Bangladesh New ICT Law Curtails Free Speech Online

Saleem Samad

A secular and democratic Bangladesh has promulgated a new draconian law Information and Communication Technology (ICT) (Amendment) Ordinance-2013 which empowers law enforcers to arrest any person without warrant which has highest punishment to 14 years.

The black law as it was dubbed has taken toll on journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders and even social media activists, specially Facebook users.

In recent times, pro opposition newspaper Amar Desh acting editor Mahmudur Rahman, human rights defender Odhikar’s secretary Adilur Rahman, bloggers Asif Mohiuddin, Mashiur Rahman Biplob, Subrata Adhikari Shuvo and Rasel Parvez were arrested in cases filed under the ICT Act.

The internet has also been flooded with fake posts and photos to cause and fuel political violence.

In recent times, there was a surge in political propaganda packed with lies and fake photos that hurt religious sentiments.

The misuse of cyberspace as well as mobile phone technology also rose apparently to thwart the war crimes trial of those accused for crime against humanity during the bloody war of independence of Bangladesh in 1971.

Last year’s communal violence Ramu, in Cox’s Bazar and Sathia in Pabna the racial riots were instigated by circulating fake Facebook page of a Buddhist youth and a Hindu youths to prove that they have insulted the Qur’an, a holy book of the Muslims, thus they should be punished for blasphemy. Hundreds of homes and trading centres were attacked, scores of people were wounded and dozens of Buddhist pagodas and Hindu temples were vandalised.

Later police investigators could not find any evidence of blasphemy, not any truth of posting on the Facebook wall.

Early this year police arrested three journalists in January this year during after raid the pro-Islamist newspaper Daily Inqilab for cyber crimes.

The three journalists – Robiullah Robi, the paper’s news editor; Rafiq Mohammad, the paper’s deputy chief correspondent; and Ahmed Atik, diplomatic correspondent – were arrested under the ICT law.

Police also seized printing equipment and computers and sealed off access to the paper’s printing press. But forgot to pull down the newspaper news portal and was active.

Authorities accused the newspaper of publishing “false and fabricated” news in a front-page report. Where does ICT laws has to do with the first page story? The story published in Inqilab was a rewritten piece from Facebook. Surprisingly the third party Facebook user was not pulled down.

The police said that the paper’s news report had damaged the image of the country. Bangladesh Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu said on January 17 that the Daily Inqilab report was intended to create a riot and damage relations between the two countries.

In the original ICT Act-2006, enacted by the pro-nationalist Islamic Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami alliance government in on Oct 8, 2006, the maximum punishment was 10 years’ jail term with a heavy fine.

But the police had to seek permission from the authorities concerned to file a case and arrest any person involved in crimes covered under the law.

Even earlier the law was termed by rights groups as a repressive law, offences were bailable. The amended law have been made non-bailable, meaning the bail is at the judge’s discretion.

That means the police will be able to arrest a suspect without issuing of warrant [by the court]. But they will have to produce the arrested person before the court within 24 hours.”

Destroying computer data with malicious intent, transferring data without proper authority, hacking, and releasing vulgar and defaming information in electronic form will be considered serious offences as per the proposed amendments.

Most ICT activist opined that the law was inadequate to deal with cyber crimes. Many cyber crimes or digital crimes do not fall under the purview of the law. For instance, it does not address any crime committed through using mobile phones. This law made e-mails as evidence, conflicting with the country’s Evidence Act that does not recognise as e-mails as evidence.

The ICT activists were equally frustrated with the fresh amendment to the ICT law as they were not consulted during the process of enacting the “black” law.

The global rights bodies urge Bangladesh not to promulgate the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) (Amendment) Act, 2013 Ordinance as it might lead to further arrests and harassment of human rights defenders.

Leading rights groups formed an alliance and urged the government to remove the Section 57 of the ICT law, saying the clause will take the country towards the medieval age.

According to the Section 57 of the ordinance:

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 organization, then this activity of his will be regarded as an offence.

Saleem Samad is an Ashoka Fellow (USA), correspondent for Reporters Without Border (RSF) and Special Correspondent of The Daily Bangladesh Observer. He was tortured and imprisoned in November 2002 and later expelled in October 2004 for his articles in Time magazine, RSF and other international media. He returned to Bangladesh in 2010 soon after a secular government came to power.

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The country paper was presented at South Asia Media Solidarity Network (SAMSN) “The Campaign for Change” organised by International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) at Kathmandu, Nepal meeting during July 18-20, 2014

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