It may be a little surprising for the ordinary citizen to know that according to the proposed digital security law, the punishment for spreading propaganda or campaign against the Liberation War of 1971 or its spirit using digital devices or instigating to do so is almost the same as it is for the crime of murdering a human being.
It is a prerequisite in framing a law that its meaning must be clear. The stricter the law, the higher the punishment and all the more necessary it is to define every word, clarify any implication and analyse all its possible and varied interpretations.
This prerequisite was not reflected in the proposed digital security law that introduces harsh punishment for spreading propaganda against the Liberation War and its spirit. The nine-month-long Liberation War is a glorious part of our national life. But in the proposed law, it is not clear what action will be considered as propaganda against the Liberation War. Similarly, the spirit of the Liberation War is also not defined in the proposed law.
Yet the proposed law stipulates the same punishment as for committing murder for spreading propaganda or campaign against the Liberation War of 1971 or its spirit. Even the proposed punishment for defaming the Liberation War or its spirit is harsher than the punishment for culpable homicide and causing death by negligence.
Human life is precious. No right can be compared with the right to life and personal liberty. Therefore, no offence can be more grievous than the one to deny a person's right to life by committing a murder. This is why every country, including Bangladesh, has introduced laws that mete out the highest punishment for murder.
According to section 302 of the Penal Code of 1860, a person shall be punished with death or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine for committing murder. On charge of culpable homicide which does not amount to murder, an individual shall be sentenced to imprisonment for life or for any jail term which may extend to 10 years and monetary fine as per section 304 of the Penal Code.
Someone accused of causing death by negligence, however, may face lesser punishment. According to section 304A of the Penal Code, any person accused of causing death by any rash or negligent act which does not amount to culpable homicide shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine, or both.
The punishment proposed in section 21 of the digital security bill placed in parliament on April 9 deserves much attention. According to this section, an individual may be sentenced to jail up to 14 years or fined up to Tk 1 crore, or both, on the charge of spreading propaganda or campaign against the Liberation War or its spirit or instigating to do so. But this punishment is for committing the offence for the first time. If anybody commits the same offence a second time or repeatedly, s/he may be sentenced to jail for life or a fine up to Tk 3 crore or both.
The root of this provision in the proposed digital security legislation may lie in the draft prepared by the Bangladesh Law Commission in 2016 to criminalise the distortion or denial of any documents or events connected to our Liberation War. An individual, according to the draft law, may be punished with a jail term of up to five years and in addition, a monetary fine of Tk 1 crore if convicted under the law. The commission had sent the draft bill to the law ministry for taking necessary steps. The move at that time sparked widespread criticism and was considered as a threat to the freedom of expression and independent journalism.
The proposed digital security legislation has come up with almost the same provision with harsher punitive measures. If the proposed law is enacted, making any comments or writing new articles or giving interpretation afresh on the basis of new findings of any event connected with the Liberation War will be a risky venture.
There is another dangerous thing in the proposed legislation. It allows anybody to file a case on the charge of defaming the Liberation War or its spirit. But who will determine whether there has been any propaganda or campaign against the Liberation War or its spirit? This ambiguity in the law may open the floodgates for vexatious litigation to harass innocent persons. And things may be very complicated and difficult once the proposed law is enacted. It may also pose a major threat to people's freedom of speech and expression and independent journalism guaranteed by the constitution.
Once the proposed legislation is enacted, it may even discourage the present trend of studying history and continuing research on the Liberation War. Researchers are still coming up with new findings about World War II even after seven decades of the war. Nobody can deny the importance of studying history. The American Historical Association, the oldest and largest society of historians and professors of history in the USA, says a study of history is essential for good citizenship. If people are discouraged to study history, how will they be good citizens?
What was the major reason behind Bengalis' glorious war in 1971? What was the reason for their long struggle that began a few years after the partition in 1947? The answer lies in the preamble of our constitution. As per the preamble, the high ideals of nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism inspired our heroic people to dedicate themselves to and our brave martyrs to sacrifice their lives in the national liberation struggle. Of the ideals democracy was the most important.
Non-democratic and autocratic rule by the West Pakistanis led Bengalis to fight for their freedom. Bengalis struggled for long for their democratic right. So, democracy was at the core of the spirit of our Liberation War. Unfortunately, the way the proposed digital security law wants to curb spreading propaganda or campaign against the Liberation War or its spirit may not be considered as democratic.
A fundamental characteristic of a modern democratic state is the existence of the right to freedom of expression, which includes the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by the public authority. Freedom of speech is considered as the essence of a democracy. But the proposed digital security law if enacted will introduce a new threat to freedom of expression and independent journalism. Is this the proper way to protect the Liberation War and its spirit from being defamed through spreading propaganda and campaign?
The digital security bill is now pending before a parliamentary watchdog for scrutiny. So, still, there is a way to consider the proposed legal provision carefully. Lawmakers should apply their minds and wisdom to do their job.
Shakhawat Liton is special correspondent to The Daily Star.