I have been an introvert ever since childhood. During my school days, whenever a teacher asked us questions in the classroom, even if I knew the answer, I never raised my hand because of my crippling inability to be in the spotlight. Even in my 30s, I largely tended to avoid social gatherings and whatnot.
Even if someone manages to convince me to attend any sort of soiree or party (after a hefty struggle, that is), I always manage to find a corner in the room where I can settle in and not feel any pressure to communicate with others. I have accepted the fact that I am unable, and afraid, of expressing myself well in front of others.
A book full of faces
However, Mark Zuckerberg and his creation, Facebook, gave me a second wind in being a part of this whole “socialising” thing. I seem to have discovered a new me, and my friends and family members can attest to that.
The other day one of my old college buddies told me how he used to have a misconception about me and my ability to communicate -- apparently my Facebook posts helped change that perception. Well, I’ll be!
Pardon the humblebrag, but I have a lot of friends on social networks. Like, a lot. I regularly interact with them these days, something I tended to avoid before. I realise that there are quite a few negative psychological side-effects of being this hooked to social media, but, as long as I’m aware of them, I am happy with this new virtual life.
Of course, in typical fashion, everything went belly-up after a certain point. I am, of course, talking about the formation of the ICT Act, Section 57 to be exact, which allows law enforcement to arbitrarily arrest any citizen for things they post on social media or any other electronic forum.
Above the law
There is a provision of 10 years imprisonment or a Tk1 crore fine if any citizen is found guilty under the law. The law did not bother me initially, but when cases were filed against a handful of prominent citizens in the country, I started to get worried.
Every day I proceed to prepare a few short write-ups to post on Facebook, but then delete them fearing some kind of legal ramification -- why bother letting the authorities censor me when I can do it myself? I think twice before posting anything on Facebook and I feel that my previously newfound freedom to express myself is now overtaken by paranoia, only it’s not irrational.
There needs to be a system of checks and balances that ensures no one can use social media to spread hate speech or incite violence, but provisions for arbitrary arrests and 10 years of imprisonment is not the way
Many of my friends feel the same way, some have even stopped using social networks altogether. It’s not uncommon for me to see a good friend, vocal in their beliefs, post something on Facebook only to delete it within a minute or two for reasons unknown.
Needless to say, this fear effect has made life quite hard for journalists who operate exclusively in the online sphere. Covering the news is their livelihood, but they don’t know whether what they post will land them in jail. There needs to be a system of checks and balances that ensures no one can use social media to spread hate speech or incite violence, but provisions for arbitrary arrests and 10 years of imprisonment is not the way.
A democratic nation such as ours has no space for such draconian laws.
The list of people who are affected by this law is long. As I was writing this very article, I stumbled upon a report of cases filed against a Jamuna TV journalist under Section 57 of the ICT Act. A short while ago, cases were filed against veteran journalist and researcher Afsan Chowdhury.
According to rights group Odhikar, at least 82 people have been arrested under this law between January 2014 and December of last year.
Article 19, a London-based rights group, recommends, in its annual report, that the Bangladesh government should repeal Section 57 of the ICT Act and bring the law in line with international standards on freedom of expression, and drop all cases against journalists and online activists under this provision.
The law falls short of international standards, to say the least. Provisions of the original ICT Act, particularly section 57, are also incompatible with the country’s obligations under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Bangladesh ratified the article on September 6, 2000. After the 2013 amendment, the maximum jail term was raised to 14 years. And law enforcers were empowered to make arrests without a warrant.
In a statement made this year in May, Amnesty International said that the vaguely worded clauses of the law empower authorities to prosecute people “in the interest of sovereignty, integrity or security of Bangladesh” or if they are deemed to “prejudice the image of the state” or “hurt religious beliefs.”
It mentioned that in December 2016, Nazmul Huda, a print and television journalist, was arrested, brutally beaten in custody, and then charged under the ICT Act for covering protests by garment workers outside Dhaka.
There must be some laws in any country to make sure that Facebook and other social networks are not being used to spread hate and violence, but non-bailable prosecutions for mere Facebook posts do not go with our founding democratic principles.
Mushfique Wadud is a journalist currently working in the development field.