Bangladesh's ICT Act Has Led to Hundreds of Lawsuits Over Online Speech

The ICT Act is now allegedly routinely used to suppress freedom of speech and harass writers, activists and journalists, often for their comments on social media.

Over the past four months in Bangladesh, more than 20 journalists have been sued under a controversial law prohibiting digital messages that can “deteriorate” law and order, “prejudice the image of the state or person,” or “hurt religious beliefs.”

Although its authors may have intended for this part of the law to be used sparingly, it is now routinely used to suppress freedom of speech and harass writers, activists and journalists, often for their comments on social media.

Bangladeshi law enables individuals and private companies to file suits against one another under the law, Section 57 of the 2013 Information and Communication Technology Act. The offences mentioned above are non-bailable and carry a minimum punishment of seven years (with a maximum of 14 years) and a maximum fine of up to Tk ten million ($123,150).

On June 3, three journalists were sued by a ruling party activist in Habiganj over a report involving local ruling party (Awami League) lawmaker Abdul Majid Khan. On April 29, a private company filed a lawsuit against journalist Ahmed Razu, executive editor of online portal Natunsomay.com, for publishing two reports that allegedly tarnished the image of the company. The law has been used many times against journalists for their comments against the rich and the powerful.

Nearly 700 cases have been filed under the ICT Act since it was amended in 2013. Research by The Daily Star shows that 60% of them were lodged under Section 57. Approximately 319 such cases are currently at trial.

In the most recent publicly reported case, a professor at Dhaka University’s Department of Mass Communication and Journalism used the law to sue his colleague, associate professor Fahmidul Huq, over a Facebook post. The professor alleged that the post divulged confidential official university information.

As of July 17, a university spokesperson said that professor Abul Mansur Ahmed had decided to drop charges against his colleague, Haq. According to the statement, Ahmed took the decision after Haq uploaded another post on Facebook apologising for his previous post.

The ICT Act

The law was first introduced in 2006. A 2013 amendment made several updates to the law, among which was an increase of the maximum punishment for certain offenses and make them non-bailable.

Human rights activists and writers have long campaigned to repeat the ICT Act, reasoning that its broad scope has left it vulnerable to misuse by political opponents, enemies, and law enforcement agencies.

Shariful Hasan commented on the lawsuit against Haq:

My question to you sir, as you belong to the department of Dhaka University, the basis of which is freedom of expression and freethinking: “Didn’t your conscience hold you back even a bit from suing your colleague from the same department under the controversial section 57 of the ICT Act?”

If you had allegations against him why didn’t you follow the rules of the University to file a complaint? [..]

Really, I am dumbfounded. Teachers and students of the department of mass communication and journalism of Dhaka University recently formed a human chain protesting the lawsuit under section 57 against journalist Nazmul. I don’t know what you will do now.

Blogger and Activist Abu Mustafiz Hassan wrote on Facebook:

Soon a husband will sue his wife and the wife will sue her husband under the Section 57 of ICT act … Before we reach to this point, please take a stand for Fahmidul Haque.

Activist and filmmaker Reza Ghatak wrote on Facebook:

The section 57 of the ICT Act is an impactful tool to create enemies whose feelings are hurt somehow. The government has deliberately brought this mistrust among them using this black law. This law will create division and mistrust between father-son, siblings, couples, relatives, friends and across the society. Please repeal the section 57 of the ICT Act. Otherwise, it will create enemies among families.

Many journalists have been holding rallies demanding the controversial ICT law should be repealed.

Activists and lawyer Jatirmoy Barua said in an interview to local news portal Jago News:

Section 57 of the ICT Act has become a tool to persecute journalists, because many journalists are now using the internet and social media to publish/share the news. Writings full of argument, criticism and disagreement published in books or printed magazines are not being targeted. But the same writings, if shared online are being targeted. [..]

There is no control. It cannot be fathomed who is suing whom. Any statement or expression shared online can be [subject to a lawsuit] if someone else feels their feelings are hurt or they are targeted.

In 2015, Barrister Barua lodged a writ petition against this controversial act in the Supreme Court, which is still waiting for a hearing date.

In May 2017, the minister of law, justice and parliamentary affairs Anisul Huq publicly pledged to scrap Section 57 from the law. Instead, they said, these issues will be covered under Bangladesh’s forthcoming Digital Security Act, which may be introduced as soon as in August 2017.

It remains to be seen how this law will affect online speech, and how the many cases launched under Section 57 will play out.

This article was originally published by Global Voices.