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A harsh law, a tragic death and a global backlash

Published : Friday, 5 March, 2021 at 12:00 AM  Count : 343
Syed Badiuzzaman

A harsh law, a tragic death and a global backlash

A harsh law, a tragic death and a global backlash

The tragic death of writer and commentator Mushtaq Ahmed, an apparent victim of the Digital Security Act---an extremely stringent media law---has sparked a global backlash against the controversial legislation putting the Bangladesh government on the spot.

The death has prompted angry headlines around the world. International media outlets are outraged by the incident, global human rights groups are blunt in their reactions to his death in custody and diplomats representing the most powerful nations of the world are upfront in their demand for a "swift, transparent and independent enquiry into the full circumstances" that led to his death.

Needless to say, the incident has put the government in an uncomfortable situation. At the root of this sudden and uncalled for trouble lies the draconian media law --- Digital Security Act --- which is widely condemned not only within the country but virtually all over the world for the harm it is causing to free press and freedom of expression in Bangladesh and of course to the country's democracy.

And now the law is being blamed for the death of a writer. As both local and foreign press reported, Mushtaq Ahmed, the only son of his parents, was detained for nine long months without trial. His bail petitions were rejected as many as six times. And finally for torture as alleged by his family and other ailments, he died in prison on February 25 even before he was taken to a nearby hospital.

Here's the vital question. What was Mushtaq Ahmed's fault? He just criticized government's response to coronavirus in the country on social media. That was it. So, where did he go too far? Didn't thousands of other journalists and media professionals do exactly the same thing in many other countries around the world where the responses of their governments were inadequate to the deadly virus?

In America, for example, scores of journalists criticized former President Donald Trump as well as his administration on all media platforms almost on a daily basis for month after month for their inadequate responses to the pandemic of COVID-19 that killed over half a million Americans and infected millions more. How many journalists were detained in America for making such criticism? Zero journalist!

Why should a journalist or writer be arrested for criticizing any democratic government if such government fails to perform properly or adequately while dealing with a deadly virus or any other crisis situation? Isn't it both the right as well as responsibility of writers, journalists and cartoonists of democratic countries to freely express their observations on their governments' role in handling global pandemic or any other critical problem?

Mushtaq Ahmed was reportedly picked up along with 10 other people including two journalists and a cartoonist in May last year by the members of law enforcement agencies and they were all charged with "spreading rumor and carrying out anti-government activities under the Digital Security Act." Some media outlets say that they were charged with the high crime of sedition or anti-state activities. One may have to stay in jail for a long time if that person is found guilty of these crimes.

Again the question is how criticism about government's response to coronavirus amounted to any crime at all in a democratic country --- let alone the charges of sedition or anti-state or anti-government activities. Many governments of many countries including the US have faced a barrage of criticism for poorly handling the pandemic of coronavirus. Unprepared and plagued with a host of problems to tackle an absolutely new virus, was Bangladesh government any different from the governments of those countries?
Of course, not! Then why would the Bangladesh media professionals be barred from making a legitimate criticism of government failure in managing the pandemic in a better way? Wasn't it their professional and also a moral obligation to write or speak about the weaknesses of the government in dealing with the pandemic of the century? Governments of many other countries rather expressed their gratitude for media criticism of their performance as that helped them figure out their mistakes and take necessary corrective measures.

If Bangladesh considers itself as a truly democratic country, then why should it need an undemocratic law like the Digital Security Act? Right since the act came into force in October 2018, national and international media and human rights groups including the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as well as the Editors' Council of Bangladesh have been voicing their concern over its legislation as it is stifling freedom of expression, freedom of press as well as the rights of Bangladesh's journalists and democracy.

Free press and democracy are like two sides of the same coin. If the press is in trouble in a country, so is democracy in that country. One always supports the other. If there is no free press, there is no democracy. It's as simple as that. There is no counter argument or any other opposite logic. If the media is unable to operate freely in a country, then the democracy of that country is certainly facing resistance. In every democratic country, press has a watchdog role in monitoring everything and the most important of which are the activities of the government.

And that's why American journalist and satirist H. L. Mencken put it this way with a humor: "Journalism is to politician as dog is to lamp-post."If journalists, cartoonists and writers are unable to criticize government, then the very purpose of their joining media profession will be completely meaningless. In such a situation, their job will be not much different from the job of information, public relations and media relations officials of the government. No government is beyond criticism. If there is no criticism against government, how will the government know about its shortcomings or where it is going wrong?

The Digital Security Act has excessively harsh provisions for up to 14 years in prison for any propaganda or campaign against the country's national anthem or flag, the1971 war of independence and Bangladesh's founding father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The act also includes lengthy jail sentences of up to 10 years for causing harm to communal harmony and creating disorder and unrest in the country. Under other frightening provisions of the act, people can be arrested without warrant and kept under detention for indefinite period of time.  

While this act is being used as a powerful tool of the government to suppress dissent, stifle press freedom and curb rights of media professionals, it is doing great harm to the country's democracy, Bangladesh's reputation abroad and of course to the legacy of Awami League. The act is sure to add a dark chapter to the history of Awami League, a party that was once in the forefront of all movements for democratic and fundamental rights of people. The law has granted too much power to a temporary government undercutting Awami League's reputation permanently.

The government should do three things right away to restore the reputation of Awami League. First, it should conduct a transparent and independent investigation into the full circumstances that caused the death of Mushtaq Ahmed in prison which has already been ordered. Secondly, it should unconditionally release cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore --- not just granting him bail --- and all other prisoners detained under the Digital Security Act. And finally, it should repeal the draconian media law soon or replace it if it must with a legislation which will have no adverse impact on freedom of expression and rights of media professionals.

With loss of press freedom in Bangladesh, democracy of the country will cease to exist. And once democracy is gone, decades of people's struggle will go in vain. At this moment, the Awami League government is standing at a crossroads. It has to make an extremely important decision whether to defend press freedom and democracy in the country or abandon them.
The writer is a Toronto-based journalist who also writes for the Toronto Sun and Canada's Postmedia Network

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