At least 21 journalists were sued under section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act in the last four months amid growing demand for repeal of the provision which is wide open to misuse.
Though the law minister on several occasions said the section would be scrapped, cases filed against journalists under the provision are on the rise with their leaders as well as rights activists terming it a tool to muzzle the press and freedom of expression.
The Daily Star has found that 11 cases have been filed against 21 journalists since March 1 this year under section 57, and most of the cases are related to news reports.
On July 2, Iqbal Hossain Chowdhury Milton, chairman of Islampur Union Parishad in Rangunia upazila of Chittagong, filed a case against senior reporter of daily Samakal, Taufiqul Islam Babar, over a June 22 report on the alleged involvement of AL leader Hasan Mahmud's aides in criminal activities.
Three journalists were sued by Afruz Mia, president of Pukra union Jubo League in Habiganj, on June 3 over a report involving local AL lawmaker Abdul Majid Khan.
The accused are Golam Mostofa Rafiq, editor of Daily Habiganj Samachar; acting editor Rasel Chowdhury and Managing Editor Niharanjon Saha Niru.
The ICT law was enacted by the BNP-Jamaat government in 2006.
Before its 2013 amendment, maximum punishment for offences under the section was 10 years' imprisonment and a fine of Tk 1 crore. Besides, police had to seek permission from the authorities concerned to file a case and arrest any person under the law.
After the amendment, the maximum jail term was raised to 14 years. And law enforcers were empowered to make arrests without a warrant.
A rough translation of section 57 (1) says: “If any person deliberately publishes or transmits or causes to be published or transmitted in the website or in any other electronic form any material which is false and obscene and if anyone sees, hears or reads it having regard to all relevant circumstances, its effect is such as to influence the reader to become dishonest or corrupt, or causes to deteriorate or creates possibility to deteriorate law and order, prejudice the image of the state or person or causes to hurt or may hurt religious belief or instigate against any person or organisation, then this activity will be regarded as an offence.”
The Indian Supreme Court in March 2015 struck down almost a similar section, terming it unconstitutional. The court observed section 66A of the Information Technology Act hit at the root of liberty and freedom of expression, two cardinal pillars of democracy.
During the colonial rule in 1898, a provision was incorporated into the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) empowering courts to issue direct arrest warrant against persons, including journalists, writers and publishers of any books or newspapers, if they wrote or said anything defamatory.
But now police can make any arrest just after the filing of a case under the ICT Act on charges of defamation.
The punitive measures introduced by the government are also harsher than the ones made by the colonial rulers. Under the Penal Code of 1860, one may be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both for defaming others.
Rights activists and journalists have been critical of section 57 from the very beginning and the debate over the provision and demand for its repeal intensified following the arrest of journalist Probir Sikdar in 2015.
The veteran journalist was arrested and sent to jail after he posted a status on Facebook, expressing fear that his life was in danger and that LGRD Minister Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain, businessman Moosa bin Shamser and fugitive war criminal Abul Kalam Azad would be responsible if he were killed.
Following the post, an Awami League leader sued Probir in Faridpur under the ICT act for “tarnishing the image” of the minister. The case is still under trial.
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.
Amid widespread criticisms, Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Anisul Huq on May 2 said section 57 would be removed and a new “Digital Security Act was in the pipeline”.
The new law would explain section 57 and prove that the government has no intent to curb the right to freedom of speech, he also said.
According to a source at the Cyber Tribunal in Dhaka, around 700 cases have been filed under section 57 since 2013. A total of 260 cases were filed till the first week of June this year, the Star Weekend magazine reported, quoting the source.
Reazuddin Ahmed, a former president of Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists, said, “Section 57 is a draconian law and it should be repealed as it goes against the spirit of freedom of press and freedom of expression.”
"The law minister had clearly said that the provision will be repealed. Yet, we saw a number of cases were filed against journalists and free thinkers. We regret and condemn this,” Reazuddin, also the editor of The News Today, said on Wednesday.
Khandaker Muniruzzaman, acting editor of daily Sangbad, said section 57 is a “repressive law” and one of the main reasons of enacting such a law is to control journalists so that they think twice before writing anything about powerful quarters.
Journalists are not above the law and there is way to take legal steps against them, but implicating journalists under a special law is nothing but serving interests of the powerful, he said.
“The law goes against freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of press. There should be no such law in a civilised, democratic country. It must be repealed,” he told The Daily Star yesterday.
Shaban Mahmood, president of Dhaka Union of Journalists, said filing cases against journalists is an impediment to freedom of press. “We heard that in many cases, section 57 has been used as a weapon against journalists only for political reason. This is very unfortunate.”
He said they will go for a tougher movement if the section is not repealed immediately.
In Bangladesh, an aggrieved person can send a rejoinder or legal notice to a newspaper, lodge complaints with the Press Council or even file a defamation case under the Penal Code.
But the recent trend is that cases are being filed against journalists under section 57, apparently to ensure immediate harassment of the accused, as one can be arrested under this law even before investigation.
Asked about it, Shaban Mahmood said, “It is an abuse of the law.”
Tahmina Rahman, Bangladesh and South Asia director of ARTICLE 19, a UK-based rights body, said section 57 is not only a problematic provision but has a huge potential for violations and abuse against people who exercise freedom of expression.
“The grounds are very broad, not narrowly defined. The section lacks clarity and doesn't provide for the protections that we have in other laws. So when the section is used, there are chances of misuse,” she said.
“So we have been calling for repeal of the section. There is no scope for reviewing section 57.”
CASES AGAINST JOURNALISTS
(from March-1 to July 3)
July 3: Nazmul Hossain, a senior reporter of Jamuna Television, was sued for his June 23 Facebook post. The plaintiff, Hazrat Ali Belal, a lawyer of Dinajpur Bar Association, named three others for sharing the post.
June 14: A case was filed against Kazi Motaher Rahman Babu, editor of local daily in Khulna Somoyer Khobor, and its former reporter Shohag Dewan. Two officials of the district's Chief Metropolitan Magistrate's Court accused them of publishing reports with misinformation.
June 13: A case was filed against bdnews24.com staff reporter Golam Mujtaba Dhruba for his report published two days ago. The plaintiff was a senior assistant judge of Manikganj.
June 6: Brac University teacher and senior journalist Afsan Chowdhury was sued. Lt Gen (retd) Masud Uddin Chowdhury filed a defamation case for one of his Facebook posts.
May 16: Nipun Chandra Das, Dashmina upazila correspondent of the Asian Age, and Sanjoy Banerjee, upazila correspondent of the Dainik Janata, were sued. Sikder Golam Mostafa, secretary of Dashmina upazila Awami League in Patuakhali, filed the case following their reports on torture of a Hindu woman by a local gang who attempted to grab her land.
April 29: A private company filed a case against Ahmed Razu, executive editor of Natunsomay.com. He was accused of publishing two reports that allegedly tarnished the image of the company.
April 15: Ali Reza Ripon, brother of Narayanganj City Corporation Mayor Selina Hayat Ivy, filed a case against five local journalists for publishing reports that allegedly tarnished their image. The accused are Habibur Rahman Badal, editor and publisher of Dandy Barta; Raju Ahmed, editor of Narayanganjer Alo; its publisher Mobarak Hossain Kamal, Sifat Al Raman Linkon, head of news of Narayanganjbarta24.com, and its executive editor Mahmud Hasan Kachi.
March 30: Journalist Hasibur Rahman Rizu sued Hasan Ali, Kushtia correspondent of Bangla Vision and bdnews24.com, and Aslam Ali, staff correspondent of local Bangla daily Darpan, allegedly for their derogatory posts on Facebook against him.
March 25: Morsalin Babla, editor and publisher of Juger Chinta in Narayanganj, saw a case filed against him by Sohel Ali, president of Fatullah thana Jubo League, over publishing of a report.
March 1: Rajshahi University correspondent of Dainik Alokito Bangladesh, Mostafij Mishu was sued for his report on the formation of RU Chhatra League committee. Minarul Islam, a former leader of the BCL unit, filed the case.