Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina yesterday spoke in favour of section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act amid growing calls for repeal of the provision for its “widespread misuse”.
Speaking at a cabinet meeting, she said the section was there for taking action against anyone who writes against the country or tries to harm others intentionally through the digital media, said meeting sources.
The provision was not meant to harass journalists, Hasina said, asking everyone concerned to be watchful so that it was not misused.
Her comments came two weeks after Law Minister Anisul Huq said the government would decide whether to remove the section while finalising the draft of Digital Security Act next month. The proposed act has also drawn a lot of flak.
At least two ministers, who attended the weekly cabinet meeting yesterday, told The Daily Star that Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu raised the issue when his colleagues were discussing the draft of Bangladesh Sangbad Sanstha-2017 Act.
As he said a movement was underway against the provision and journalists were demanding its repeal, the PM asked how many newsmen were sued under the section.
“It [section 57] was not enacted to harass journalists. Action would be taken under the section against anyone who wants to harm the country, writes against it, or against any person intentionally out of personal vengeance,” one of the ministers quoted Hasina as saying.
“If section 57 was not there, then how action would be taken against someone who wants to harm the country or malign others?
“It was enacted so that journalists could work within certain rules and procedures,” the minister quoted the PM as saying.
Rights activists and journalists have been demanding repeal of section 57, saying it contains vague wordings, allowing its misuse against newspersons and social media users.
They say the section goes against the people's right to freedom of expression and free speech and it has been used as a tool to muzzle the press and freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by the constitution.
Editors' Council and Newspaper Owners' Association of Bangladesh (Noab) have demanded the government fully repeal the section and refrain from introducing similar provisions in any new law.
They also expressed concern over the draft Digital Security Act as section 19 of the proposed law contains all the anti-free press elements of section 57.
Amid criticisms, Law Minister Anisul Huq on several occasions said section 57 would be removed. The minister on July 9 said the government would make a decision about it while finalising the draft of Digital Security Act next month.
Meanwhile, cases filed under the section are on the rise.
According to a source at the Cyber Tribunal in Dhaka, around 700 cases have so far been filed under section 57 since 2013 when the act was amended with stringent punishment.
Twenty-three journalists were sued under the section since March 1 this year and most of them were sued for their reports.
In separate statements, Editors' Council and Noab demanded withdrawal of all cases filed against journalists under the section.
However, Inu in parliament on July 12 rejected allegations that section 57 was being used for harassing journalists.
He said, “I don't think keeping section 57 is against human rights. It's not true that the law is applicable only for journalists … The law was made for 16 crore people.
“There are 2,800 registered newspapers and 1,800 online news portals in the country and several thousand journalists are working there. A very few journalists were arrested under section 57 of the ICT Act and they are getting bail when they are going to court.”
Later, journalist leaders blasted Inu for the comments.
At a rally in front of the Jatiya Press Club on July 18, leaders of Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists and Dhaka Union of Journalists demanded immediate scrapping of the controversial provision.
Meanwhile, yesterday's cabinet meeting sent back the draft of Bangladesh Sangbad Sanstha-2017 Act with some observations for recasting it.
The cabinet also asked the information ministry to place the draft before it again after making the changes, said meeting sources.