Journalist Mamunur Rashid Nomani, editor of the local online news portal Barishal Khobor, has been charged with violating Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act (DSA), following an accusation claiming that he secretly filmed the mayor of Barisal and his family.
Nomani rejects this, alleging instead that he and two of his acquaintances – Kamrul Mridha, working for the ruling party, and Lovelu, a driver – were physically assaulted in a confrontation with the mayor, which resulted in their arrest and the confiscation of their mobile phones. Media Defence is supporting Nomani’s legal defence against the DSA charges before the Barisal Cyber Tribunal. If he loses, he faces up to five years in prison.
A violent attack against the journalist
In September 2020, Mamunur Rashid Nomani and his two acquaintances greeted the Barisal City Mayor and his family members. According to Nomani, the mayor recognised him, and immediately started criticising a report written by the journalist earlier that year and asked him why he published it. This report detailed the City Corporation’s shortcomings in its response to flooding in Barisal. Nomani claims that the mayor, other city administration employees, and members of the ruling party then proceeded to violently attack him and his acquaintances.
According to Nomani, after the mayor ordered his associates to confiscate the men’s phones, they submerged him underwater in the Kirtankhola River for several minutes. Following this, Nomani was allegedly pinned down and beaten with an iron rod. Medical reports indicate that he suffered injuries across his body, as well as several broken fingers.
After the alleged assault, Nomani and the other two men were taken to Barisal’s Kotwali police station. The police filed an application at the Barisal Metropolitan Magistrate Court for the three acquaintances to be transferred to the Barisal Central Jail without being produced before a judge. Nomani was held in custody for 17 days, where he claims that he was subjected to torture. It was not until the Barisal Court judge released the journalist on conditional bail that he received medical attention for his injuries.
Mamunur Rashid Nomani’s legal battle
A local ward councillor of the Barisal City Corporation, who was present at the incident filed a complaint with the police against the men, claiming that they had been covertly recording videos of the mayor and his family without their permission. Nomani told Media Defence, that he denies these allegations, and a forensic report found no existence of pictures or videos.
The councillor filed the complaint under sections . Section 26(1) and (2) enable punishment for the unauthorised collection and use of identity information. Section 33(2) enables punishment for holding and transferring data or information “illegally”. Both of the sections carry a prison sentence of up to five years and a fine of between 500,000 and 1000,000 taka (the equivalent of £3,753.00-£7,507.00 GBP).
On the same day, the officer-in-charge of the Kotwali police station filed a first information report (FIR): the first step of a police investigation against Nomani and his two acquaintances. As part of this investigation, the police sent the men’s confiscated mobile phones to Dhaka police’s criminal investigation department to be forensically analysed. The department has issued a forensic report containing no evidence of cybercrime.
Since the Barisal Court has released him on conditional bail, Mamunur Rashid Nomani is required to appear in court every month. The case was then transferred to the newly set up Barisal Cyber Tribunal, which holds jurisdiction over cybercrimes, including those filed under the DSA. On 2 March 2023, Nomani’s lawyer filed an application for exemption based on the fact that the forensic report found no existence of pictures or videos: in short, no evidence of a cybercrime. Media Defence is supporting his case to secure permanent bail as well as the withdrawal of the FIR filed against him. In May 2023, Nomani received threats, urging him to leave the city, and he is currently in a precarious position. In relation to his ongoing case, Nomani commented: “I appeal to all to ensure my safety, legal assistance, and better treatment”.
Bangladesh’s restrictions on the exercise of freedom of expression in the digital sphere
Bangladesh’s DSA contains some of the harshest sentences for the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression in the world. It was introduced in 2018 to replace the similarly controversial Information and Communication Technology Act, essentially adding harsher penalties to many of its provisions. Several of the DSA’s provisions violate international human rights law. In particular, it contains several speech offences, including criminal defamation. The DSA, in a vaguely phrased provision, also criminalises the sending of “offensive” information. In practice, this can be misused to restrict the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression. Furthermore, the DSA imposes prison sentences for propaganda or campaigns against the Bangladeshi war of independence or national emblems and enables authorities to search, arrest, and seize property without warrants.
Since its introduction, over 2,000 cases have been filed under the DSA. This forms part of the increasingly hostile environment for journalists and independent media in Bangladesh. Those who are critical of the ruling party – which has been in power since 2009 – and the prime minister, face inevitable persecution. Journalists are routinely subjected to attacks and judicial harassment, and self-censorship is common. In February, the government shut down the country’s main opposition newspaper.
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Lilian Olivia Orero is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya and Award-winning writer based in Nairobi, Kenya. Lilian Olivia participated in our women-only litigation surgeries as part of our EWDRA project. Here she gave a presentation on strategies that journalists in sub-Saharan Africa can use to help them stay safe online amidst ever […]