What should we know about the Digital Security Act 2018 in Bangladesh?

Repression has been a hallmark of all autocratic regimes throughout history. Over the years, autocrats have used repression to increase the costs of disloyalty and make political mobilization more challenging for opposition activists. In this age of digital technology, digital authoritarianism involves repression using digital media, including social media, messenger apps, surveillance software, artificial intelligence, and other internet-based technologies to maintain political control and suppress critical voices.

In 2022, Bangladesh was ranked as partly free in the Freedom on the Net report. However, among the list of partly free countries, Bangladesh ranks last alongside Cambodia and Iraq, missing entry into the not-free list by just three points. However, this ranking does not truly reflect the suppressive nature of the regime as in reality the situation is much graver. The current authoritarian government in Bangladesh has maintained a democratic facade despite widespread and severe violations of internet freedom in the country. In recent years, citizens from all walks of life in Bangladesh including journalists, politicians, students, writers, cartoonists, and academics have become victims of oppression for expressing their views and opinions. In just three months between January and March 2023, at least 56 Bangladeshi journalists were tortured, harassed, threatened, or sued.

Most recent incidents of human rights violations in Bangladesh have had a digital component. In October 2018, Bangladesh government enacted the Digital Security Act (DSA) 2018 which allows law enforcement agencies to conduct searches or arrest individuals without a warrant and criminalizes freedom of expression. According to Amnesty International, 1,300 cases were filed and nearly 1,000 individuals were arrested under DSA for mostly political reasons.

Who are the accused?

Knowing the identities of the accused and accusers of the DSA is imperative because it helps us understand the law’s political motives, purposes, and intentions. The DSATRACKER (https://freedominfo.net/), a project of the Center for Governance Studies (CGS), has been documenting the cases filed under the DSA 2018. The data collected by the research team of this project, led by Dr. Ali Riaz, a Distinguished Professor at Illinois State University, USA, reveal a grim picture of digital repression in Bangladesh. The DSATRACKER team traced 1302 cases between October 8, 2018, and April 18, 2023. At least 3687 individuals were accused in these cases.

Even this unusually horrendous number does not include a complete picture of the draconian DSA 2018, as the government’s law enforcement agencies are tightlipped about the details of the cases. The current authoritarian regime maintains secrecy regarding sharing case information. Thus, the number of cases tracked by the DSATRACKER is not all-inclusive and only a part of the total cases.

An analysis of the collected data found that opposition politicians, journalists, and students are the top three professions of the victims. This is not surprising because these three groups are most vocal against the corruption and irregularities of the government, ruling party leaders, and bureaucrats. A recent news article published in the Prothom Alo, drawing information from the CGS research, further informed that political opponents are accused in 31% of the DSA cases, and journalists are accused in more than 27% of cases (May 1, 2023, Prothom Alo). In addition to political activists and journalists, children have also been accused of criticizing the government. Between 2020 and 2022, 68 minors were accused under the DSA 2018 law (April 18, 2023, Manabzamin).

A brief discussion of a few cases among the thousands of victims of the DSA would help us to understand the extent of the severity of misuse of this law:

  1. Selected cases: BNP activists and leaders

Cases are in alphabetical order by first names:

Case 1.1 :  Dewan Mahmuda Akhter Lita

Dewan Mahmuda Akhter Lita is a politician and publicity secretary of the women’s wing of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party in Chattogram. Her satirical posts and criticism contain caricatures on Facebook about the ruling party and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. She was imprisoned in January 2019 in a case filed by RAB under the DSA.

Case 1.2 : Kanok Hasan Masud

Kanok Hasan Masud is a BNP leader from Madhukhali, Faridpur. A case was filed against Masud for “defaming” PM Sheikh Hasina under the DSA in 2019.

Case 1.3 : M Mujibur Rahman

M Mujibur Rahman is the Former Upazila BNP General Secretary of Balaganj, Sylhet. An Awami League Leader filed a case against M Mujibur Rahman along with 22 other BNP activists for allegedly using “abusive language” against Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and ministers on social media in 2020.

Case 1.4: Mazharul Islam

Mazharul Islam is the general secretary of Chandpur’s Haimchar Upazila BNP. He was arrested on April 3, 2023, under the DSA for allegedly making “derogatory comments” about Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Facebook. A case under DSA was filed against him after he was detained from his house on that day.

Case 1.5 : Md Anowar Hossain

Md Anowar Hossain is a BNP activist from Saturia, Manikganj. He was charged under the DSA in 2019 for “defaming” PM Sheikh Hasina on Facebook.

Case 1.6: Mehedi Ahmed Rumi

Mehedi Ahmed Rumi, a former Member of Parliament, an advisor to the BNP Chairperson and the Kushtia district’s BNP unit President, was charged under the DSA over a leaked audio clip in which he was conversing with one of his associates in 2018. The authorities charged him vaguely of “giving instruction to instigate violence .”A local AL Leader filed the case against Rumi.

Case 1.7 : Nayan Begum

Nayan Begum is an organizing secretary of Mahila Dal of Lakshmipur District and a woman member (from a reserved seat) of Ward No. 7, 8, and 9 of Chararmani Mohan Union of Lakshmipur Sadar Upazila. A local ruling party leader filed a case at Lakshmipur Sadar Police Station against her for ‘insulting’ Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in December 2022.

Case 1.8: Nur Islam

Local AL Leader of the Kusthia filed a case against Nur Islam, a Tanti Dal leader in the Kumarkhali upazila’s Joduboira union, along with Mehedi Ahmed Rumi (see case 1.6) under the DSA.

Case 1.9 : Rafiqul Islam Jamal

Rafiqul Islam Jamal, a BNP leader and BNP candidate from the Jhalkathi-1 constituency, was charged under the DSA in 2021 for allegedly ‘insulting’ Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and top leaders of Awami League on Facebook. The plaintiff in the case, a local ruling party leader, alleged that the comments on Facebook undermined the “state’s image and the Prime Minister’s honor.” Jamal was sent to jail after his arrest on August 22 of the same year in this case.

Case Study 1.10: Shahjahan Khan

Shahjahan Khan was the Vice-President of Patuakhali district BNP. He was charged with DSA in 2018, along with five others, over a leaked telephone conversation with the MP candidate Golam Maula Rony. He was charged with delivering inciting speeches and attempting to make the 2018 election questionable.

Case Study 1.11: Sultana Ahmed

Sultana Ahmed is the general secretary of the Jatiyatabadi Mohila Dal. The RAB arrested her after charging a case under DSA for allegedly making “derogatory comments” about the prime minister. She was detained while traveling home to Gulshan by car from the Sadarghat river port, Dhaka.

Case Study 1.12: Syed Moazzem Hossain Alal

Syed Moazzem Hossain Alal, a former Member of Parliament and the Joint Secretary General of BNP, was charged under the DSA for “insulting remarks” to the Prime Minister on social media. The plaintiff, an Awami League leader, filed the case against him on December 2021, which claimed that Alal made “sarcastic and vulgar” remarks against Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a discussion meeting recently.

Case Study 1.13: Tarique Rahman

A leader of Chhatro League, the student wing of the ruling Awami League, filed a case against Tarique Rahman, BNP’s Acting Chairman, under the DSA in February 2021. The plaintiff complained that Tarique Rahman allegedly provided “fabricated and false information to destabilize Bangladesh” and tried to “distort history by spreading misleading information.” In March of the same year, another case under the DSA was filed in the Sunamganj court against 25 people, including Tarique Rahman.

  1. Selected cases: Journalists, activists, students, and others

 Cases are in alphabetical order by first names:

Case 2.1: Abu Zaman

Abu Zaman is a farmer at Bajitpur village in Kishoreganj who is unable to read or write and knows nothing about Facebook. His neighbor filed a case against him under the DSA on 19 October 2020, accusing him of sharing “false” and “defamatory” information on Facebook Messenger, claiming it “could deteriorate law and order.”

Case 2.2: Ahmed Kabir Kishore

Ahmed Kabir Kishore is a renowned Bangladeshi cartoonist. Although he was shown arrested by RAB on 5 May 2020, he was picked up from his residence three days earlier and then charged under the DSA for criticizing the government’s response to Covid-19. He was also tortured in custody before the acknowledgement of official arrest. Kishore was held in pretrial detention for ten months and released on bail a week after his fellow accused, Mushtaq Ahmed, died in prison.

Case 2.3 : Didarul Bhuiyan

Didarul Bhuiyan is a political activist and organizer of the political platform Rashtrochinta. He was picked up from his residence by a team of law enforcers in plain clothes on 5 May 2020. He was charged under the DSA for “spreading rumors and carrying out anti-government activities.” He got bail on September 2020 after spending months in prison.

Case 2.4 : Emdadul Haque Milon

Emdadul Haque Milon is a pharmacist and contractor at Muktagachha in Mymensingh. On 3 March 2020, he was taken into the custody of police based on a local Awami League leader’s allegation that Emdadul Haque Milon made offensive remarks about a ruling party minister on Facebook. Later he was charged under the DSA. The police filed the case accusing him of publishing “offensive” and “defamatory” content and “deteriorating law and order.”

Case 2.5: Khadijatul Kubra

Khadijatul Kubra is a student at the Jagannath University. Her alleged ‘crime’ was hosting a YouTube show where a guest speaker made contentious remarks against the current government. In 2020, the police sued Khadija and the guest of the show Major (retd) Delwar Hossain, under the DSA, on allegations of “spreading anti-government statements and tarnishing the country’s image.” She was arrested on August 27, 2022, after police pressed charges against her in two cases. She has been in jail for nearly eight months (as of April 2023).

Case 2.6: Mohammad Emon

Mohammad Emon is a high school student in Mymensingh. He posted a Facebook post on 19 June 2020 that sarcastically stated, “For every 100 takas recharged on the phone, 35 to 25 taka have to be given to Sheikh Hasina as widow allowance because her husband is no more.” He was then charged under the DSA for publishing “false” and “defamatory” information “that could deteriorate law and order.” The local police sent him to the juvenile correction facility in Gazipur and released him on bail after 16 days.

Case 2.7 : Mushtaq Ahmed

Mushtaq Ahmed was an activist, writer, and staunch human rights activist advocate. He was picked up from his residence by RAB on 4 May 2022 for criticizing the role of public officials dealing the Covid-19. He was charged under the DSA for “criticizing the government’s response to the pandemic, spreading rumors about Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and tarnishing the state’s image.”

After languishing there for more than ten months, Mushtaq Ahmed died in prison on 25 February 2021. His lawyer alleged that he had been extensively tortured by the police.

Case 2.8 : Nusrat Shahrin Raka

One of the most disturbing and unprecedented repression mechanisms taken by the current authoritarian government is making the family members of the critics collateral victims. Nusrat Shahrin Raka was the sister of Kanak Sarwar, a journalist based in the United States. Raka was arrested with her three children, who were later released after languishing 30 hours in police custody. Charges of drug trafficking and spreading “propaganda against Bangladesh” were brought under the DSA. Her brother Sarwar’s widely popular YouTube shows portrayed the corruption and wrongdoings of the government and ruling party leaders. Raka’s only crime was that she was Kanak Sarwar’s sister.

Case 2.9 : Rita Dewan

Rita Dewan is a Baul musician. After uploading a video of her stage performance, authorities lodged four separate cases against her under the DSA and Bangladesh’s Penal Code. She was accused of “publishing and broadcasting information hurtful to religious values and sentiment, insulting religion, creating outrage by insulting religious belief, provoking breach of peace and making statements conducing to public mischief.”

Case 2.10: Ruhul Amin

Ruhul Amin is a labor rights activist who has been involved in protesting the government’s decision regarding shutting down the state-owned jute mills. He was arrested by the police several times for carrying out the campaign regarding the mills. After the death of Mushtaq Ahmed (see case 2.1), he posted an image calling on people to join a protest after accusing the government of the death of the writer. He wrote on Facebook, “March of the corpse towards the National Parliament in protest of the killing of writer Mushtaq by the government of Hasina and the state…..Repeal the Digital Security Act or arrest us.” Only a few hours later, he was arrested, and a DSA case was filed against him for “tarnishing the image of the state as well as the government, using propaganda to create confusion, hate, unrest and animosity among public and attempting to deteriorate law and order.”

Case 2.11: Shafiqul Islam Kajol

Shafiqul Islam Kajol is a photojournalist and editor of a daily Dainik Pokkhokal. He was charged under the DSA for his Facebook posts criticizing the government. The ruling party leader filed a case against him on 9 March 2020 for “publishing false, offensive, illegally obtained and defamatory content on Facebook that could deteriorate law and order.” He then faced enforced disappearance for long 53 days since 10 March. He was found on 3 May 2020 at the border area, but instead of returning him to his family, he was detained on 3 May 2020, held in pretrial detention for seven months, and denied bail at least 13 times during this period. He was eventually released on bail on 25 December 2020.

Case 2.12: Shamsuzzaman Shams

Samsuzzaman Shams is a journalist for the daily Prothom Alo. He wrote a report on 26 March, Bangladesh’s Independence Day, covering the rising cost of living and suffering of the masses due to the recent price hike. The newspaper’s article and social media page published a card with a photo of a child looking at the National Martyrs’ Memorial with a quote of a day laborer demanding freedom of having essential foods. The authorities were irked by this photo card so much that the journalist was picked up from his residence by a group in civil clothes at the crack of dawn, and his whereabouts were unknown for about 10 hours. The police later admitted that he was in custody and was being charged under the DSA for publishing a ‘false and fabricated report.’ However, the foreign ministry later claimed that Shams was arrested because of “child abuse” and “child exploitation” (for publishing the photo of the child!), not because of “false reporting.”

Case 2.13: Tasneem Khalil

Tasneem Khalil is a Sweden-based journalist and editor-in-chief of the Netra News. The Netra News published several investigative reports revealing the government’s corruption and irregularities. On May 5, 2020, RAB filed a case under the DSA against him and ten others for reportedly “spreading anti-state falsehood to tarnish the image of Bangladesh and create confusion from a Facebook page.” On October 18, 2021, a Dhaka court ordered to attach Khalil’s moveable and immovable properties in Bangladesh.

Case 2.14: Zulkarnain Saer

Zulkarnain Saer Khan alias Sami, a whistleblower in Al Jazeera’s investigative documentary on the corruption, nepotism, and abuse of power of the former Army Chief and his brothers, was also sued along with Tasneem Khalil (case 2.13) for reportedly “spreading rumors and carrying out anti-government activities.”


Understanding the actors

It is imperative to analyze the actors involved and the charges brought against the accused individuals to understand the severity, absurdity, and arbitrary use of the DSA. An analysis of the identity of the accusers and accused and the nature of the charges will help us cognize the political and social impact of using the DSA 2018.

According to the data gathered by the DSATRACKER, 140 cases have been filed for allegedly “defaming” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and 64 cases for “defaming” the ministers between October 2018 and August 2022. A total of 1489 individuals have been accused in 698 legal cases for their posts and interactions on Facebook.

The case studies and collected data clearly show that the most common reasons for using DSA are political, mainly criticizing the prime minister, ministers, other government officials, and ruling party leaders. Law enforcement agencies, particularly the Police and RAB, and ruling party loyalists are the most common accusers who filed cases against the critical voices. The case studies also demonstrate that most cases were filed against flimsy and vague grounds, with references to alleged “defamation, deterioration of law and order, destabilization of the country, spreading rumors, and spreading misinformation against the government.”

The intolerance of the ruling party reached a level where it could not even take any criticism in the form of sarcasm and satire. The authorities and ruling party leaders filed cases for merely criticizing, making sarcasm, and posting satirical posts on social media. In some cases, the accused and arrested individuals are not even directly involved.

The case of Khadijatul Kubra (see 2.5) will help us understand this. Kubra was only hosting a show where the guest criticized the government. She was accused of “spreading anti-government statements and tarnishing the country’s image” for inviting and letting her guests speak. Another interesting aspect of this accusation is the blurred distinction between the government and the state. Here, criticizing the government, a right of the citizens is criminalized and linked with the “tarnishing image” of the state. Most of the cases mentioned here demonstrate a pattern where the differences among the “founding father” of the nation, Prime Minister, government, and state become fuzzy and subject to unconditional loyalty.


What is the impact on Bangladeshi polity?

The DSA imposed undue restrictions on the right to freedom of expression and has vague provisions that criminalize legitimate forms of expression. The act gives arbitrary powers to the law enforcers to search a place, seize devices and content and arrest an individual without a warrant. Rights groups identified a pattern of abuse. Amnesty International expressed concerns on several occasions that the government is weaponizing the DSA to target and harass critical voices. Amnesty International also documented that individuals detained under the DSA are often denied bail and held in pretrial detention for more extended periods, especially those critical to the government, than the other detainees. The former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michele Bachelet, urged the government that “Bangladesh urgently needs to suspend the application of the Digital Security Act and conduct a review of its provisions to bring them in line with the requirements of international human rights law.” Another concerning fact and a human rights violation is that the DSA has no safeguards in place for individuals to seek redress.

The DSA has given the existing authoritarian government in Bangladesh opportunities to create a culture of fear through continuous harassment, arbitrary arrests, and gagging of the freedom of expression. The government’s acquisition of surveillance technology provided access to mobile phones, allowing the government to know the physical location, eavesdrop on conversations, and take control measures. By using Israeli spyware, the law enforcement agencies of Bangladesh reportedly use technology to hack messaging apps, Facebook, and even encrypted services like Telegram and WhatsApp.

The political impact of digital repression is visible in two ways. On the one hand, the critical voices, including the political opponents, journalists, and civil society members, are subdued by the draconian laws of the DSA; on the other hand, the government loyalists get the opportunities to propagate the ruling party’s narratives, slander the dissenters, and vilify the opposition leaders without any legal consequences. Even the leaked audio tapes are, very conveniently, of the opposition political leaders, which generates a well-grounded suspicion that pro-ruling party authorities are involved in tapping the calls and using the phone call records at the right moments for the benefit of the ruling party. The government’s manipulation of digital media platforms becomes evident by an example. In 2021, the ruling party announced a project to train one hundred thousand Cyber Joddhas (Cyber Warriors) to “fight against the rumors and misinformation spread by opposition political parties.” The AL proudly announced that it has already trained 35 thousand online activists and another 10 thousand would be ready soon. It is observed that hundreds of regime-supported social media handles confront any posts critical of the regime. These legions of trolls follow a particular pattern, which includes unabashed praise of the government, Prime Minister, or the founder of the ruling party on the one hand and slating opponent political leaders and critical voices on the other hand.

Five ominous trends are associated with the DSA’s social and political impact. First, there exists a “positive correlation” between the intensity of digital repression and the deterioration of democracy in recent years. In 2013, only three cases were under the Information and communication technology act, the predecessor of the DSA 2018. As the democratic backsliding increased, the number of cases and accused also hiked; in 2014, there were 33 cases; in 2015- 152 cases; in 2016- 233 cases; in 2017- 568; and in 2018, the number increased to 676. Right before the December 30 national election, which was openly rigged by the ruling party AL with the direct participation of the police and government employees, the draconian DSA was enacted in October 2018. With 1302 cases and 3687 accused between October 8, 2018, and April 18, 2023, the DSA has become one of the primary tools to establish and sustain current authoritarian rule in Bangladesh.

Second, the DSA has been utilized to permeate repression in every spectrum of society. In previous regimes, the repression against critical voices was fewer both in terms of number and intensity. The current Sheikh Hasina regime’s use of the DSA as a political weapon is so pervasive that even local leaders and ruling party loyalists have been using it to muzzle political criticism. Members of every tier of society have become accusers and accused, making it almost an Orwellian state where fear of surveillance is omnipresent, both in online and offline worlds.

Third, this widespread fear induced by the DSA enhanced the acute animosity between political parties. From the cities to the villages, the repressive DSA laws are fueling hatred and accelerating feuds. The DSA paved the way to control the information environment online and create a culture of fear in Bangladesh. The draconian law has contributed to the decline of political inclusiveness, tolerance, and respect for different opinions.

Fourth, this fear is not only limited to politics and political actors. The DSA-induced fear spread to the sectors of art, culture, literature, and even personal relationship. The self-censorship is so widespread that friends, relatives, and acquaintances forbid each other to criticize the government and ruling party leaders, which results in a network of unavoidable and all-encompassing surveillance.

Finally, the DSA criminalizes legitimate forms of expression and undermines the freedom enshrined in the constitution, international laws and declarations. The most concerning and disturbing trend is the role of the government loyalist journalists, academics, and members of civil society, who either keep silent or try to justify the need for the draconian DSA. The ruling party’s false narrative of secularism and development has been built on the heavy toll of several human rights violations and criminalization of freedom of expression.

What are the significant patterns?

  • The DSA criminalizes the legitimate forms of expression and undermine the freedom enshrined in the constitution and in the international laws and covenants.
  • There exists a “positive correlation” between intensity of digital repression and deterioration of democracy. The DSA has contributed to establish the existing governance system where the distinction among the state, government, ruling party, and supreme leader has become blurred.
  • People from all walks of life – children, women, civil society members, politicians (from political activists to the opposition party chairman), journalists (local correspondents to the editors)-became victims of the DSA.
  • The DSA has been utilized to permeate repression in every spectrum of the society. The DSA-repression is unprecedent in terms of number of accused and accusers, frequency and quantity of legal cases, severity of the disproportional punishment, and tendency of using for political gains. In its a little more than fifty years of political history, Bangladesh has been experiencing the most challenging time for freedom of expression and opinion.
  • The widespread culture of fear induced by the DSA enhanced the acute animosity, declined political inclusiveness, tolerance, and respect for different opinions.
  • The fear permeated from political to social spheres; including in the sectors of art, culture, literature, and even personal relationship.


Why amending or even repelling DSA is not enough

Although the Bangladesh government has restricted the freedom of expression, muzzled the media, and co-opted most of the civil society members, either by spreading fear by threatening legal consequences or by the influence of their grand narratives, political opponents and a small but active civil society groups dissented relentlessly against the draconian DSA. The international community, including diplomats, rights groups, and international institutions, criticized this act and called for immediate repeal or amendment of the DSA. On several occasions, diplomats from the USA, Canada, the UK, and the members of the European Union have expressed concern over the DSA and reminded Bangladesh how the law is incompatible with international human rights laws and covenants.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) called on the authorities to impose an immediate moratorium on its use and to reform comprehensively its provisions. The OHCHR recommended repealing two sections (21 and 28) and amending eight sections (8, 25, 27, 29, 31, 32, 43, and 53) of the DSA. Several rights groups, civil society groups, and academicians also called on the government to amend the sections. Some of them also pointed out that amending this law is not enough and demanded the government repel the DSA.

However, it is imperative to understand that amending or even repelling the DSA would not bring a meaningful change. The DSA and its detrimental impact on politics and society is only a “symptom” of a critical “disease”- a complete breakdown of democratic norms and the rise of authoritarian rule. Even before the enactment of the DSA, the current authoritarian regime used the ICT Act to harass and punish critical voices.

In 2018, the award-winning photographer Shahidul Alam was arrested for reportedly making “provocative” comments about student protests in an Al Jazeera interview. At least 20 plain-clothes law enforcers stormed his Dhaka home, and he was picked up, detained, and allegedly tortured. A day later, Alam was charged under Section 57 of the ICT Act.

Several political opponents, dissenters, and critics were imprisoned for “defaming” Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman under Section 57. In fact, after this particular section of the ICT Act was criticized, the government gave false assurance of amendment and enacted a more draconian law (the DSA) in 2018.

Thus, even if the authoritarian regime promises to amend or repeal the DSA 2018, it will not bring any effective changes unless a free and fair election under a neutral election mechanism elects a democratic government. Without bringing back democracy and transparency, where the government will be accountable to the people’s mandate, one draconian law will be replaced by another with more severity and brutality.