Over the last couple of years, a rising number of attacks on free thinkers and civil society members for their views has put people’s constitutional right to freedom of speech under threat.
The crisis is twofold – radical fundamentalists are trying to restrain the voices that go against their ideology, and the government, on the other hand, is restricting free speech with a restrictive law – the controversial Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act.
In recent developments, noted human rights defender Sultana Kamal received threats from Qawmi madrasa-based platform Hefazat-e-Islam following a comment that she made on a TV talk show.
Meanwhile, a case has been filed against senior journalist and Brac University teacher Afsan Chowdhury under the ICT Act by a retired army officer for alleged defamation for one of his Facebook posts.
On Monday, a Supreme Court lawyer served a legal notice to the police chief and the home secretary demanding Afsan Chowdhury’s arrest for his Facebook post on Chief Justice SK Sinha.
Members from diverse professions on Thursday came down heavily on the ongoing state of restricting free speech.
Section 57 of the ICT Act is now becoming a tool for the government to harass anyone who is trying to raise voice against any of the activities of the government, they said.
We should have freedom of speech for all regardless of political or religious inclinations. But if anyone has a violent reaction to what others say like the Hefazat leader did, those are the people who need to be taken to the court
Addressing a protest meeting at Dhaka’s Cirdap, civil society members criticised the government for obstructing freedom of speech with Section 57 and demanded immediate cancellation of the section from the law.
Chaina Patwary, an activist of Bangladesh Students Union’s Chittagong University unit, was arrested on June 2 and is still in jail. It is said in the FIR that she made comments on her Facebook page hurting religious sentiment.
Ajay Roy, retired professor of Dhaka University, demanded immediate release of the student activist and cancellation of Section 57.
Former information commissioner Sadeka Halim said the law had become questionable because of this section.
“When the imams from Saudi Arabia visited the country, they did not make any derogatory comments in their speech in Baitul Mukarram, but Hefazat leaders who stood at the same spot issued death threats against Sultana Kamal,” she said.
“It is really unexpected that this leader has still not been arrested.”
Former Bangladesh Bank deputy governor Khandker Ibrahim Khaled slammed the government for not arresting the Hefazat leader who has made death threats against Sultana Kamal.
Lawyer and rights activist Sara Hossain told the Dhaka Tribune that the government is using Section 57 to check the freedom of expression of the people.
“This law has been made in a way that police are given immense power to pick up anyone anytime. The government is giving importance to one group who say their religious sentiments are being hurt, but what about the other side whose sentiments may also be hurt?” she said.
“I think we should have freedom of speech for all regardless of political or religious inclinations. But if anyone has a violent reaction to what others say like the Hefazat leader did, those are the people who need to be taken to the court,” she added.
“It should not be that I will have to face trial for any logical argument, as I should have the right to talk about my country’s development, environment, politics or human rights,” she said.
Section 57 of the ICT Act stipulates that any post, image, or video on an electronic format that “causes to deteriorate law and order, prejudice the image of the state or person or hurt religious beliefs” are non-bailable offences.
At another programme in the afternoon, speakers from diverse professions said Section 57 of the ICT Act is not used for supporting the original victims, rather the state is mostly using it against a tool to restrict free thoughts posted in Facebook and online media platforms.
Section 57 of the ICT Act is mainly used only when someone raises an issue against the government, speakers observed on Thursday at ‘Boithoki’ – a fortnightly discussion organised by the online news portal Bangla Tribune.
“Section 57 of the act contradicts with country’s constitution. Freedom of speech cannot exist if this law prevails,” Golam Murtoza, editor of Saptahik 2000, said in the programme.
He demanded cancellation of the controversial section from the law and an amendment of the act.
Dhaka Tribune publisher Kazi Anis Ahmed observed that democracy is impossible when people do not have the right to speak their minds.
“We have seen much misuse of Section 57. Many renowned people were harassed and many were sent to jail for commenting on Facebook,” he said.
“It is difficult to measure in a court of law how someone feels. People need to keep their feelings to themselves,” he said.
Social media was a powerful platform, Kazi Anis remarked.
“There is trolling on social media, but it also helps raise public awareness. Tonu murder would have been buried if not for social media,” he said, putting importance on digital literacy for people to help them identify what is correct and what is not.
He added that the laws should be designed to protect those who are more vulnerable.
Lawyer Rumin Farhana said the entire ICT Act needed more clarity.
“Section 57 says false and obscene content, but there are no definitions of false or obscene,” she said.
Bangla Tribune Editor Zulfiqer Russell said media should enjoy necessary freedom, otherwise no proper criticism will be made.
Amnesty for protection of Sultana Kamal
Meanwhile, Amnesty International on Wednesday urged Bangladeshi authorities to take urgent actions to ensure protection for rights activist Sultana Kamal after she was threatened by Hefazat.
“The authorities must take immediate steps to ensure Sultana Kamal’s protection, investigate the threats made against her and hold those responsible to account,” it said in a statement.
“On June 6, police in Dhaka announced that they had taken unspecified measures to provide protection to Sultana Kamal. As far as Amnesty International is aware, however, no senior government official has publicly condemned the threats against her, nor has a police investigation been launched into the threats,” reads the statement.
Later on Wednesday, Dhaka Metropolitan Police told the media they had arranged security for the rights activist.
The HRW demanded that the government ensure that human rights defenders are able to carry out peaceful activities without fear of surveillance, intimidation, harassment, arrest, prosecution or retribution, and guarantee the integrity of human rights defenders, including against attacks or threats coming from non-state groups.