The Digital Security Act is now a law, no matter how much it is disliked by editors and journalists. That there is a need for a law to cover the new world of digital communications is accepted by all. However, many feel that several clauses, by-laws and sub-clauses of the act are oppressive and open to abuse. That is a serious issue and deserves attention. However, the government has not moved in to assuage the anxious crowd and the opponents are making it a cause for a principled confrontation. That is something one could do without.
Let us face a fact. This government is so ‘powerful’ that it can do what it wants with laws. It can even use the law to push an opponent into submission. It has used court cases against the BNP — the number is nearly 1,00,000 — to virtually cripple the party. And it is all being done through the use of law.
Not about mainstream (?) but social media
IF THE government wants, it can use any number of laws against anyone it wishes and that includes media, but it has not. The government is not intimidated by the media and it can largely ignore them if it wants to. In other words, it can choose and fight if it wants and it can ignore an issue if it wants. Law, good or bad, will not come in the way, nor be an aid.
The government has chosen to go after its principal opponent, the BNP, and it has left no avenues untouched to do so. It can keep BNP leaders, including Khaleda Zia, in jail by using the legal system. The laws under which she has been jailed has never aroused suspicion or criticism but it has been effectively used. It means that the perception of the government about the intent of the protagonist will define its response. That is not an even-handed approach but a fact.
The Awami League blames the BNP for two acts. One, the killing of Sheikh Mujib by army officers. The Awami League believes that Zia was linked to it or responsible for the same.
The other is the 2004 grenade attack, which killed many leaders and injured many more, including the prime minister. So it does not see the BNP as a political opponent but a murderous rival for power. The Awami League will never deal with the BNP as a normal political opponent and that is why it will use any weapon it has to clamp down on the BNP.
But the media are not the same as the BNP.
Political power media and social media
The prime minister will not forgive two media leaders — editors of one Bangla and one English language daily newspapers — not for what they have written or said but for promoting the minus 2 formula and Professor Yunus’s political party. The media do not anger the Awami League/Sheikh Hasina much but political opponents who have tried to move her out by non-electoral means do. So, its not media but politics that is intended to end her political or physical life that makes her see red.
What the media leaders may do now is, instead of confrontation, look for negotiating space. The Digital Security Act needs a great deal of improvement while engagement rather than attack will serve media interest more.
The Awami League is trying to control social media more than the mainstream media. Media outlet owners are people with known addresses but not social media channels, account holders, etc and that is what is pushing the government to pass the Digital Security Act. Any perusal will show that very few media workers have been sued under the old ICT 57 unless its for comments on Facebook. So, the objective is to clamp down on social, not professional, paid media.
The Bengali love for suing has found a new life under ICT 57/DSA which has to be curbed as must be unlimited police powers, non-bailable offence, and anticipatory arrest and other provisions. The potential for the abuse of law and lack of checks and balances must be incorporated if the intent of the government is to be successful.
Lessons from last few movements
THE lessons to be learnt are from the recent anti-quota movement in particular and other movements. Once the matter became obvious that the anti-quota movement was popular, the move was made to adjust. But there was backtracking and even just a few weeks back, the prime minister had said that it was not possible to do away with the quota system. But that changed last week. Hence, political expediency determines the government’s flexibility. Unless the government stands to gain and as the movement had become a public demand, the government cannot be pushed or budged.
Most members of the Editors’ Council are close to the government and are not going to antagonise it beyond a point. The few who are hard core within have a political air around them and Sheikh Hasina will read it that way. One may not like to step back but as events show, unless it is a genuinely popular cause, the Awami League will not bother much.
Seeking a more rational Digital Security Act is a more practical demand. The media are not negotiating from apposition of strength and confrontation will be an opportunity lost to improve a bad law. It has been passed but it can be reformed. Far too much ego is on display all around.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.
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