The movement pass system was abolished in the second strict lockdown in July 2021. But concerns remain about the country’s democratic regression and the militarization of laws to restrict people’s rights and freedoms. As these cases have shown, the pandemic has provided the government with a pretext to censor free speech, harass critics and effectively curb dissent – accelerating what has been a continuous turn towards authoritarianism in Bangladesh.
Zayed Siddiki is an award-winning independent filmmaker, human rights defender and development communication professional based in Dhaka.