Law Minister Anisul Huq's assurance of removing section 57 of the ICT Act, a threat to free speech, does not offer much comfort to media professionals and free thinkers.
It is because the same provision is going to return in the proposed Digital Security Act approved by the cabinet last August.
According to section 57, if any person deliberately publishes any material in electronic form that causes deterioration of law and order, prejudices the image of the State or a person or causes to hurt religious belief, the offender faces jail term for a maximum of 14 years.
Legal experts have unequivocally been saying section 57 goes against the people's right to freedom of expression and free speech. Vague wordings in the section can easily be used and misused against newsmen and social media users and would have a chilling effect on free discourse necessary in a democratic society.
Talking to reporters yesterday, the law minister assured that the section would be removed from the ICT Act. He said the confusion and ambiguity of the provision introduced by section 57 will be removed in the new Digital Security Act.
But the reality is, section 57 is embedded in the proposed digital security act.
The proposed law also offered police arresting powers without warrant.
The ICT Act empowers police to make arrest without a warrant after a case is filed against someone for allegedly committing offences using any electronic devices.
Alongside social media users, a number of journalists have been arrested by police under the ICT Act.
But police can arrest any person on suspicion that he has committed offences under the proposed digital security law. Police had used such authority in exercise of draconian section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure to arrest anybody on mere suspicion. A few months ago, the Supreme Court has, in a verdict, provided some guidelines to stop the arbitrary use of section 54 by police.
It is important to note that the government in 2011 put a limit on the court's powers to directly issue arrest warrant against journalists, writers and others for writing or saying anything defamatory. An amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) introduced a provision for issuing summons against them.
In 2013, in an amendment to the ICT Act, the government further curtailed the courts' powers. Earlier under the ICT Act of 2006 police had to seek permission from the courts to make any arrest.
But the amendment empowered police to make any arrest without an arrest warrant.
The Indian Supreme Court, in March 2015, declared unconstitutional the same provision in Indian ICT law which had provided the law enforcers with arbitrary and discretionary powers to make arrests.
Bangladesh government, however, opts for retaining the draconian legal provision.
Section 57 may be removed from the ICT Act. But the same legal provision will remain in the proposed digital security law allowing police to use discretionary powers to make arrests.
In British India, the Raj was against freedom of press and free speech. During the colonial rule, the provision of CrPC was made empowering courts for issuing direct arrest warrant against anybody including journalists, writers and publishers of any books or newspapers if they wrote or said anything defamatory.
But now, it is not the court but the police force is empowered to make any arrest after filing of a case under the ICT Act on charge of defamation.
Police will have more arbitrary and discretionary powers in the proposed digital security law as they can make arrest on suspicion too.
The punitive measures introduced by our 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 someone.
An elected government in free Bangladesh has decided to be far harsher than the British Raj. One may be punished up to 14 years of imprisonment for defamation under the ICT Act. In the proposed digital security law one may face a maximum of seven years of imprisonment for defaming others.
Which one is more repressive law, the one made by the colonial ruler or our government?
Are we moving forward or backward?
The other crucial question is: who will save free speech from the police as the government keeps giving the law enforcement agencies more discretionary powers?