Amended ICT law an affront to freedom of expression
IT GOES without saying that, as the use of information and communication technology becomes more pervasive than ever, the scope for cyber crimes has widened to an unprecedented degree. Moreover, in the recent past, certain quarters have used the internet, especially the social media, to propagate misinformation and disinformation and thus sought to cause instability, suffice to add, with reasonable success. Besides, there is the need for periodic assessment of the existing law in this regard, leading to requisite amendments and updates, so as to contain the misuse of information and communication technology. Suffice to say, such updates and amendments must not in any way encroach upon people’s right to freedom of speech and expression, and thought and conscience, enshrined in the constitution as the fundamental rights of the citizenry. Regrettably, however, the passage of the Information and Communication Technology (Amendment) Bill 2013, which stipulates a maximum prison term of 14 years and a minimum of 7 years or a fine of Tk 1 crore or both for cyber crimes, in parliament on Sunday may actually have widened the scope for the state to opt for repression as a means to constrict people’s right to freedom of speech and expression, and thought and conscience.
According to a report published in New Age on Monday, the bill also makes offences under Sections 54, 56, 57 and 61 of the 2006 act cognisable and non-bailable, thereby empowering law enforcers to arrest anyone accused of violating the law without a warrant, by invoking Section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which runs counter to universal jurisprudence, which decrees that an accused should be treated as innocent until proven guilty. Moreover, the offences mentioned in Section 57 of the bill, which, as rights groups and civic forums have rightly pointed out, are not clearly defined, widen the scope for abuse of the law by the government. By giving the offences in question such vague and subjective definition, the Awami League-led government seems to have kept open the option to go after any dissenting voices on the slightest pretext and provocation. In any case, the incumbents have consistently displayed a disquieting disposition of taking pseudo-legal and extra-legal courses to persecute any individual or group critical of their undemocratic actions and anti-people policies. The amendments look likely to provide them with additional leverage to pursue such autocratic impulses.
At the same time, by empowering law enforcers to make arrest without any warrant, the bill renders ICT users to unwarranted harassment. Not long ago, in a different context, the parliamentary standing committee on the home ministry, made up mostly of lawmakers belonging to the AL-led ruling alliance, accused the police of abusing their authority to file cases ‘as a weapon of extortion’. The definitions of cyber crimes contained in the ICT law could very well have provided the corrupt section of the police with yet another weapon of extortion.
Overall, the amended ICT law poses a further threat to not only people’s rights to freedom of speech and expression, conscience and thought but also their right to protection of law. Thanks to the law, the sections of society and media that are committed to the democratic idea of demanding accountability of the executive branch of the state and do not hesitate to criticise its undemocratic actions and anti-people policies will be especially vulnerable. It is imperative thus that the legislative move by the incumbents should be protested and public opinion mobilised so as to bring the pressure to bear on them to change their course.
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