Md Ahsanul Wadud
Freedom of expression is one of the basic human rights. This is a fundamental right to enjoy for the citizen of any democratic country. Freedom of expression refer to the expression of opinions or ideas with others in any form of communication such as verbal orwriting without the state interfering or fear. Unless the expression is false and deliberate to cause harm or to mislead. Having the right of expression is imperative to keep government accountable or transparent.
Now let’s look at the section 57 of Information Communication Technology Act, 2006 (the ICT Act) which created a mass concern in relations to the freedom of expression. It has been claimed from civil society, social media users, especially from the writers and journalists that section 57 of ICT act is seriously abused by the government to confine the freedom of expression or the freedom of press in a rigid way. Suggestion has made by the concerned group to repealed or at least madeamendment in section 57. Although the government reserved the decision on upholding section 57. The ICT law was enacted in 2006 and amended in 2013.
International Human Rights Watch also pointed ICT Act
57 as a threat to freedom of expression. They said in a statement that-
‘Instead of taking consideration of human rights activists concern the
punishment has even made harder in the law. Besides police have given the power
to file a case and make the arrest which is unacceptable’.
Freedom of press is also the part of freedom of expression. However, Section 57 of ICT law has been used against journalists on many occasions.
The ICT Act granted law enforcers the right to arrest any person without a warrant. Moreover, offenses under Section 57 were made non-bail able and the maximum penalty was 14 years imprisonment. In 2017 alone, at least 25 journalists and several hundred bloggers and Facebook users were prosecuted under Section 57.
What mentioned in section 57?
Section 57 (1) says-‘If any person deliberately publishes or transmits or causes to be published or transmitted in the website or in any other electronic form any material which is false and obscene and if anyone sees, hears or reads it having regard to all relevant circumstances, its effect is such as to influence the reader to become dishonest or corrupt, 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 will be regarded as an offense.’
Section 57 (2) says-‘The offender will be punished for maximum 14 years and minimum 7 years imprisonment and a fine of Tk 1 crore.’
During the colonial rule in 1898, a provision was incorporated into the Criminal Procedure Code (CRPC) empowering courts to issue direct arrest warrant against persons, including journalists, writers and publishers of any books or newspapers, if they wrote or said anything defamatory.
But now police can make any arrest just after the filing of a case under the ICT Act on charges of defamation.
The punitive measures introduced by the government are also harsher than the ones made by the colonial rulers. Under the Penal Code of 1860, one may be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both for defaming others.
Rights activists and journalists have been critical of section 57 from the very beginning and the debate over the provision and demand for its repeal intensified following the arrest of journalist ProbirSikdar in 2015.
The veteran journalist was arrested and sent to jail after he posted a status on Facebook, expressing fear that his life was in danger and that LGRD Minister KhandakerMosharraf Hossain, businessman Moosa bin Shamser and fugitive war criminal AbulKalam Azad would be responsible if he were killed.
Following the post, an Awami League leader sued Probir in Faridpur under the ICT act for “tarnishing the image” of the minister. The case is still under trial. This is just one of the many cases that has the same scenario.
Experts say the section goes against people’s right to freedom of expression and free speech and it contains vague wordings, allowing its misuse against newsmen and social media users.
Reazuddin Ahmed, a former president of Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists, said, “Section 57 is a draconian law and it should be repealed as it goes against the spirit of freedom of press and freedom of expression.”
KhandakerMuniruzzaman, acting editor of daily Sangbad, said section 57 is a “repressive law” and one of the main reasons of enacting such a law is to control journalists so that they think twice before writing anything about powerful quarters.
Journalists are not above the law and there is way to take legal steps against them, but implicating journalists under a special law is nothing but serving interests of the powerful, he said.
He further said-“The law goes against freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of press. There should be no such law in a civilised, democratic country. It must be repealed”.
Shaban Mahmood, president of Dhaka Union of Journalists, said filing cases against journalists is an impediment to freedom of press. “We heard that in many cases, section 57 has been used as a weapon against journalists only for political reason. This is very unfortunate.”
In Bangladesh, an aggrieved person can send a rejoinder or legal notice to a newspaper, lodge complaints with the Press Council or even file a defamation case under the Penal Code.
But the recent trend is that cases are being filed against journalists under section 57, apparently to ensure immediate harassment of the accused, as one can be arrested under this law even before investigation.
It’s not about the journalist or the writer but anyone and everyone should have the right of freedom of expression without having a fear of prosecution. For a fair and just society public right of free speech must need to be protected. In absence of free speech government willloss transparency and accountability, and democracy will be failed to serve public interest.