The High Court yesterday issued a rule asking the government to explain why sections 25 and 31 of the Digital Security Act, 2018 should not be declared unconstitutional.
The bench of Justice Sheikh Hassan Arif and Justice Md Mahmud Hassan Talukder came up with the rule following a writ petition jointly filed by nine people on January 19, challenging the legality of the two sections that they claimed hamper the freedom of expression and thought.
The court asked secretaries to the ministries of law, and information and communication technology to respond in four weeks.
According to section 25 (1) of the act, "If any person using a website or any digital device-(a) deliberately or knowingly distributes any information or data that is attacking or intimidating in nature; or if a person publishes or distributes any information despite knowing that it is false to irritate, humiliate, defame or embarrass or to discredit a person.
(b) Damages the image and reputation of the State or spreads confusion or with the same purpose publishes or distributes fully or partially distorted information or data despite knowing that it is false, and if any one assists in such actions then all such actions of the individual will be considered a crime".
Section 31 says, "If a person deliberately publishes or broadcasts via a website or any digital platform anything that creates enmity, hatred or acrimony among different classes or communities, or upsets communal harmony, or creates unrest or chaos, or causes or begins to cause deterioration in law and order, then that activity of the said person will be considered a crime".
The petitioners are Dhaka University teachers Mohammad Ismail, Md Kamruzzaman and Md Rafiqul Islam, journalist Mohammad Abdullah, Supreme Court lawyers Md Asad Uddin, Md Asaduzzaman, Md Zobaidur Rahman, Md Mohiuddin Molla and Md Mujahidul Islam.
The petitioners said the two sections imposed a blanket prohibition on publication of materials and thus violate the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under article 39 of the constitution.
They also said it conferred arbitrary and uncontrolled powers upon the executive and the prosecuting authorities to determine whether a particular act satisfies the vague and unspecified ingredients of offence and therefore, the sections are liable to be struck down as being in violation of the constitution.
The Digital Security Act was passed on September 19, 2018 in parliament.
But ever since it was mooted, drafted and eventually passed, journalist community has been protesting it, terming it an act to gag freedom of expression.
On October 13, 2018, Sampadak Parishad (Editors' Council) held a press conference at the capital's Jatiya Press Club demanding proper amendments to nine sections of the controversial act.
The Parishad, a coalition of editors of the country's national dailies, said those sections were likely to seriously harm the cause of independent journalism and freedom of expression.
"Sections 8, 21, 25, 28, 29, 31, 32, 43, and 53 of Digital Security Act must be amended appropriately to safeguard freedom of the media and freedom of speech," Bhorer Kagoj Editor Shyamal Dutta, a senior leader of the council, said at the event.
Two days later, the editors formed a human chain in front of Jatiya Press Club to press home their demand.
"We think the Digital Security Act is an obstruction to press freedom," Mahfuz Anam, editor and publisher of The Daily Star, said there.
"If the law remains in force, none of us -- the press media, television [channels], and the online media -- will be able to do our professional duty independently," he added.
On November 1, 2018, some leaders of Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ) and Dhaka Union of Journalists (DUJ) staged a sit-in in front of the secretariat in the city, demanding abolition of the Digital Security Act.
Terming the act an obstruction to the freedom of speech and the press, the journalists at the event said they would boycott the Posts, Telecommunications and Information Technology Minister Mustafa Jabbar, unless the "worst law" was scrapped.
But several ministers and top brass of the government -- including Law Minister Anisul Huq -- on different occasions urged the journalist community not to worry about the act and assured them that the loopholes and vagueness would be removed.
Nothing has changed yet.
Barrister Imran A Siddique and Advocate Shishir Monir appeared for the writ petitioners yesterday.