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A gag on freedom of expression in Bangladesh

A gag on freedom of expression in Bangladesh

by Partha Pratim Bhattacharjee, Tuhin Shubhra Adhikary

DHAKA (The Daily Star/ANN) - The freedom of the press and expression was put to the sword, journalists and rights defenders feared yesterday, as Bangladesh's cabinet approved the draft of the Digital Security Act-2018 yesterday.

There would be every chance of the act being misused against people's right to express themselves after it is passed by the Jatiya Sangsad, some observed.

They also felt duped by the government as section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act was kept in the proposed law with some changes, despite assurances in the past of eliminating the controversial provision.

Section 57 deals with defamation, hurting religious sentiments, causing deterioration of law and order and instigating against any person or organisation through publishing or transmitting any material in websites or in electronic form.

It stipulates maximum 14 years in prison for the offences.

Now, the draft of Digital Security Act-2018 splits these offences into four separate sections with punishment ranging from a three to 10 year term.

The proposed law describes some crimes as “non-bailable” and allows a police official to search or arrest anyone without a warrant in special circumstances.

A cabinet meeting, presided over by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at her office, gave the approval and Cabinet Secretary Md Shafiul Alam later briefed the media at the secretariat.

He said the government has formulated the act to combat growing cyber crimes that are affecting many public and private organisations including Bangladesh Bank.

The draft was approved keeping a provision for revoking sections 54, 55, 56, 57 and 66 of the ICT act, he said, adding that the cases already filed under section 57 will continue.

Inspector General of Police AKM Shahidul Hoque, too, said the proceedings of the cases filed under section 57 will continue, reports UNB.

Currently, 701 cases filed under section 57 are pending with the lone cyber tribunal of the country, sources say.

Asked whether the proposed law will affect journalism as elements of section 57 were incorporated in the draft, the cabinet secretary did not give any direct answer and only said, “There is nothing about journalists here [in the draft].”

Rights activists and journalists have been demanding cancellation of section 57 for its widespread misuse.

Experts say the section goes against people's right to freedom of expression and free speech and it contains vague wordings, allowing its misuse against newsmen and social media users.

Protests were staged last year after more than two dozen journalists were sued under the section.

Amid widespread criticisms, Law Minister Anisul Huq on several occasions said section 57 would be removed.

Contacted last night, he said, “There is a great difference between section 57 [of ICT Act] and the provisions incorporated in the Digital Security Act.”

Asked about the criticisms from journalists and rights activists about the draft, the minister said, “They are saying this for the sake of saying something.”

He declined to comment further.

After a programme in the capital, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan said section 57 was discussed for a long time in the cabinet meeting. The draft will be finalised after many inclusions and exclusions, he added.

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