Although the government has enacted the Information and Communication Technology (ACT) Act in a bid to check cyber crimes, influential people, particularly those of the ruling Awami League, have been found using Section 57 of the act as a tool to harass journalists and rights activists.
During an inquiry by the Dhaka Tribune, it was found that at least 19 journalists have been sued under the act by lawmakers, ruling party men and other influential people ever since it was enacted.
Recently, the filing of a case against Abdul Latif Morol, a correspondent of the daily Prabaha in Khulna, under Section 57 sparked fresh fear and anger among people from different strata of the society.
Latif was sued on Monday by another journalist over a Facebook post that allegedly demeaned State Minister for Fisheries and Livestock Narayan Chandra Chanda. Latif in the post allegedly lambasted Narayan Chandra for the sick, stunted livestock he distributed among flood-hit people in Khulna, saying some of the livestock died right after they were brought home.
Why should anyone be able to sue others? Why should the offence be non-bailable? Why should the punishment be so harsh? Why should it exist when other laws cover the same crimes?
According to prosecution sources, three cases were filed in 2013 under the ICT Act, 33 in 2014, 152 in 2015 and 233 in 2016 after the act was enacted in 2006.
The first half of this year saw 391 cases lodged under this act with different police stations across the country, while nearly 60% of the cases were filed under Section 57. A total of 785 people were made accused in the cases. Of them, 313 were arrested. In January 2017 alone, 42 cases were filed, and the number rose to 79 in June.
Section 57 of the 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 of seven years in prison up to a maximum of 14 years, while the fines can go up to Tk1 crore.
Numerous journalists, students and teachers have been imprisoned under Section 57, causing civic leaders as well as activists to voice their objections to it. Also, the law has been called draconian in its implementation and criticised for how it can be interpreted by law enforcement agencies.
New Digital Security Act
However, the government agreed to repeal Section 57 in the face of vehement public criticism and proposed to formulate a new act – Digital Security Act, as it has been dubbed.
According to the proposed act, if a person deliberately publishes any material in the electronic form that “causes to deteriorate law and order, prejudice the image of the state or person or hurt religious beliefs, it is a punishable offence.” And, an offender can be sentenced to a minimum of two months in prison up to a maximum of two years.
[caption id="attachment_137294" align="alignleft" width="182"] JOURNALISTS SUED/ARRESTED UNDER SECTION 57
As per Section 19 of the draft law, members of law enforcement agencies can search, arrest and confiscate anyone’s property without a warrant, just as in Section 57 of the ICT Act.
Speaking to the Dhaka Tribune, Brac University teacher and journalist Afsan Chowdhury, who was recently sued by a retired army officer for his alleged defamatory post on Facebook, said: “Why should anyone be able to sue others? Why should the offence be non-bailable? Why should the punishment be so harsh? Why should it exist when other laws cover the same crimes?
“No one exactly knows who can be sued and for why. Those who are in a powerful position are abusing the law.”
Terming the act flawed, Afsan stressed the need for addressing the flaws.
Morsalin Nomani, general secretary of Dhaka Reporters’ Unity, said: “Section 57 has been misused ever since the act was enacted. We demand Section 57 be repealed.”
Speaking of Section 19 of the Digital Security Act, he urged the government not to incorporate provisions in the proposed act, which are akin to Section 57.
Touhidul Islam Mintu, editor of the report24.com, said: “Influential people are afraid of journalists as the latter are always active to divulge their illegal activities. Therefore, leaders from every political party are using the act as an instrument to harass them.”
Echoing Touhidul, Golam Mujtaba Dhruba, who was sued by a Manikganj judge under the same act, said: “Failing to stop journalists from reporting on their misdeeds, powerful people are deliberately suing the journalists without any valid ground. The government should inquire into the activities of those who are misusing the act.”