It sounds bizarre: a journalist is arrested and put behind bars for sharing a newspaper report about a dead goat on his Facebook page. But this is reality in Bangladesh, thanks to the arbitrary abuse of a draconian cyber law to muzzle dissenting voices and to harass opponents.
The incident in question occurred in August of last year. A state minister distributed some goats among poor people in his parliamentary constituency in Khulna district, in southern Bangladesh. One of the goats died hours after it was handed over by the minister to a resident. A report was published in a local newspaper and a local journalist shared the news on Facebook. A close aide of another MP belonging to the ruling Awami League party then filed a case against the journalist under section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, accusing him of “tarnishing the image” of the state minister. Hours after the case was filed, police arrested the journalist and produced him before a court. He was denied bail and sent to prison.
An outcry ensued. The state minister told the media that he was not clear about the case and came to know the matter only after the journalist had been arrested. He also stated: “The news he (the journalist) had shared is correct.” Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader, also a minister, added that the “arrest of the journo is an abuse of the law. The information minister should step in to stop the abuse of the law.”
It was not an isolated incident. Many editors, journalists, teachers, social media users and free thinkers had previously been charged under section 57, which punishes defamation as well as offences such as tarnishing the state’s image and the spreading of false information with up to 14 years in prison. The nature of litigants and cases is intriguing: In one case, a university teacher brought a case against his colleague; in another, a judge targeted journalists for their Facebook posts. Followers of MPs and political leaders have filed charges against journalists for “defaming” their leaders in news reports.
Some of the accused were arrested by police without delay following the filing of cases and quickly put behind bars as law enforcement agencies did not need a warrant to make the arersts. Those who were arrested have struggled to post bail.
In 2015, Probir Sikdar, another journalist, was arrested under section 57 on charges of tarnishing the image of a minister. Sikdar, who is a missing a leg, was handcuffed while he was taken to court in violation of police regulations. His bail application was denied and he was sent to jail.
But the arrest of the journalist in Khulna went beyond the limits of absurdity. In the face of a wave of criticism, police headquarters issued a circular shortly after the arrest asking police stations across the country to take advice from the headquarters’ legal wing before registering any case under section 57. Since then, the number of cases under section 57 has sharply declined. The circular itself also seems to have been an acknowledgement of widespread abuse of the ICT law and of the discretionary power that the draconian measure grants to police. In the end, it was an incident involving the death of a goat that forced police headquarters to take steps to curb abuse of the law against editors, journalists, social media users and free thinkers.
But the fear is not over. In response to growing demand, a bill was put forward in parliament in April to delete section 57 as part of a proposal to create a new Digital Security Act to replace the ICT Act. However, parts of section 57 have been preserved and spread across several sections of the proposed law. The absence of safeguards in the bill and the harsh punishments foreseen for a range of forms of expression are disturbing, to say the least, at a time when we are experiencing fast growth in terms of people’s use of digital platforms to express their opinions.
In the proposed law, law enforcement authorities are given arbitrary power to arrest any person on suspicion that he or she has committed or is committing an offence. They can also search any digital device on suspicion that evidence of offences committed may be erased, tampered with or changed if there is a delay in taking action. If they deem fit, they can also confiscate any digital device allegedly being used to commit the offence. Exercise of these arbitrary powers depends entirely on the “belief” of the authorities. Law enforcement authorities also have the power to ask the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission to block or remove any content from digital devices if they consider such content a threat to national security, the economy, public order or religious sentiments. The commission must act upon authorities’ request.
There is more to be worried about. The proposed law stipulates the same punishment for spreading “propaganda and campaign” against Bangladesh’s Liberation War of 1971 as for committing murder. Even the proposed punishment for defaming the Liberation War or its spirit is harsher than the punishment for culpable homicide and causing death by negligence.
The proposed law allows anybody to file a case for defaming the Liberation War or its spirit. But who will determine whether any such defamation has taken place? This ambiguity in the law may open the floodgates for vexatious litigation to harass innocent persons. And things may be very complicated and difficult once the proposed law is enacted. It may also pose a major threat to freedom of speech, expression and the press as guaranteed by the constitution.
Bangladesh, perhaps, has more reasons to remain grateful to the spirit of a free press than most countries. A group of journalists staying in Dhaka on the night of March 25 to 26, 1971, broke the news of a genocide carried by the Pakistani occupation army to the world. Thanks to the role of the press, a strong public opinion was built across the world in favour of the Liberation War of Bangladesh. The writers of the Bangladesh constitution recognized the importance of a free press by guaranteening press freedom in the constitution.
But the present situation depicts a picture worse than the one that existed during colonial rule. British rulers were against freedom of the press and free speech. During colonial rule, defamation was made a criminal offence under the Penal Code of 1860, which remains in force. The Code of Criminal Procedure, which was also enacted by the British rulers in 1898, introduced a provision allowing only the aggrieved person to file a defamation case. But under Bangladesh’s current cyber laws, anyone can file a case.
The punitive measures introduced by our present government are also harsher than the ones imposed by the colonial rulers. Under the penal code, defamation is punished with imprisonment for up to two years or a fine or both penalties. But under the current ICT Act, defamation may be punished with up to 14 years in prison. Under the proposed digital security law, the maximum punishment is seven years.
The proposed digital security law has triggered an outcry. In response to the demand of the Editors Council, a platform of newspaper editors, a parliamentary watchdog scrutinizing the bill has recently proposed some changes. Further scrutiny will be required to ensure that the law does not trample upon freedom of expression and the press in Bangladesh.
Shakhawat Liton is planning editor for Bangladesh’s The Daily Star newspaper, an IPI corporate member.