Facebook Posts Trigger More Arrests in Bangladesh, Worrying Netizens
The Digital Security Act criminalizes various types of online speech.
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
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.
— Shammi Haque (@shammi121) May 15, 2019
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:
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.
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.
Bangladesh crackdown on social media. Police have made a second arrest in less than a day under Digital Security Act. Writer Imtiaz Mahmood was arrested in a case over ICT act on Wednesday morning. #Freedomofexpression #ICTLawhttps://t.co/eH8H38unCr
— Tuhin Das (@tuhinpgh) May 15, 2019
Writer Meher Afroz Shaon posted on Facebook:
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:
The Bangladesh government cannot ensure public safety but prompt to arrest people under the repressive Digital Security Act which is, by the way, against the very spirit of the constitution of Bangladesh. https://t.co/1sFKY10OPV
— Leesa Gazi (@LeesaGazi) May 15, 2019
Journalist Probhash Amin wrote on Facebook:
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.
This article was originally published at Global Voices and has been republished under the Creative Commons licence.