Section 57: A Necessary Measure or Eroding of Freedom?

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By Julie Bowen

The recent section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology act initially put in place in 2006 is set to cause a stir. The proposal has already made national news, with a number of experts arguing against the reform which would grant the authorities the power to arrest and detain any potential perpetrators for a maximum of 14 years. Currently, the ICT act is in place to allow the legal authorities and government to quantify cyber laws, and take appropriate action against those breaking these laws, and in an attempt to regulate the growing use of the internet in Bangladesh.

Taking such measures is seen as a necessity and many governments all over the world have similar measures in place to protect internet security and prosecute offenders. However, the recently proposed amendment in section 57 extends these infringements in such a way that could be seen to be in opposition to freedom of speech, and somewhat draconian. The amendment has already been applied in full force mere days after the complaints from Dr Malik, with four bloggers, Asif Mohiuddin, Subrata Adhikari Shuvo, Moshiur Rahman Biplob and Rasel Parvez being charged under section 57 for inflammatory comments on religious issues.

The Implications

The issue of freedom of speech is a difficult and often problematic one. While it is generally agreed that no one should be allowed to incite religious hatred or acts of violence using the internet as a platform, making a clear distinction between the expression of an opinion and the freedom to share it and writing deliberately inflammatory material to incite violence can be difficult. A further problem is that the state as a governing body is meant to hold a secular position. The article itself states that should any person deliberately publish material in electronic form which is detrimental to law and order, prejudiced against the image of the state or a person, and aims to cause damage to religious belief, the offender will be subject to a maximum of 14 years imprisonment. One major concern is that the interpretation of this law is easily subject to abuse by the authorities. Many Bengalis believe the level of corruption in the country is unacceptable and rampant, and placing faith in the authorities to oversee the use of this law properly is not readily available. 93% of people surveyed 
on corruption in the country felt that the police, government and judiciary were corrupt, and that corruption had increased in recent years.

The Ethics

Even if corruption is factored out of the equation, can we really view section 57 as a democratic and ethical amendment? Examining the wording of the section alone does bring to light unpleasant elements. Making it illegal to publish electronic material that is detrimental to the ‘image of the state’ for example, is both vague and potentially dangerous. One of the key aspects of any democracy is that the citizens of a state are allowed to express their opinions and perceptions of the government that they elected.

While Bangladesh’s political history shows us that state suppression of opposition is clearly nothing new, it could be argued that section 57 shows a dangerous lack of foresight and movement on securing Bangladesh’s future as a democracy. Secondly there is the problem of interpretation of the act. Having produced the document itself, the state is in complete control when it comes to interpreting what constitutes detrimental writing in relation to the image of the state. As the case of the bloggers shows, this act could also be viewed as in contradiction with the state as a secular body. The bloggers were reportedly objecting to this perceived lack of secularism portrayed by the state and certain media sources, and the action taken by the government as a result of enforcing section 57 could indeed be interpreted as a reinforcement of this accusation in a certain light. A further perceived problem might be that this contradiction is only furthered by the use of a religious moral and ethical approach to defining law in a supposedly secular state. While the field of ethics and morality is itself complex, there are certainly alternative approaches that a secular state might be expected to explore. There are a number of academic and philosophical works that deal with the subject of ethics and morality, which are relevant not only to individuals but also states. Much of John Locke's philosophical enquiries into this field, for example, were adopted by the United States and France as a basis for their constitutions. It could be argued therefore, that more suitable ethical and moral approaches exist for a truly secular state. 

The Future

For now, it does seem that the section will remain as part of the ICT act, and this is perhaps indicative of the changes in Bangladesh as a result of proliferation of the internet and the current political climate. Blogging has become a common pursuit, and could be argued to have a large part to play in the shaping of the future of Bangladesh’s political and cultural climate. Traditionally, the ruling party has been able to suppress opposition through the use of state sanctioned laws, and it could be argued that section 57 is simply a further evolution of this strategy. However, as the international community has seen more and more in recent years, domestic and legal control of internet activity will only go so far. The ability of bloggers to engage international and domestic readers will be a difficult practice to bring to a stop entirely, and section 57 could in fact simply cause a further, more focused effort from bloggers to engage the international community.


Julie Bowen

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