On July 13, Professor Abul Mansur, a professor at Dhaka University’s Mass Communication and Journalism department, filed a case against his colleague Fahmidul Haque. Evidently, Haque made a post in a closed group on Facebook that blamed Mansur for the delay in publications of Master course results. Mansur called this allegation false and ended up lodging a complaint at a local police station under section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act. That a Facebook post made by a closed group can result in a police case has caused an all round furore in Bangladesh against the ICT Act.
Many past supporters have come to review their initial endorsement of the Act and several Human Rights group have criticised it as anti to the fundamental rights of freedom of expression. While members of the civil society in Bangladesh have criticised Abul Mansur, they are failing to discuss the long term impact of the provision of the ICT Act on the Bangladeshi society.
Enacted in 2006 by the contemporary government of Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Islamist Jamaat-E-Islami, the ICT Act allows law enforcement officials to arrest any citizen for things they post on social media or any other electronic media.
With the amendment, the maximum jail term was raised to 14 years.
The ICT Act passed in 2006 has the provisions for maximum punishment, including imprisonment for 10 years and a fine of Tk 1 crore. However, the 2006 law stipulated that police had to seek permission from the concerned authorities to file a case and arrest any person. However, the present government amended the law in 2013. With the amendment, the maximum jail term was raised to 14 years. Moreover, law enforcers were empowered to make arrests without a warrant.
Bangladesh’s English language daily the Daily Star reported recently that at least 21 journalists were sued under section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act in the last four months. One of Bangladesh’s Human Rights group Odhikar said that at least 82 people have been arrested under this law between January 2014 and December of last year.
There are many prominent figures who have suffered from the misutilisation of the Act. Veteran Bangladeshi journalist and researcher Afsan Chowdhury was sued over a Facebook post. In a case filed under Section 57 of the ICT Act, Masud Uddin Chowdhury, a retired lieutenant general, filed a case, accusing Mr Afsan of defamation by making ‘false, concocted and baseless’ comment about the ownership of Picasso restaurant co-owned by Masud’s.
In another instance, Golam Mostofa Rafiq, the editor of a local daily in Habiganj, was arrested in June in a case filed under the same Act. A local ruling party leader filed a case against him for a report in his newspaper that stated the local Member of Parliament might not get ruling party nomination in the next election and for posting this piece on the social media. Similarly, a senior journalist of a national daily Azmal Haque Helal was sued under the law early this month for making comments against a local lawmaker on Facebook.
Two journalists were sued under the section in Bangladesh’s Khulna district for publishing a report on recruitment tests conducted by a government office.
In June, a judge of the Manikganj court has filed a case under the controversial section 57 of the ICT Act against a reporter for reporting how a truck rented by the judge was obstructing the road and kept a child from going to the hospital. In the same month, two journalists were sued under the section in Bangladesh’s Khulna district for publishing a report on recruitment tests conducted by a government office.
The list of cases where the ICT Act has been misused is long and tedious. Many international human rights organisations, including the Amnesty International, have time and again criticised the provision for being short of international standard. Amnesty International termed the clauses of the law vaguely worded and said that the Act empowers authorities to prosecute people “in the interest of the sovereignty, integrity or security of Bangladesh” or if action is deemed to “prejudice the image of the state” or “hurt religious beliefs.”
In its annual report for 2016, Article 19, a London based Human Rights group, urged the Bangladesh government to repeal Section 57 of the ICT Act and bring the law in line with international standards maintained on freedom of expression. It also urged the government to drop all cases filed under this provision against journalists and online activists.
Despite the concerns expressed in home and abroad, however, cases under the section continue to be filed. And things are worsening every day.
There must be some laws to ensure that Facebooks or other social media sites are not used for making hate speeches but 14 years of jail is too much for writing something.
In every society, there must be some laws to ensure that Facebooks or other social media sites are not used for making hate speeches but 14 years of jail is too much for writing something. To resolve the situation many suggestions have been forwarded. For instance, in an interview with a national daily, Bangladeshi journalist and BRAC University professor Afsan Chowdhury suggested that if someone files a case, it should not be accepted immediately without a review. Mr Chowdhury also suggested that the government should form a committee to review the existing cases filed under Section 57. This looks like a very sensible suggestion but, in the long run, the Bangladesh government must think about repealing the law as per the recommendations of international rights groups before it is too late.