Section 57 of the ICT Act should not have been there in the first place. That it is there, that people in the corridors of power in the past and in these present times have thought nothing of the concerns expressed by citizens about the damage that such a law would do to society, is worrying. In all these years since the law came into operation, a good number of journalists have paid the price for what they have tried to do as part of their profession. Cases have been filed against them both at the level of the administration and by individuals aggrieved by news reports and postings on social media.
The problem with measures like Section 57 is that they encourage the growth of a psychology, among individuals and groups, that militates against the spirit of a free expression of opinion. We do realize, though, that the media are not perfect, that sometimes the less careful working for them fall prey to reportage that may not exactly be in tune with the calling of the profession. But the number of such journalists is never very high. Besides, when they make mistakes, there are ways in which they can be made to stand corrected or made to realize their errors. There is such an institution as the Press Council, to which anyone aggrieved by news reports can complain. There is the convention of rejoinders, which gives an aggrieved person the right to respond to reports he/she may be troubled by. There is the normal process of law that can be brought to bear on an emergent situation.
It is these conventions and traditions that are threatened when laws like Section 57 are brought in. Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu has all the right in the world to defend the measure, but when he says Section 57 has not been used to harass journalists, he is wrong. There are instances across the country where cases based on Section 57 have been slapped on journalists. The result has been the growth of an atmosphere of intimidation and fear. It is very obvious that journalists are today afraid of the consequences that might arise from their reports and editorial comments. To then suggest that Section 57 is nothing to be worried about stretches the truth by miles, for if the law did not give us cause for worry, why would there be such a loud cumulative and collective demand across Bangladesh for its repeal?
Democracy entails a full, substantive and healthy functioning of society through the political processes that are supposed to underpin it. But when regressive measures — and Section 57 clearly is one — are brought in and citizens are informed that these measures will ensure a smooth working of politics, it is pluralism which takes a back seat or goes fugitive altogether. Democracy does not make people run for cover from threats but has them face those threats openly and squarely. Section 57, unfortunately, renders media people vulnerable to endless worries only because they refuse to push realities under the rug. Such a law does not sit well with democracy. It eats away at the democratic fabric from within, unless someone realizes in the centre of power that if the flow of blood is not stanched, society will begin to haemorrhage. Bad laws seek to turn societies anemic.
In this country, we have had bad laws aplenty, going back all the way to army-ruled Pakistan in the Ayub Khan era. The unconcern with which the Defence of Pakistan Rules was applied to throttle democratic aspirations is not to be forgotten. In Bangladesh, the Special Powers Act, enacted by the Awami League government in the early 1970s and subsequently taken full advantage of by successive governments, did huge disservice to the political ethos of the nation. The notorious Indemnity Ordinance, decreed by the usurper Moshtaque regime and — horror of horrors! — subsequently made to worm its way into the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution by the Zia regime left us red in the face before the global community. In the Ershad years, the endless nocturnal ‘advice’ making its way to newspaper offices was a threat that could, should it not be heeded, lead to dangerous consequences.
But, of course, authoritarian or autocratic or military regimes have their beefy ways, before they bite the dust, of keeping people fearful of their illegitimacy until they are driven off politics by mass movements. With democratic dispensations, with elected governments, circumstances must be different. When citizens disappear without trace, it becomes the responsibility of the elected government holding office to scour the land and retrieve those citizens and convince the nation that purposeful politics is at work. When the police beat a journalist black and blue and then charge him with possession of yaba tablets, it becomes the moral and constitutional responsibility of government based on the consent of the governed to come to his aid and have his tormentors face justice. When an individual sues another individual on the strength of laws like Section 57, it becomes obvious that the recklessness with which the law is liable to be applied and even abused is a reason why it should not be there.
Since March this year, no fewer than twenty three journalists have been sued under Section 57. And yet Minister Inu thinks journalists are not being subjected to harassment by the law. Section 57, says he, is not just for the media but for the 160 million people of Bangladesh. Do these 160 million need this law when a plenitude of laws is already out there to deal with defamation, innuendo, petty and high crime and treason?
Law Minister Anisul Huq has enlightened us with the thought that Section 57 will eventually cease to be. We will celebrate his optimism when his sentiment comes to pass. Meanwhile, let the thought be reasserted that this country needs a flowering of ideas and intellect. It has no room for a narrowing of liberties and dreams.
And therefore should Section 57 go — in the larger national interest. Arbitrariness is not the way for the State to be conducting business.