Bangladesh’s High Court has given the government one week to present its case explaining why famed photographer Shahidul Alam, who has been locked up since Aug. 5 for allegedly violating online defamation laws, should not be released on bail.
The High Court issued the ruling on Sunday in response to Alam’s fifth formal request since his arrest to be allowed to return home, and a day before President Abdul Hamid signed the Digital Security Act of 2018 into law despite journalists’ concerns over its implications for free speech.
“We are not sure when the government will respond to the ruling. Only the government knows that. But what is happening with Shahidul’s case is abnormal,” Sara Hossain, an attorney representing Alam, told BenarNews.
Alam was arrested after he posted the Facebook updates and gave the interview about week-long street protests that followed the deaths of two students who were run down by a bus. Police arrested him at his Dhaka residence for allegedly spreading “false and fabricated” information about the state under the Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT).
“Shahidul spread false and fabricated information about the government on Facebook and he gave an interview to Al-Jazeera TV,” Attorney General Mahbubey Alam told the court on Sunday, adding that the photographer “tarnished the image of the state.”
“Shahidul Alam has not received interim bail. It has issued a rule for a response within a week,” the Dhaka Tribune quoted the attorney general as saying in alluding to the High Court.
Hamid, meanwhile, put his signature on the act that parliament passed on Sept. 19 and sent to him for his approval, according to the president’s press secretary, Joynal Abedin. A section of the act updates ICT’s section 57 by criminalizing online defamation.
The government must publish a gazette notification before the law can take effect.
The signing came about a week after a group of journalists met with government officials to express concerns in an effort to change the act before it was passed on to the president and days after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said changes were not necessary.
“We, the leaders of some organizations, requested the president not to assent to the law and send it back to the government. But we went unheard,” Monjurul Ahsan Bulbul, president of the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ), told BenarNews.
He said the journalists met on Sept. 30 with the information minister, law minister and information and communication technology minister, who assured them that their concerns would be discussed by Hasina’s cabinet. The group postponed a street protest after the officials agreed to the meeting.
“Two cabinet meetings have taken place since our meeting with the ministers. But our concerns about the digital security act were not raised,” Matiur Rahman Chowdhury, treasurer of Editors’ Council, told BenarNews. “Implementing this law in this way is a matter of concern for us.”
After Monday’s cabinet meeting Law Minister Anisul Huq told reporters that additional agenda items did not allow time for discussions about the security act.
During a press conference five days earlier, Hasina rejected concerns that it would gag the media and bar freedom of expression.
“Journalists not writing anything false have no reason to worry about the digital security act. Those who write false stories against us, have been waiting to attack us with propaganda will be worried about it,” she said.
The act allows the police to arrest anyone without a warrant and seize computers, electronic devices or a whole computer system if they suspect online crimes could take place. It incorporates the British-era official secrets act of 1923, which allows for journalists to face the charge of espionage if they reveal government documents.
One section authorizes prison sentences of up to 14 years for spreading “propaganda and campaign against the liberation war of Bangladesh or spirit of the liberation war or Father of the Nation,” referring to the 1971 war of impendence and Hasina’s late father who was the country’s founding leader.
Another section carries a sentence of up to three years for publishing information that is “aggressive or frightening.”
Nur Khan Liton, a former executive director of Ain-O-Shalish Kendra, a leading Bangladeshi rights organization, said the government passed the digital security act as the next general election looms.
“The government scrapped the section 57, but its provisions have been scattered in different sections of the Digital Security Act. Implementation of the law will create panic among the common people, journalists, free thinkers and liberals,” he told BenarNews.
“Ahead of the election, the government passed the Digital Security Act with a view on suppressing the dissent, freedom of speech, journalists and the opposition,” he said.
Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka contributed to this report.