Development need not come at the price of human rights

How the DSA poses a threat to press freedom

Bangladesh is now a development model for the rest of the world. The country has done so well the US president is now being advised to learn from Bangladesh — a country that rose from a war-ravaged country in 1971 to one of the fastest-growing world economies in 2021.

Representational image from the Dhaka Tribune

Despite the Covid-19 fallout, economic miracles are happening here — migrant workers pumped around US$ 18.2 billion in remittances in the 2019-20 fiscal. Life expectancy, literacy rate, per capita food consumption, everything witnessed firm growth over the past few years backed by steady GDP growth.

According to the IMF, Bangladesh is set to overtake India in per capita GDP growth. The country achieved the status of the lower-middle-income country in 2015 and met all three eligibility criteria to graduate from the UN’s Least Developed Countries (LDC) to a developing country in 2026.

Everything seems so perfect. But when it comes to governance, particularly that of human rights, Bangladesh is far from doing the right thing. On February 25, writer Mushtaq Ahmed died in prison nine months after he was arrested by the Rapid Action Battalion in May 2020. The elite force arrested the writer on charges of spreading disinformation against the government on social media. The police later charged him under the Digital Security Act 2018.

Mushtaq Ahmed was also a dreamer who introduced crocodile farming in Bangladesh. At some point, he made the infamous swindler PK Halder his partner, who later gained full control of the firm Reptiles. The Anti-Corruption Commission probe found that he swindled more or less Tk10,200 crores. He used Reptiles among many other firms in siphoning this huge amount of public money.

This was probably just the beginning of expressing his frustration and dismay over the state system. At some point, he started expressing his anger, anguish, and frustration on social media. Perhaps he wanted the state to be more accountable, perhaps he thought that the state had not done enough to bring the wrong-doers to book.

Mushtaq Ahmed’s death sparked an uproar and anger among the people, particularly that of youths and rights activists and journalists. In a bid to calm the situation, several government high-ups expressed their dismay over his death and assured a proper investigation. But it had little impact on normalizing the situation. Students and activists immediately took to the streets protesting his death. The police came down heavily on them, arrested seven, and sued them including 150 others unnamed on 10 charges, including attempted murder. The saddest part of Mushtaq Ahmed’s death is that a concerted effort is now being carried out maligning his image.

The DSA has conferred far-reaching obstructive powers to government and state agencies. It has granted carte blanche to collate, preserve, and decrypt the data of any individual in the name of protecting the digital security of the citizens. In a democracy, such powers should only be granted by the parliament or a competent judicial or constitutional authority on a case-to-case basis to protect the freedom of expression and privacy of the citizens. A critical look into the cases filed under the DSA makes it clear that it is not about digital security, rather cases of defamation (if true). The chapter XXI of the Penal Code of 1860 has defined defamation. Then why were Mushtaq Ahmed, Ahmed Kabir Kishore, Didarul Islam charged under the DSA?

The only possible answer to this question is that when democracy lacks a competent opposition and state institutions fail to serve their constitutional mandate, it becomes hybrid, it tends to restrict freedom of expression and press freedom. The democratic institutions also stay far from serving their mandate, giving another carte blanche to the government. In doing so, it needs repressive acts to gag the people and the press.

Surprisingly, Bangladesh has done quite the opposite when it comes to conforming to international conventions on human rights. The country is a State Party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. This means that Bangladesh gave explicit consent to be bound by this treaty.

Freedom of expression is protected by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and given legal force through Article 19 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Bangladesh ratified the ICCPR in 2000 and is therefore legally bound to respect and to ensure freedom of expression as contained in Article 19 of the ICCPR. The UN Human Rights Committee in its general comment No. 34 (2011), stated that the scope of freedom of expression “embraces even expression that may be regarded as deeply offensive.” However, such expression may be subjected to the restrictions contained in Article 19 (3) and Article 20 of the ICCPR.

Sadly, in the name of imposing reasonable legal restriction authoritarian, draconian and repressive acts like the Digital Security Act have been promulgated only to silence the people and the press. It is nothing but a weapon of destruction of freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and press freedom. What the state agencies did with Mushtaq Ahmed was illegitimate, unnecessary, and disproportional. He did not deserve to die in prison like this. Moreover, the frightening part of this act is that it has largely been used by politicians and businessmen. Does it imply that this act is meant to serve only the powerful section of society?

The world is giving an honest thumb-up to Bangladesh for economic growth. It has resulted in empowering the poorest of the country. But there are strong chances of reverse progress. For our growth to sustain, Bangladesh needs to return to true democracy — one of the fundamental principles of the constitution.

This was first published in the Dhaka Tribune on 21 March 2021. Click here to read on the newspaper website.

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