The Bangladeshi government’s move to amend four sections of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act of 2006 is drawing cautious optimism from rights activists and analysts who claim that the sections bar free speech.
They also cautiously support the government’s effort to enact a proposed digital security law as Bangladesh transforms into a digital society. At the time the 2006 act passed, Bangladesh had 1 million internet users – compared with 54 million today.
State Minister for Information and Communication Zunaid Ahmed Palak told BenarNews that the four sections, 54 to 57, would be amended to address specific concerns. He also said the government had proposed the Digital Security Bill of 2016 to protect the country from cyberattacks.
Activists are most concerned about one section.
“Amending the dangerous section 57 is a good decision, but it should clearly guarantee constitutional freedom of expression rights,” attorney Tanjib Alam told BenarNews.
Section 57 states that a person who deliberately publishes or transmits false or obscene content online or electronically that undermines law and order will face criminal charges. Any electronic material that may prejudice the image of the state or a person, or that may hurt religious beliefs is considered an offense under the law.
Online activists have criticized the section for stipulating a minimum seven years and a maximum 14 years in jail as punishment for such violations.
“If the amendment listed the offenses with detailed explanation, it would allay the people’s fear. Let us see how the government proposes the amendment,” Alam said. “We need a cyber security law as banking and financial activities have been converted into IT-based.”
Imran H. Sarker, spokesman for the Gonojagoron Moncho (Mass Awakening Platform), a group of activists who staged a country-wide secular movement in 2013, said section 57 took away the constitutional right of freedom of expression.
“Of course, some propaganda is there, but the section 57 is not an instrument that can stop propaganda. The section has been being misused. We want it to go and for good sense prevail upon the government,” he told BenarNews.
Gonojagoron Moncho protested in November and December when the government blocked the social media sites Facebook, Viber and WhatsApp, citing security concerns linked to the executions of two opposition leaders on war crimes charges. The sites were down for about three weeks following the executions of Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojahid.
‘I am one of the victims’
Among those who were prosecuted under Section 57 is journalist Probir Shikder.
He was jailed in August 2015 for defaming a senior minister and father-in-law of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s daughter.
“I am one of the victims of misuse of the section 57. The section is such that the government can easily victimize anyone for so-called cyber offences. The hidden agenda is to curtail our constitutional right, freedom of expression,” he said.
Shikder said he had written newspaper stories that angered a senior minister and a billionaire business tycoon. He went to police to file a general complaint against them, but the officer refused to record his complaints.
Shikder then posted a message on Facebook claiming that his life was in danger from three people who might kill him. An agent of the minister filed a complaint, leading to his arrest. Because Shikder was sued under section 57 he had to be arrested, Local Government and Rural Development and Cooperatives Minister Khandker Mosharraf Hossain told bdnews24.com.
A series of street protests by the human rights activists and journalists following Shikder’s arrest apparently forced authorities to grant him bail.
‘The truth will come out’
The government has not revealed drafts of the Digital Security Bill or amendments to the ICT Act. The new bill, like the act from 2006, proposes jail terms of between seven and 14 years for cyber offenses, according to Palak.
On Sunday, Palak said his ministry met with the law ministry to discuss the digital security draft, which could go before parliament in a new session starting Jan. 20.
Arshad Siddiqi, a researcher and free speech advocate, said the government had no right to curtail freedom of expression on the pretext of dealing with cyber criminals.
“If you promote unhindered freedom of expression for all citizens, the truth will come out. Only freedom of expression, not a block, can counter propaganda,” Siddiqi told BenarNews.