Bangladeshi Journalists Press For Repeal of Information Law

Pulack Ghatack
2017.07.14
Dhaka
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170714-BD-rights-620.jpg Journalists form a human chain during a protest in front of the National Press Club in Dhaka, demanding the release of reporter Golam Mostaba Dhruba, who was arrested under article 57 of the Information and Communications Technology Act, June 15, 2017.
Newsroom Photo

Bangladeshi journalists say they are facing an increasingly hostile environment, pointing to at least 25 colleagues who have been arrested this year under a broad provision of the country’s information law that bans content harming “the image of the state” or “religious sentiment.”

Journalists, university professors and students demonstrated in the capital Dhaka in recent days calling for Article 57 of the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Act to be revoked. The government of the ruling Awami League is using the clause to harass members of the press, they say.

“The law criminalizes online expression and revelations that may tarnish the image of the state or an individual, or hurt anybody’s religious sentiment or belief. Section 57 of this law is broad in interpretation, creating the scope for its misuse against any journalist,” Omar Faruque, secretary general of the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists, told BenarNews.

The article 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.

“This law is against the norms of freedom of expression and should be repealed immediately,” Faruque said, adding that questionable editorial content should be investigated by the nation’s Press Council, not in court.

“According to the information we gathered from published reports in media, charges have been brought against at least 25 journalists in the last six months, in different places, under this article,” he said.

‘Not made for journalists’

In comments to parliament this week, Bangladesh’s information minister denied that the government was targeting journalists under the ICT law.

“This law was not made for journalists. It was formulated for digital security and the security of citizens,” Minister Hasanul Haq Inu told lawmakers, according to the state’s news service, Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS).

The minister noted that more than 2,800 newspapers and more than 1,800 online news portals were operating freely in Bangladesh at this time.

“Only an ignorable number of journalists have been arrested under the article 57 of this law compared with the total number of journalists in the country,” the minister said, adding, “I don’t think this is an anti-human rights law.”

Journalists picked up

In recent weeks, however, some local journalists have been arrested and charged under article 57, according to the Federal Union of Journalists.

On July 9, Mohammad Shahjahan, a correspondent in Chandpur district for Prothom Alo, Bangladesh’s biggest newspaper, was charged under the article, after publishing a news report that raised questions about the selection of people in the area honored as “freedom fighters,” who are entitled to receiving money from the government because of their wartime service.

The report alleged that a local MP influenced the selection process in his constituency by excluding his opponents from the list of eligible people. The criminal defamation complaint against Shahjahan under article 57 was brought by supporters of the parliamentarian in question, Rafuqul Islam.

On July 11, Ajmal Haq Helal, a reporter for the daily Shokaler Khobor, posted bail following his arrest during the previous week over his alleged Facebook posting of a news link related to another MP, Rustom Ali Faraji.

Other cases under the ICT Act have been filed over the past several weeks against more journalists including Taufiqul Islam, a senior reporter at the Chittagong bureau of the Daily Samakal; Nazmul Hossain, a journalist with Jamuna Television; Golam Mostaba Dhruba of bdnews24; and Shamsul Alam Swapan, editor of the Bijoy News24.com.

However, A.K.M. Shahidul Haq, the inspector general of Bangladeshi police, told BenarNews that “instructions have been issued to police to not to harass journalists unnecessarily, and to investigate these cases very carefully.”

Movement to repeal law

The ICT law was enacted in 2006. The first arrests under it were made in April 2013, when four secular bloggers were charged with harming religious sentiment in the predominantly Muslim country, where writers, publishers and intellectuals have also been targeted for murder by Islamic extremists during the past few years.

In 2015, journalist Prabir Sikdar became the first member of the press to be arrested under the law. Bangladesh’s government is moving to replace it with an even tougher digital security and anti-cyber crimes bill.

“We have had objections against this article 57 from the beginning, and we are demanding the cancellation of this law,” Saiful Islam, the senior vice president of the National Press Club and editor of Jugantar, a local daily, told BenarNews, referring to the ICT Act.

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