Since its enactment in 2018, the Digital Security Act (DSA) has been repeatedly used to target critical voices. The arbitrary enforcement of some of its overly broad and vague provisions meant that the victims came from all sorts of backgrounds, although it was always feared that journalists and political activists would be disproportionately targeted. A review of court cases by the DSA Tracker, a project by the Centre for Governance Studies (CGS), now reveals that politicians did form the majority of victims. After studying the professions of approximately 400 individuals being prosecuted under the law during 2020-2021, the team found that at least 167 of them were politicians. Journalists were a close second, with at least 160 facing prosecution during this period.
The numbers of DSA cases and accused are, of course, much higher. But what makes the CGS findings significant is that it puts a number on two categories of victims who, by virtue of their professions, are closest to the citizens—thereby their most authentic representatives. While we await more exhaustive analysis of the defendants in DSA cases, it's safe to say that most were targeted because they said something deemed "offensive." "Freedom of expression has its limits," said the organizing secretary of the ruling Awami League while defending the law. We beg to disagree, because the freedom to speak is precisely the freedom to offend, shock or challenge, and the offended are welcome to protest it, but not gag the offenders.
But this is exactly what is happening now. Political activists, rights campaigners and even journalists—after a promise of undue concessions in DSA case filings from the law minister—continue to be at risk. Two oft-parroted excuses for filing such cases are "hurting the spirit of the Liberation War" and "hurting religious sentiment." Between 2020 and 2021, the DSA Tracker reportedly logged over 2,000 DSA cases filed against 1,530 people, of whom at least 90 were prosecuted for hurting religious sentiment and "provoking unrest." Of them, at least 55 belonged to the minority Hindu community. Equally frighteningly, police have been solely empowered to decide whether the spirit of the Liberation War or anyone's religious sentiments have been hurt.
The existence of these undefined terms and vague provisions in a legal document that is supposed to be unambiguous is as much to blame as our general culture of intolerance. The CGS findings show how far the rot has spread. At a time when people, especially the youth, are showing increasing disinterest in joining politics and assuming the mantle of leadership, such targeted, ill-motivated use of DSA is bound to send a very wrong message. We can't expect them to be politically active without being politically vocal. We urge the government to repeal the law—or at least amend its questionable provisions.