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Dhaka Tribune

When words threaten

Update : 29 Sep 2017, 02:45 AM
In this era of communication development, and thus the changing mode of virtual threats, there is no scope of doubting the necessity of a legal framework to ensure secure regulation of virtual activities. Keeping that in mind, Bangladesh had enacted Information, Communication, and Technology (ICT) Act, 2006 to play a stewardship role necessary to enhance growth of ICT sector for development. The main purpose of this act is to “provide legal recognition and security of Information and Communication Technology and rules of relevant subjects.” Later, the government brought amendments with tougher punishments to the act on October 2013. But since the amendments, the act has received great criticism from civil society, journalists, human rights activists, online activists, etc. Most of the criticism was surrounded on Section 57 of the act -- that it contains vague wordings, allowing its misuse against journalists, activists, and social media users. It curtails the right to freedom of expression which is considered as the essence of democracy.A law too vagueThe draft translation of section 57(1) of the existing ICT act says: “If any person deliberately publishes or transmits or causes to be published or transmitted in the website or in electronic form any material which is fake and obscene or its effect is such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see, or hear the matter contained or embodied in it, or causes to deteriorate or creates possibility to deteriorate law and order, prejudice the image of the state or person or causes to hurt or may hurt religious belief or instigate against any person or organisation, then this activity of his will be regarded as an offense. “For this offense, the maximum punishment is 14 years’ imprisonment.” The ambiguities of this provision have created a huge scope of abusing the law.
The act has received great criticism from civil society, journalists, human rights activists
It has provided blanket immunities to the law enforcing agencies to arrest any person for even trivial matters. It also shirks the obligation to safeguard freedom of the press, and also contradicts the Right to Information Act where freedom of speech is recognised as one of the basic rights of citizens. Section 57 of the act also clearly contradicts Bangladesh’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as Bangladesh is a state party of the covenant. Under this covenant, in any circumstances, the state can’t restrict freedom of expression of the citizens through vague, imprecise, and overly broad regulatory language.Where we all come to playWith the advent of communication technology, which virtually links the minds of people, our young generation is becoming vibrant on social media networks. They generate ideas and share arguments in support of their own views towards society, country, and the world. Now, with this law, their free and unintended expressions could be interpreted as criminal activities under this ICT Act. The act thus has chilling effects among writers, bloggers, columnists, and users of social media. These provisions have created confusion among them, and also imposed a restriction on what they say.The criticismIn the context of Bangladesh, where unconventional opinions are not welcome all the time, political opponents are considered as an enemy, these provisions could be used to malicious ends. The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief has also expressed concern on this. After his official visit in Bangladesh,  he states in his report: “Restrictive laws, such as Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act, which threatens draconian sanctions for vaguely defined defamation offenses, have created an atmosphere of legal insecurity, in which people are afraid to participate in public debates on sensitive issues, including religious issues.” Expectedly, online activists, CSOs, and journalists have been demanding for the removal of the article from the very beginning of enactment of this law. The concern surrounding the law consequently increased, as the country started experiencing a rise number of cases filed under this act. According to media reports, at least 25 journalists have been sued under this act from March 2017 till July 2017. Following the continuing criticisms, Law Minister Anisul Huq on several occasions said Section 57 would be removed, though many other members of the ruling party expressed their views in favour of Section 57.To protect, not punishAfter all these criticisms and condemnation, the state should take into account all the concerns while incorporating the provision in the new law. And, Section 57 should be fully repealed ultimately. Terms used in the new law should be clarified, as there should not be any scope of misuse. The act should also provide sufficient safeguards for the protection of human rights with reference to international human rights standards. The right to freedom of expression protects both the right of the speaker and the right of the listener. It also respects people’s right to dignity, safety, and privacy. Let us protect these rights.Santa Islam is working at the Media and International Advocacy Unit, Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK). 
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