The Debate | Opinion

Bangladesh Silencing Teenage Dissent

A 15-year-old was arrested for criticizing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Facebook.

By Tasnim Nazeer for
Bangladesh Silencing Teenage Dissent
Credit: Pixabay

Bangladesh has intensified its crackdown on dissenting voices, by arresting a 15-year-old for posting criticism of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed. Bangladesh authorities accused the young boy of “defaming” the prime minister in a post on Facebook, leading to renewed questions about freedom of speech in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh authorities attempted to reprimand the boy under the vaguely defined Digital Security Act (DSA). The DSA was implemented by the country in 2018; human rights activists warned at the time that the law was even more “repressive” than previous digital security laws. Frustratingly, the act has overly broad dimensions, which have been used to imprison, intimidate, and penalize journalists and social media users alike. The DSA has also been used to justify invasive forms of surveillance. Despite the fact that Bangladesh had pledged that it would uphold rights to freedom of speech, the enforcement of the DSA proves otherwise.

More worryingly, the Act enables the Bangladesh police force to arrest anyone without a warrant. The slightest suspicion that a crime may be committed using digital media is enough for the police to arrest people — even children.

Arresting a child for criticizing the prime minister is a violation of rights to free speech. In addition, international human rights law prohibits detaining children under 18 years of age, save as a “final resort” for a very severe crime. A Facebook post criticizing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina does not fall into that category.

Hundreds of dissenting voices have been charged with crimes for criticizing Hasina and other senior political figures from the ruling party. Many of those who were reprimanded have been children sent to juvenile detention centers. Police in Bhaluka said the ruling party had claimed the teen had “badmouthed … our mother-like leader.”

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The boy was then made to “realize his mistakes and correct his character” while in a detention center. Human Rights Watch has reported that such centers in Bangladesh are “prone to unhygienic conditions.” Any child placed in a detention center could be at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 as they have been known to be overcrowded with no room for proper social distancing.

Heartbreakingly, more than 1,000 children in Bangladesh are being held in these detention centers, even during the pandemic. Many of them have been placed there unjustifiably and are awaiting sentencing or trial for petty crimes. UNICEF has urged Bangladesh to release all children in the detention centers who can be safely released and ensure that that those who have to remain are protected and that their mental and physical health is looked into. However, the mere fact that Bangladesh has held a 15-year-old  boy to account over a Facebook post is a testament to the lack of concern over the rights of children and their mental and physical wellbeing.

The Digital Security Act cannot and should not be used as a weapon to reprimand those who criticize the government or its policies. As it stands, the law poses a dangerous mechanism to silence anyone who wants to raise concerns. People should not be targeted because they share a differing view of government policies or dislike the ruling party’s conduct. According to a report by Channel News Asia, the digital security laws have also been used to arrest scores of people for spreading “false rumors” online about the coronavirus.

During the pandemic, children in Bangladesh should be allowed to be at home with their families to avoid the risk of infection. Hasina should denounce any arrests made against children critical of her policies or ruling party and set the precedent of reinstating the right to free speech. If the prime minister fails to do this, she would risk losing whatever  respect she has left from human rights groups and activists, which have been calling for change in the digital laws.

Tasnim Nazeer is an award-winning journalist and author who has written for a variety of print and online publications including The Guardian, Al Jazeera English, CNN, HuffPost UK and many more.