Fate of section 57 to be decided next month
Amid growing demands for the repeal of section 57 of the Information Communication and Technology (ICT) Act, the government yesterday said it would decide about the section next month and finalise the draft of a Digital Security Act.
Law Minister Law Minister Anisul Huq said this as criticisms by human rights activists and journalists for the section's misuse are becoming ever louder.
“We have discussed on the proposed Digital Security Act. We will incorporate a synopsis of the meeting into the draft and will sit in a meeting in August. We will take the final decision in that meeting. You will get to know our decision on section 57 then too,” the minister said yesterday.
He told reporters about the decisions after a views exchange meeting on the proposed act at the secretariat attended by ministers and officials of different ministries and government agencies. Zunaid Ahmed Palak, state minister for ICT Division and Tarana Halim, state minister for Post and Telecommunications Division, were present there.
The cabinet approved a draft of the law last August. The prime minister then directed the law ministry to scrutinise the draft to avoid any repetition, contradicting provision or inadequacy.
The draft proposed punishment with up to life in prison for spreading "negative propaganda" on digital devices about the Liberation War and the Father of the Nation.
Legal rights activists said even if the government scraped section 57, a similar provision was going to turn up under section 19 of the proposed Digital Security Act.
Asked about the matter, Anisur Huq said, “We are yet to take a final decision in this regard.”
At least 22 journalists were sued under the section 57 of the ICT act since March 1. Journalist leaders as well as rights activists termed it a tool to muzzle the press and freedom of expression.
The law minister on multiple occasions said the government would scrap the section and clarify it in the Digital Security Act. Many hoped the government would announce its decision on section 57 after yesterday's meeting.
Asked, the minister said, “You will come to know about it [section 57] in August.”
About the cases field against journalists under the section, the minister said, “The matter was not discussed in the meeting.”
“If you are concerned about the matter, I will note it and send it to the investigation authorities so that they carry out investigations taking the matter into consideration.”
The minister said cases could be filed under section 57 until it was repealed.
“However, filing a case is not the final stage as there is an investigation process and filing of charge sheet. I can assure you that the investigation will be carried out properly,” he said, adding that they would take steps so that no innocent journalists are harassed.
Sources said meeting participants reviewed scopes of misuse of Section 57 but mostly came out with the view that such a law was crucial to prevent crimes, BSS reports.
They said until the enactment of the proposed Digital Security Act, Section 57 should be kept in place, suggesting that the relevant provisions of the ICT Act could be accommodated in the new law.
ICT ACT AND DIGITAL SECURITY ACT
The government is going to enact the Digital Security Act when the country already has the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act-2006 in effect. Moreover, the Liberation War Crimes Denial Act-2016 has been drafted to curb distortion and denial of established historical facts related to the war.
Several provisions of the proposed act are similar to the ones in the ICT act and the proposed Liberation War Crimes Denial Act, with differences only in the degrees of punishment.
The Penal Code too provides for punishment for hurting someone's religious sentiment or defaming anyone, experts said.
They, however, say having different punishments for similar offences under different laws would create problems in enforcement of the laws.
“If any person deliberately publishes or transmits or causes to be published or transmitted in the website or in electronic form any material which is fake and obscene or its effect is such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it, 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 of his will be regarded as an offence,” reads the section 57(1) of the ICT Act.
However, section 19 of the draft of digital security act says a person may face a maximum sentence of two years or Tk 2 lakh fine or both if he or she is found to have deliberately published or broadcast something false or obscene and something that pollutes the human mind, defames someone and hurts religious sentiment of someone.
After preparing the draft of the Liberation War Denial Crimes Act-2016, Bangladesh Law Commission handed it over to the law ministry on March 22 last year for the next course of action.
The proposed legislation says the distortion or denial, by any means, of any of the events that took place between March 1 and December 16, 1971, will be an offence and one may face a punishment with up to five years in prison for the offence. In addition to the jail term, one may be fined up to Tk 1 crore.
Yet, the draft of the digital security law proposes punishment up to life imprisonment or a fine of Tk 1 crore or both if anyone through any electronic device spreads negative propaganda against the Father of the Nation or the Liberation War or the spirit of the war or war-related issues settled by the court. There will be the same punishment for helping anyone commit the offence.
Eminent rights activist Nur Khan Liton said there is actually no difference between section 57 of ICT Act and section 19 of proposed Digital Security Act except the number of the sections and the names of the acts.
“If the draft [of the Digital Security Act] is passed as it is, there will be a possibility of its misuse as the section 57 is now being misused,” he told The Daily Star yesterday.
The government should pass the draft after careful scrutiny, he said.