The controversial section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act has become the most popular tool for many to harass personal or political rivals.
Vexatious litigation is a popular tool for harassment in Bangladesh, used for purposes ranging from punishing business rivals to silencing journalists and torturing political opponents. Charges can be as ridiculous as theft of cutlery, as once brought against Saber Hossain Chowdhury MP, to serious allegations of rape and acid violence.
Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act stipulates that any post, image, or video on an electronic format that “causes to deteriorate law and order, prejudice the image of the state or person or hurt religious beliefs” are non-bailable offences. The punishment is a minimum seven years in prison up to a maximum of 14 years. The fines can go up to Tk1 crore.
That the law has become a new favourite for harassment becomes evident in the trial process. Officials at the Cyber Tribunal in Dhaka say only about 30-35% of the Section 57 cases have some merit, the rest are simply dismissed by the court.
The accusations are often found to be contrived or stretched over flimsy issues, aimed at personal rivals. But most of these plaintiffs have nothing to lose as they have already achieved their goals to harass rivals, as the offences are non-bailable.
Abdul Latif Morol, a journalist working for a local newspaper in Khulna, was arrested in August this year in a case filed under Section 57 for sharing the news of a dead goat on Facebook.
The goat was among livestock distributed to flood victims in Dumuria, Batiaghata, Dighalia and Rupsa upazilas under the Flood Control Drainage and Irrigation (FCDI) project of the Department of Livestock. State Minister of Fisheries and Livestock Narayan Chandra Chanda was present.
The animal died just hours after it had been handed over to a family. Many other goats were also sick and frail. Latif had shared a news story on this.
A day into his arrest Khulna district police withdrew the Dumuria Police Station officer-in-charge from his duty and a probe committee was formed against him as he did not follow proper legal procedure in receiving the case.
Police Headquarters says in at least 20% of the cases, no evidence of wrongdoing is found.
The Cyber Tribunal has pronounced verdict in 26 cases from January to September. None of the accused in the cases were proven guilty. At least 85% of the cases were filed under Section 57 of the ICT Act.
Most cases filed under Section 57 accuse defendants of posting objectionable pictures and pornographic videos on social media.
The ICT Act was enacted by the BNP-led alliance government in 2006 with a maximum of 10-year imprisonment and in 2013 the term was increased to 14 years in an amendment.
While previously, law enforcement was required to seek permission from authorities before filing a case and arrest the accused, this was relaxed in the amendment and an arrest can be done without a warrant.
However, in light of the increased misuse of the law, the Police Headquarters has issued a directive asking field level police officials to seek permission before registering a case.
Law Minister Anisul Huq in May this year said Section 57 will be removed and a new Digital Security Act.
Most cases are dismissed
Md Nazrul Islam Shamim, special public prosecutor of Cyber Tribunal, told the Dhaka Tribune that 65-70% of the cases filed under Section 57 cannot be proven at the court.
“Some cases are totally fabricated and are filed to harass people. Most of these cases are settled out of court,” he said.
In some cases the accusations are true but the parties choose to settle the matter out of court.
“For example, a college student filed a case against her boyfriend for circulating their private photographs on the Internet. But when the trial started, the families got them married and prayed to dismiss the case. This also happened in a case where a wife accused her husband of circulating private photographs,” he said.
The official also said that justice seekers often deliberately or unknowingly lodge their cases under Section 57, which should have been filed under the Pornography Control Act 2012.
But Nazrul believed police incompetence was to blame in some of the cases.
“We have seen that the investigation officer sometimes has no idea what Internet is. During cross examinations they keep mum. They submit poor probe reports. Police have trained 84 of their members from abroad but they are hardly ever asked to investigate,” he alleged.
The lawyer however, admitted that the Cyber Tribunal has been running at a slow pace.
“We did not get a separate courtroom and do not have enough digital facilities, even though the crimes are committed on digital platforms,” he said.
He said there were 450 cases currently under trial at the tribunal. The tribunal started in February 2013.
Police practising caution
Police say that despite lack of proper logistic support they have been trying to provide the best investigation in the cases filed under the ICT Act.
Police Headquarters Assistant Inspector General (Media) Soheli Ferdous told the Dhaka Tribune that the public were yet to be fully aware about cyber crime.
“In these cases, we often find that people get involved in such crimes unintentionally simply due to ignorance,” she said.
She said that forensic test of murder cases and ICT cases are different.
“Forensic facilities are much developed for investigating other crimes. But ICT cases are a new thing. As a result, labs take a lot of time in producing reports. Besides, there are shortcomings in preserving data and evidence. Police is not very well trained in this,” she said.
The police official said that they have been working to develop a strong forensic lab system.
“But it will take time to train up the necessary number of people to deal with ICT forensic work. Currently, we are outsourcing to IT experts. But their numbers are not enough either,” she added.
The AIG admitted that outside Dhaka, the police have comparatively few competent officers to deal with the cases filed under the ICT Act, specially ones under Section 57.
She said as per instruction, field-level officers are contacting high ups before receiving cases under the ICT Act.
“We have asked them to conduct primary investigation before receiving a case. Without sufficient supportive evidence no case will be received under this law. We are cautious about that,” she claimed.
According to the tribunal sources, it has pronounced sentences in 375 cases so far. Of these 65% cases have been dismissed as allegations could not be proved.
Police, on the other hand have prayed to the court to dismiss 179 cases as they found the allegations to be false.
The Section 57 has also been used to retaliate against journalists for their reporting, particularly by public officials.
In July this year, Jamuna Television Senior Reporter Nazmul Hossain was sued for his Facebook post on judges.
In June two journalists of a Khulna-based newspaper were sued by an official of the district's Chief Metropolitan Magistrate's Court for publishing a news article. A day before that, bdnews24.com Staff Reporter Golam Mujtaba Dhruba was sued by a senior assistant judge of Manikganj for a news article on his abuse of power.
In May, two journalists in Patuakhali were sued by a local Awami League leader for publishing news on torture of a Hindu woman by a local gang. In the previous month an online news portal's editor was sued by a private company for reporting on their poor product quality.
In April, five local journalists in Narayanganj were sued by the brother of Narayanganj City Corporation Mayor Selina Hayat Ivy.