Digital Etiquette, Safety, and Freedom of Speech: A Glance at the Law


Maliha Noshin Khan


It all started with a very timely realisation. The world was well into the age of the internet, but no laws in Bangladesh had addressed this realm yet. The Penal Code, which has existed since 1860, is responsible for the control of offence, but it was quite anachronistic in the realm of cyber-security and cyber-crime. Thus, the Information and Communication Technology Act, 2006 was long overdue. The act also served the purpose of regulating e-commerce.

The act catapults our entire system into a more up-to-date scenario, and finally takes into account a world where the internet exists. There are several merits of the act, as it punishes offences such as digital trespassing, and publishing fake news and information. This act also safeguards digital copyrights and provides specific guidelines for digital signatures. 

However, there’s seemingly a problem in article 57 of this act, which condemns anyone who shares anything that may defame the state, a person, an institution, hurt religious sentiment, disrupt the rule of law, or cause a loss of moral values among people on a website or any other electronic media. The punishment? Ten years of jail and a maximum fine of Tk 1 crore.

At first glance, the article seems important. It talks about issues that are integral to our society. But, giving it a second read, and then a third read, one might wonder if almost anything can be framed to fall under it. For example, to what extent is criticism going to be accepted until it is possible to label it as defamation? Where are the boundaries and what are the differences? These concerns were at the time expressed by experts as well. 

In the Digital Security Act, 2018, it was possible to redefine the fine lines between concepts that were absent in the 2006 ICT Act. This act, among many other things, condemned the defamation of our great Liberation War, which is an integral pillar of our nationalism. However, this act had terms and words that needed further explaining, and we still do not know what exactly defamation means.

In article 43 of this act, it is said that if the police have reason(s) to believe that someone has committed a crime under this act, which seems unclear to many at multiple instances, they have the right to arrest without a warrant upon recording their suspicion.

To perceive what this means, let me break it down.

We still haven’t drawn the line between criticism and defamation, but now, if any police officer believes that an act of defamation (or any other offence under the act, many of which are truly dangerous) has been committed, they can arrest the person from now on. And for all we know, maybe the person was just trying to conduct a productive critical appraisal. For example, in this article, I am just trying to reflect on my views and have no intention of any sort of defamation. Rather, constructive criticism may even culminate into something more productive and effective. 

On 7 May, 2020, the Ministry of Public Administration published a code of conduct of sorts for government employees. And honestly, I believe that we all need to learn at least a bit more about our behaviour on social media before we keep on using (or abusing) it. This document emphasised on refraining from publishing false information. But, similar to the acts mentioned above, it had value-laden terms, the boundaries of which can differ from person to person.

While each and every one of these endeavours is commendable and timely, the existence of several ambiguities tends to take away people’s freedom of speech. While it is important to know social media etiquette and exactly when our practice of freedom of speech may cause harm, the acts and laws thus far have not really cleared the definitions, but they have made it very easy to condemn even those who mean no evil. 

 


Maliha Noshin Khan aspires towards a world where people are no longer judged based on presumptions. Reach out to her at: [email protected]

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