Muzzling the media colonial-style


A baul song of the mid nineteenth century describes how several editors of Bangla newspapers lost their jobs for publishing reports on train accidents in British India. The authorities of railway companies and the colonial rulers did not want the people to know about such incidents.

But, forcing editors to step down was not the sole means of controlling their voices. The rulers also made laws to prevent the local press from criticising British policies.

In fact, the first act to stop local journalists from expressing their opinions freely in the sub-continent was passed under the title of Vernacular Press Act in 1878.

According to the viceroy of India Lord Lytton, newspapers published in vernacular languages were “mischievous scribblers preaching open sedition” because “the avowed purpose of most of the vernacular newspapers was an end to the British rule”.

That means it is nothing new for a ‘ruling party’ to consider dissenting voices and divergent views as ‘seditious’.

Now, the jumbled nature and loose definition of a few sections of the much-talked-about Information and Communication Technology Act-2006, amended in 2013, and the proposed Digital Security Bill-2018, indicate that their provisions are to serve the same purpose for any institution that wants to hide certain things from the public.

Regulation of cyberspace is undoubtedly necessary, especially to fill the vacuum in punitive measures required for cyber crimes, that is, crimes committed through electronic means, but not covered by the penal code. But the state must ensure that laws do not muzzle the voices.

According to Section 57 of the ICT Act, if any material published or transmitted electronically creates ‘possibility to deteriorate law and order, prejudice the image of the State or person or causes to hurt or may hurt religious belief or instigate against any person or organisation”, such activity will be considered as an offence.

This was widely criticised as this section is said to have gone against the people's right to freedom of expression and free speech.

Fear that this provision was a dangerous tool was evident when a journalist was sued allegedly for maligning the image of a state minister in July 2017 by sharing a news item on the Facebook on the death of one of the goats distributed by the government.

This law has also given the police unrestrained power for several offences that were considered non-bailable. The Vernacular Press Act-1878 was also cognizable - the officers could arrest anyone without taking written permission from magistrates.

It is similar to section 16 of Special Powers Act of 1974, which was also a major threat for the mass media for a long time, and which was eventually repealed by the interim government of Shahabuddin Ahmed.

Amid furor over the ICT Act, the government had in 2015 decided to enact a new law, styled Cyber Security Act but the specialists composing the draft came up with the Digital Security Act. Section 3 of the draft says this was not a stand-alone law, and should be seen as supplementary to other laws of the land. So this act can also be explained as supplementary to the ICT Act.

Several ministers earlier said the digital security law was aimed at putting an end to criticism drawn by section 57 of the ICT Act. But, Mustafa Jabbar, before being appointed post, telecommunications and information and communications technology minister, said, “The two [the ICT Act and the Digital Security Act] are completely different laws.”

Section 13 of the ICT Act criminalises the freedom of speech under the excuse of national security.

Furthermore, section 32 of the proposed Digital Security Act defines certain journalistic activities as spying and keeps provision for up to 14 years of imprisonment and Tk 2 million as fine. The Editors’ Council has already expressed grave concern over this proposed act. However, the bill in this regard has been placed in parliament for its enactment.

There are obvious grounds for fear that the proposed law might be used to muzzle the media. The state minister for ICT affairs, Zunaid Ahmed, reportedly said “The aim of the government is to accommodate section 57 in the new act [Digital Security Act] in an acceptable way.”

The Vernacular Press Act-1878 was scrapped and replaced by other acts that adopted various sections of the old law to strangle the voice of journalists in the colonial era.

The penal code of Bangladesh defines ‘defamation’ as a bailable offense and the maximum penalty is two years of imprisonment. Journalists were harassed under such provisions.

However, the government amended it in 2011, making a regulation that the court could summon someone instead of issuing a warrant of arrest. This initiative turned into a futile exercise when the ICT Act (Amendment)-2013 was made. The proposed form of Digital Security Act will just be a repetition of the history of gagging the media in the same manner, if it is ultimately passed by parliament.

* Shameem Reza is a journalist and he can be contacted at [email protected]