The law, considered draconian by many, has been widely criticized because of the loopholes it has for exploitation
Despite widespread criticism, Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, 2006, which the government has, many times, accepted is not without flaws, remains a cause for concern, often being misused.
The law has been vehemently criticized by rights activists, journalists, legal experts and free thinkers since its formation because of how loosely it can be interpreted and exploited to harass citizens.
Under Section 57, intentionally posting false, provocative, indecent or sensitive information on websites or any electronic platforms that is defamatory, and can disrupt the country’s law and order situation, or hurt religious sentiments, is a punishable offence, with a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment and a Tk1 crore fine.
Experts believe the law leaves much room for interpretation, becoming a tool to muzzle free speech and deny citizens the democratic right to dissent.
At least 20 journalists, writers and eminent personalities have been sued under Section 57 over the years, mostly by ruling party men.
Several ministers, especially the law minister, have said that the ICT Act does not specifically define a number of offences. As a result, it has been widely misused, particularly against political opponents or to serve personal vendetta.
Law enforcement officials have said they are aware of the misuse of the law, which is why field-level policemen across the country were directed last year to scrutinize every case and conduct primary investigations to find supporting evidence before filing it under Section 57.
The ruling Awami League has also directed its men to be more careful and consult the central command when filing a case under the ICT Act, especially against journalists and rights activists, in order to maintain the government’s image and the party’s reputation, party sources said.
Faced with criticism, the government formulated a new law earlier this year to replace the ICT Act, which clearly defines cyber offences, according to the ICT Division officials.
The Digital Security Bill, 2018 was placed before parliament in April and waits to be passed into a law, and if passed it will repeal several sections of the ICT Act, including Section 57.
However, rights activists and experts believe the new law is hardly an improvement, and Section 57 will remain in effect for all intents and purposes.
No scope for dissent
The latest series of cases under Section 57 were filed during the recent student movement for road safety, during which a number of people – involved with a vested quarter, according to the government – were arrested on charges of inciting violence by spreading rumours on social media.
One of the arrestees is prominent photographer Shahidul Alam, currently on a seven-day remand under Section 57 was charged with spreading propaganda against the government centring the road safety movement after he criticized the government’s response to the protests in an interview.
On Tuesday night, law enforcement members arrested three individuals - Touhidul Islam Tushar, Md Waliullah and Md Ihsan Uddin on charges of spreading rumours during the protests. They were placed on remand by a Dhaka court as well.
Speaking to the Dhaka Tribune, Supreme Court lawyer and human rights activist Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua said Section 57 has been used following a “pick and choose” method so far.
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“The government, police and the ruling party men are using the law against those they do not like,” he said. “For example, police filed cases against students and some other people under this law on charge of instigating violence during the road safety movement.”
But those who attacked students and journalists with sharp weapons and sticks in broad daylight have yet to be sued, he added.
“This means those who have been injured in those attacks have to file the cases themselves to get justice; the government or the law enforcement agency will not be the complainant,” he said.
He further said from ethical stance, police should not have any authority to file a case under the ICT Act when the government has already accepted that this law is flawed and is currently working on replacing it with a new law.
What is Shahidul Alam’s case about?
On August 6, Inspector Md Mehedi Hasan of the Detective Branch of police (north zonal team) filed the case against Shahidul Alam with Ramna police station where he said the noted photographer tried to instigate students and create instability in the country by spreading false information and rumours on social media.
The inspector alleged that Shahidul’s remarks were aimed at worsening the law and order situation, tarnish the image of the country, and hurt the sentiments of students by spreading rumours to instigate them to be engaged in destructive acts.
In the FIR, Inspector Mehedi said Shahidul had gone live on Facebook around 5pm on Sunday, and expressed the following opinion[sic]: “The present AL govt. is non elected and so do not have any mandate to continue, Bank looting is conduct by the people in power and their associates. Extra Judicial Killing in conducted every now and then, Disappearnce are common phenomena, Quota system continues to facilitate only the people in power. The quota movement is subduced brutally. In the safe road movement police invite the armed BCL student to fight the unarmed innocent students. Female students are taken and then disappearing. Many innocent students are made injured by BCL students and police, personally he believes that without the care taker government no free, fair and neutral election is not possible in Bangladesh. So the present government must be over thrown.”
Mehdi said after he notified his superior, Deputy Commissioner Moshiur Rahman of DB north division, he ordered to move a team led by Senior Assistant Commissioner Kayser Rijvi Korayshi. Following the order, a team went to Shahidul Alam’s house accompanied by Dhanmondi police. Later, they took Shahidul into DB custody around 11:30pm on Sunday and seized three mobile phones from his possession.
After completing a preliminary inquiry, police filed another case under Section 57(2) of the ICT Act on Monday.