Proposed ICT law and freedom of expression
From previous experiences, we have witnessed that more often than not, the government of Bangladesh, when trying to enact any new law or strengthen any existing law, does so with the intention to exploit it for partisan purposes. If the present government enacts the proposed act with its partisan abuse in mind, it shouldn’t forget that the law could be used against them when they would be in the opposition, writes Ripan Kumar Biswas
‘LET the people know the facts and the country will be safe,’ said the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, when he was talking about the importance of freedom of expression in a democracy. Freedom of speech and access to information is meant for giving empowerment to people and help them gain control over their own lives. This empowerment supports participatory democracy by enabling citizens to engage in public debate and to hold the governments and others accountable. They ensure good governance, development, and peace rather serving the interests of any particular group or party.
Practically, any government can’t work much better without freedom of speech and functions of media as it is the fundamental need of citizens to know the functions of government. Today’s world is more interconnected than ever before. Yet, for all its advantages, increased connectivity brings increased risk of high-tech crimes, including cyber-based terrorism, espionage, computer intrusions, and major cyber fraud since we are building our lives around our wired and wireless networks. The high trend of cybercrime has prompted almost every country to put in place some sort of laws against cyber crime or information and communication technology acts. And there is nothing wrong with it, but the question is what should be in the law, how the law should be imposed, or who should be identified as law breakers?
Those who believe without the free flow of information and truth disseminated by different media, the future of democracy would be threatened, became frustrated when the Awami League-led government of Bangladesh recently approved the draft of the ICT (Amendment) Ordinance 2013, which appears to be a repressive bill. According to the proposed draft, which has been approved by the cabinet and is waiting for final review to be enacted as a law, the original Information and Communication Technology Act 2006, adopted by the then Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat government, would be further blackened by abolishing the provision of bail to the arrested and increasing the extent of punishment from 7 to 14 years in prison. The proposed act would make non-cognisable offences in the existing law cognisable and provide law enforcement agencies with unrestricted power to arrest any person suspected of breaking the law without issuing warrant.
While the proposed act has a lot of provisions to protect cybercrimes which includes destroying computer data with malicious intent, transferring data without proper authority, hacking, spreading pornography, etc, witnessing the recent arrest of Amar Desh acting editor Mahmudur Rahman, human rights organisation Odhikar’s secretary Adilur Rahman, bloggers Asif Mohiuddin, Mashiur Rahman Biplob, Subrata Adhikari Shuvo and Rasel Parvez under the ICT act, it seems the government is more interested to go against those who had their own views or opinions or, according to the government, ‘who released vulgar and defaming information that put the government in tough situation.’
Moreover, the proposed act is confusing and unclear. Cybercrimes and other related activities have to be closely identified. Article 57 of the draft law defined crime as wilful publication of any false or vulgar material on websites or any other electronic platform that can motivate someone or defame someone, cause deterioration of law and order, and tarnish the image of the state or individuals and/or hurt religious sentiments. So now the question is how the government would determine who would be prosecuted under this article? During February, we witnessed that the government was first lenient to the bloggers who were involved in Shahbagh movement that was demanding death penalty of all war criminals. But later, the government went against some of these very bloggers as they were believed to have hurt religious sentiments. It seems the government will have to wait till the outcome of any published views or opinions to determine who would be arbitrarily prosecuted under the proposed act, which appears inappropriate and not a permanent solution of cybercrime and really needs to be properly addressed.
Now the main problem is that the proposed act is in contravention with the freedom of expression, which is a basic foundation of democracy and is considered as one of the most fundamental aspects of all kinds of freedom. It’s not only the people of Bangladesh but in the present time, freedom of expression of people is increasingly under attack in different parts of the world. It is okay to be a supporter of a specific party and their ideologies, but our attitude should not be such as ‘let’s pound you to the ground if you are against the interest of that party’. There seems to be increasing prevalence of the sentiment that if you are against the ruling party, you must be against the government and now you are definitely against the state because you open your mouth against them speaking about their wrong doings or against their interest groups. But they seem to forget that you can be for many things and against many things at the same time, and the connections do not have to connect. There are more rules, regulations, and surveillance now available on what you should say, how you should say it and where you should say it. If everything goes well on what you say, you are good to go. But if not, you risk being prosecuted.
Freedom of expression means guarantee for every individual to write and speak openly without any interferences by the government. Individuals or groups can inform public and advocate in favour of alternative ideas and provide their opinions about what they think is right or wrong. Freedom of expression also secures other fundamentals of democracy like pluralism and free, fair and transparent elections. Without freedom of expression, political parties also cannot campaign properly which can lead to unfair election contestation. So, to ensure democracy for all, freedom of expression is essential.
In addition to the proposed act being incompatible with the freedom of expression, according to technical experts, the government would not be able to tackle cybercrimes with this kind of inefficient act. Technology is changing and evolving rapidly. Recently, security expert Khalil Shreateh from Palestine discovered a glitch that allows anyone to post on a stranger’s Facebook wall. He hacked into Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook page to expose the site’s vulnerability. The proposed act under review does not cover a majority of crimes committed through mobiles. It considers emails as evidence, which conflicts with the country’s evidence act.
From previous experiences, we have witnessed that more often than not, the government of Bangladesh, when trying to enact any new law or strengthen any existing law, does so with the intention to exploit it for partisan purposes. If the present government enacts the proposed act with its partisan abuse in mind, it shouldn’t forget that the law could be used against them when they would be in the opposition. Also the draft goes against the ruling party’s very own slogan ‘Digital Bangladesh’.
Yes, if passed the law should have provisions which empower the government to tackle the growing number of cyber crimes. But in order to do that, the government should have consulted with all the stakeholders and should come clean by drafting such rules so that they do not hinder fundamental rights like freedom of speech or expression.
Ripan Kumar Biswas is a freelance writer based in New York. firstname.lastname@example.org
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