Laws such as these contribute to a distancing between the governing and the governed
The freedom to dissent is the fundamental democratic and human right. If we are no longer able to raise our voice in disagreement or to express disapproval of actions or policies of the authorities, then all other rights we hold pale in comparison.
Equally important is that a healthy climate exists for expression of thoughts and ideas, and that there is no sense of intimidation or fear when it comes to speaking out. Often, it is how a law is implemented and who are its targets which is as much a concern as the law itself.
The fundamental problem we face in Bangladesh when it comes to issues of freedom of expression is two-fold: The first is that tolerance of any kind of dissent appears to be shrinking rapidly, and we can see this in the words and attitudes of the authorities. The second is that this is expressed in the law, both as written as well as how it is enforced.
Whether we speak of the much reviled Section 57 of the ICT Act or Section 32 of the mooted Digital Security Act, the effect is the same.
On the one hand, people are cowed into silence, preferring to keep their own counsel. On the other, the law can also be misused to target people the government deems to be opponents, as has been the case with Section 57.
No one is arguing that the state does not have a right to protect both itself and its citizens from harmful, dangerous, false, or slanderous speech. There is no question that the right to freedom of expression must be exercised by all of us with responsibility and cautiousness. This responsibility is even more pronounced for those of us in the news media.
However, the law, as it stands now, goes too far, and as it is envisaged under the Digital Security Act goes much too far. Both acts potentially criminalize statements and actions that ought not to constitute a crime, give too much plenary power to police and magistrates, undermine other rights guaranteed by the law, and are far too open to abuse and misuse.
And with Section 57 we have seen and are seeing concrete examples of all of these problems.
At the end of the day, it is not just the citizenry and the news media who suffer from sweeping laws such as these, but the government itself. Laws such as these contribute to a distancing between the governing and the governed, which is never a good thing. Now, more than ever, it is important that this space be lessened and the common people retain their faith in the government to do the right thing.
Laws such as Section 57 or Section 32 are always a step in the wrong direction, that end up doing more damage than good.