Bangladeshi journalists cover proceedings outside a Dhaka court in May 2016. The country's vaguely worded defamation law is creating a climate of self censorship, local reporters say. (AP/A.M. Ahad)
Bangladeshi journalists cover proceedings outside a Dhaka court in May 2016. The country's vaguely worded defamation law is creating a climate of self censorship, local reporters say. (AP/A.M. Ahad)

Bangladesh’s defamation law is ‘avenue to misuse power,’ local journalists say

It started with a Facebook post about a goat and ended in a day in jail for Bangladeshi journalist Abdul Latif Morol, when a fellow journalist filed a defamation complaint against him.

After Morol posted on Facebook, “Goat given by state minister in the morning dies in the evening,” about local newspaper reports on how an animal that a politician donated to poor farmers had died, police arrested the journalist under Section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information and Communications Act (ICT). The journalist told CPJ he was released on bail but still faces charges.

The scenario seems absurd, but in Bangladesh frivolous lawsuits can be used as a way to harass journalists–and come with serious consequences.

Under Section 57 anyone convicted of publishing material online deemed to be false, obscene, defamatory, likely to harm law and order, tarnish the image of the state or an individual, offend religious sentiments, or provoke individuals or organizations faces a maximum 14 years in prison and a 10 million Bangladeshi taka (US$120,000) fine.

In the first four months of 2017, at least 21 journalists faced criminal complaints under its provisions, according to an investigation by the Daily Star. [CPJ has documented several arrests under the act in the past three years.] Court officials told the Dhaka Tribune earlier this year that only 30 to 35 percent of cases filed under Section 57 have any merit.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina defended Section 57 and said it was not intended as a way to harass journalists, according to reports. However, the law has created an atmosphere of self-censorship, Julfikar Ali Manik, a freelance journalist in Bangladesh, told CPJ.

After outcry and lobbying by local journalists and rights groups, government ministers on November 29 said they would revoke Section 57 when a new law is finalized, according to reports. Officials took basic measures the same month to try to ensure that police vet the merit of cases before making arrests.

But, as the Bangladeshi press pointed out, it appears that much of the language of Section 57 will be incorporated into a proposed Digital Security Act that politicians say is needed to combat cybercrime.

Local reports on a draft of the proposed act said that it continues to criminalize online defamation, and stipulates punishments of up to five years’ imprisonment and or a fine of 1 million Bangladesh takas for first offenders. Parliament is due to vote on the proposal during its winter session, which starts in mid-January, according to the Daily Star.

CPJ criticized an earlier draft of the Digital Security Act last year, saying it “dangerously conflates cyber-crime with fair critical comment.”

Whether criminal defamation is contained in Section 57 of the ICT Act or refurbished under the proposed Digital Security Act, its existence is not conducive to a free press in Bangladesh. It will further perpetuate an atmosphere of self-censorship and politicization that local journalists with whom CPJ spoke, said already exists in the Bangladeshi press community.

A July 2017 report in the Wire found that while critical articles and content published in books or magazines were not targeted, the same writing, if shared online, led to legal action.

Because Section 57 only pertains to material published online and has a vague definition, it is arbitrarily imposed, Sara Hossain, a barrister on the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, told CPJ. “Section 57 is a very draconian law in terms of both the breadth of the section and the lack of definition,” Hossain said. “It’s a completely ineffective and inappropriate safeguard.”

The law’s broad definition–which local reports suggest is likely to remain under the Digital Security Act–creates uncertainty for the press, David Bergman, who used to work for the New Age paper and as a freelancer in Dhaka, told CPJ. He added that if the government or individuals really wanted to clamp down, Section 57 would give them a means to do so.

Freelancer Manik told CPJ that although the government says the law is not intended to target journalists, “there are many people in our society that want to target journalists that do anything against them.” He added, “Section 57 created an avenue to misuse power. [It] created a space for the ill-motivated people to harass their rivals or the people they don’t like.”