It was confirmed on Thursday that the Bangladeshi cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore was released from jail on bail for six months. Kishore was arrested along with ten others in May 2020 for “propagating disinformation against the government” by posting opinions criticizing the government response to COVID-19 on social media. The arrests were made under the Digital Security Act (DSA), a law described as being too “vague” and “broad.” The act is frequently used to silence government opposition and silence journalists.
The High Court decision to grant Kishore bail on Wednesday comes after almost a week of protest. The protests began after the writer Mushtaq Ahmed — who was also arrested in May — died last Thursday in jail. Kishore’s most recent appeal for bail was on the grounds of poor health, this is especially troubling combined with allegations of his torture. The protesters are demanding removal of the DSA by March 26, which is Bangladesh Independence Day.
The DSA was passed into law October 2018. It was written in response to a series of social media posts that resulted in violent acts. The vague language of the act targets “propaganda” against the “spirit” of Bangladesh’s independence and has been used largely to fine, jail, and issue life sentences to journalists who train a critical eye on the government. In addition to criminalizing free speech the act also allows police to detain people without a warrant.
The death of Ahmed and the following protests have brought greater attention to the DSA. The UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet stated,
“There needs to be an overhaul of the Digital Security Act under which Ahmed was charged – and all those detained under this Act for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and opinion must be released.”
Article 19, a human rights organization with a focus on freedom of expression remarked,
“freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of the media are being severely violated under the Digital Security Act.”
The freedom of speech is a human right. Organizations like Cartooning for Peace, Cartoonists Rights Network International, and PEN America have all called not just for the release of Kishore but also that all charges be dropped. Journalists and cartoonists like Kishore should have the right to cast a questioning eye on the decisions their countries make.