THE concern over the abuse of section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act 2006 rose to prominence again as the number of cases under the said act has significantly increased in recent times. A total of twenty-seven people, as New Age reported on Monday, were arrested under the ICT Act in August, the highest number of people arrested in a month so far this year under the law, according to the monthly report of Odhikar, a human rights body. It said that 23 people were arrested over the latest protests for safer road on charge of providing ‘publicity to false and confusing information’ and spreading ‘rumours and anti-state posts on Facebook/social media.’ The arrested were ill-treated while in the custody of the law enforcers and they included a pregnant schoolteacher and an eminent photographer. This sharp increase in the number of cases, despite low conviction rates, proves that the act is used as an instrument to curtail free speech and silence voices of political opposition. These arrests and torture under this act, therefore, exemplify the politically motivated use of the Section 57.
In 2006, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party led-government enacted the ICT Act 2006 to govern and bring social media and cyber space under its legal purview. After the Bangladesh Awami League came to power, in the midst of widespread protest and opposition, it amended in 2013 the section 57 that raised jail term and increased the maximum fine for broadcasting and posting on the web any information that might undermine the image and reputation of individuals or the state, offend religious sentiments, or provoke or incite individuals or organisations. Referring to the section in question, political organisers, human rights organisations and constitutional experts have been asking the government to scrap the Section 57 as it leaves room to manipulate and misuse it for personal and political gain or vengeance. There are a number of public interest litigations pending with the High Court that either challenge the legality of the section or ask the court to resolve the ambiguity in the legal definition of the cyber crime. The section has also been criticised as it is being used to criminalise human rights defenders and journalists for simply doing their job. But one has not noticed a single move under the section when a section of the incumbents criticise their opposition digitally.
The section 57 of ICT Act of 2006 poses a threat to the freedom of expression as well as the fundamental rights of the citizens as it empowers law enforcers to arrest any person without any warrant. Instead of relying on a legally untenable repressive act, the government needs to refurbish its image by shoring up and improving the law and order situation of the country, not resorting to unnecessary arrests, which would inevitably improve the cyber security of the country. Meanwhile, the government should ensure that the act is not misused to harass the public.
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