Amid widespread criticism that authorities are targeting journalists for arrest under a controversial information law, Bangladesh’s police chief instructed all officers nationwide to obtain permission from headquarters in Dhaka before pursing charges in new cases.
Rights advocates and Bangladeshi press groups have been complaining about the Information and Communications Technology Act (ICT) of 2006, accusing authorities of going after journalists, government critics and others by abusing a provision – section 57 – which bans content deemed as harming the image of the state or “religious sentiment.”
They say the section is being used to muzzle the press and freedom of expression. Nearly 400 people have been charged under the act in the first six months of 2017, according to figures compiled by the police.
This week, however, Inspector General of Police A.K.M. Shahidul Haq, sent a memorandum to staff stating that “there were some allegations of misuse of the section 57 of the ICT.”
He instructed members of the force to ensure that “no innocent people are punished,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by BenarNews that carried Wednesday’s date.
“We have asked all units of the police to seek prior approval from the police headquarters to file cases under section 57,” Soheli Ferdous, assistant inspector general at police headquarters in the nation’s capital, told BenarNews.
“We have asked the police to maintain maximum caution in registering cases.”
391 cases filed in 2017
Section 57 stipulates punishments of seven to 14 years in prison, and fines of up to 10 million taka (U.S. $123,000), for any person convicted of publishing content deemed as eroding law and order, prejudicing the image of the state or a person, or harming religious beliefs in Muslim-majority Bangladesh.
The law was enacted by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party – now the main opposition party – when it ruled the country 11 years ago. The ICT Act came about as a response to challenges brought about by the internet and a domestic boom in the use of social media. Section 57 of the act outlawed the willful circulation of online content considered to be false, obscene or defamatory.
Between January and the end of June, 391 people were charged under the act, including at least 22 journalists. Two of the journalists were charged for merely sharing news items or other content on social media, according to police.
Only 421 cases were filed under the law during the four years prior to 2017, according to the Dhaka Tribune, a local newspaper,
“So we see the wholesale filing of cases under this section with the allegation of defamation,” Sara Hossain, a trustee with the rights group Bangladesh Legal Aid Services Trust, told BenarNews.
Made into a goat
The latest case of a journalist who was taken into custody under section 57 had to do with a news report about a goat.
On July 31, Abdul Latif Morol, a journalist in southwestern Khulna district, was sent to jail for sharing a link on Facebook to a report about the death of a goat distributed by a state minister. An activist linked with the official filed a defamation case against Morol under section 57.
On Wednesday, a court released the journalist on bail following news coverage of his arrest.
That same day, a journalist in Brahmanbaria district was charged under section 57.
“The state minister is solely responsible for my sufferings. I had to go to jail for the minister’s wrath,” Morol told BenarNews.