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The Bangladesh digital paradox

  • Published at 06:32 pm February 11th, 2018
  • Last updated at 11:00 am February 12th, 2018
The Bangladesh digital paradox
A ship is about to sail. From the deck, a Cretan tells his mates standing on the shore: “All Cretans are liars.” This is known as the Paradox of Epimenides. A paradox is a seemingly true statement that contradicts itself. The contradiction here is clearly evident: If he (the Cretan) is true that all the Cretans are liars, he too cannot be truthful, because he is also a Cretan. Why is this important? From certain angles, the national goal of Bangladesh seems to be something of a paradox: We are being promised a truly Digital Bangladesh in the near future, yet we are seeing increasing limitations being put on digital platforms of expression. The law is supposed to protect civil rights, to ensure social justice, and sustain harmony in any given democratic society. Of course, laws can be manipulated and shaped in a way that it works to oppress the people instead, but I do believe that such forms of governance are incredibly unpopular in the modern world. To that end, the introduction and subsequent legislation of section 57 of Bangladesh’s ICT Act was a traumatizing event for Bangladesh -- a developing country that has slowly been gaining digital traction. Recently, we witnessed further attempts at establishing a gag law in Bangladesh by the cabinet’s approval of the Digital Security Act (DSA) earlier this year. While section 57 being revoked was a temporary sigh of relief, the innards of that particular law are now distributed throughout sections 25, 28, 29, and 31 of the DSA. We already have witnessed more than 1,400 cases filed between 2012 and 2017 under this section. At least 65% of which have been for defamation, with innumerable journalists getting harassed in the accusation of slandering for their reports. It’s not too far-fetched to believe that the DSA has enough scope for it to be misused by reprisals for nefarious reasons, the most troubling of which would be to silence the press. Since terms such as “defamation,” “religious sentiment,” and the like are not clearly defined in our legal system, it’s pretty easy to picture a dystopian future where any and all voices against the state are silent, no matter the intent. If we were to compare the punishments ascribed in the DSA to those of colonial-era laws against defamation and hurting religious sentiments, it quickly becomes apparent that our present laws are far stricter and more draconian in nature.
While section 57 being revoked was a temporary sigh of relief, the innards of that particular law are now distributed throughout sections 25, 28, 29, and 31 of the DSA
The penalty levels for a few specific cases also raise brows, such as Section 21, which imposes up to 14 years of jail or a fine of up to Tk1 crore -- or both -- for spreading negative propaganda against the Liberation War or Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It’s hard to understand exactly how such laws could, in any shape or form, help our society in the long run. In the last few years, most cases of vandalism and violence which erupted from misinformation in social media have remained unsolved, and the perpetrators are still on the loose wreaking havoc in the fringes of the country from time to time. On the flip side, innocents and individuals with minor offenses, oftentimes, find themselves in unpleasant situations because of such heavy-handed laws. In the newly granted act, anyone carrying digital apparatuses which can be used to collect information entering in a government premises without lawful procedure or permission will be considered a spy and be served 14 years of imprisonment, have to pay a Tk20 lakh fine, or both. What about investigative journalists who are trying to reveal corruption at the government level? “Vision 2021” was the political manifesto that the sitting government rode on its way to winning the national election 10 years ago. It sought to transform Bangladesh’s digital make-up in order to boost our nation’s development and catapult us into the middle income status. The implementation of Section 57 and then the DSA are, simply put, counterintuitive to the entire promise of Digital Bangladesh. Sayeed Ovi is a Researcher, Jahangirnagar University.