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27 November, 2017 11:14:30 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 27 November, 2017 11:20:20 AM

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Section 57 of the ICT Act versus public interest journalism

One common understanding among media practitioners and academics is that it refers to a journalist pursuing information that the public has a right to know
Dr. Mohammed Abul Kalam
Section 57 of the ICT Act versus public interest journalism

Keeping the provision for bail, the government is going to formulate the Digital Security Act with the aim to remove all controversies and ambiguities involving Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act. An inter-ministerial committee at a meeting with law minister Anisul Huq in the chair yesterday finalised the name of ‘Digital Security Act’ with the provision for bail in case of any offence under this act.  The inter-ministerial body at its meeting held at the law ministry also formed a committee, headed by senior secretary of the legislative wing of the law ministry Md Shohidul Haque, to scrutinise whether the Broadcast Act-2016 is contradictory to any provision of the Digital Security Act, meeting sources said (The Independent, November 20, 2017)..

“If men are to be precluded from offering their sentiments ... the freedom of speech may be taken away, and dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter” —George Washington, first US president. “As long as our government is administered for the good of the people, and is regulated by their will; as long as it secures to us the rights of persons and of property, liberty of conscience and of the press, it will be worth defending” —Andrew Jackson, seventh US president. “Freedom of expression is the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom.” —U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo in Palko v. Connecticut. In a landmark 1997 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the American Civil Liberties Union’s argument that the Internet itself is a free-speech zone.

I am neither a journalist nor a publisher, neither a reporter nor an editor, but just a social scientist and ethicist spending a fair amount of time on work regarding human rights and ethics in health services and research. I am unable to present my own experience in reporting and commenting sensitive news. Thus I shall try to clarify some of the notions and some of the framework conditions which we should take into account as we proceed to discuss the questions raised now a day for the Controversial Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act.

Yet, public interest journalism is not universally defined. One common understanding among media practitioners and academics is that it refers to a journalist pursuing information that the public has a right to know. Often implied in this definition is that, if it were not for the reporter, undisclosed information affecting the public that governments, companies and other powerful interests hold would remain hidden. In this way, public interest reporting is often equated with watchdog or investigative reporting. But it can include other factual stories that serve the public interest, whether by providing a platform for debate or informing the electorate. “Fake news, propaganda, and public disinformation” are important issues to consider, but we should remember that these concerns have existed alongside public interest journalism for more than a century. From the sensationalist, fear-mongering “yellow journalism” of the penny press in the late 1800s, to the media propaganda arising out of the world wars of the 20th century, there is nothing new about fake news and disinformation. What is unprecedented, however, is its speed and global spread in the digital sphere. Inaccurate reporting, whether deliberately fake or just sloppy, has consequences for news media’s capacity to serve a well-informed citizenry that underpins a healthy democracy.  Digital technologies have become extremely important to journalism work, but this also means there is a growing number of tools and platforms that can be used against journalists as means of surveillance, identification and harassment by States and non-State actors alike.

Freedom of expression is a universal human right. It is not the prerogative of the politician. Nor is it the privilege of the journalist. In their day-to-day work, journalists are simply exercising every citizen’s right to free speech.

A free press is fundamental to a democratic society. It seeks out and circulates news, information, ideas, comment and opinion and holds those in authority to account. The press provides the platform for a multiplicity of voices to be heard. At national, regional and local level, it is the public’s watchdog, activist and guardian as well as educator, entertainer and contemporary chronicler. In the post-truth haze that has enveloped public discourse, a free press is more crucial than ever in educating the public and holding leaders to account. Reliable, accurate news is an essential public good, while false or misleading news can foment confusion and distrust.

Access to information is essential for the realization of the civil and political rights of all citizens of Bangladesh. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Moreover, the right to access to information underpins two sections of Article 21: “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country” (Section 1) and, “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government” (Section 2).

Protecting free speech means protecting a free press, the democratic process, diversity of thought, and so much more. The media plays a major role in creating these perceptions. How the information is passed on creates “images” for the people of what is happening. It also helps them to define the parameters of any given situation, identify the “heroes” and the “culprits” and develop ideas of how to deal with the existing or emerging situation. The media helps to create both “scholarly” and “folk” images of situation. But, the media is not just simply an agent. Those in the media are also “subjects” of the scholarly and folk myths present in their respective societies. Like all others in a given situation, they can be as easily hostages to the imagery created by their respective states or organizations.

A free society needs reliable and accurate journalism, public access to information, and protected privacy rights. Without these, we lack the information and space to participate in discussion, hold those in power accountable, and build the society we want to live in. A strong access to information system is vital to maintaining a healthy democracy. The public has the right to obtain the information it needs to participate meaningfully in the democratic process, while also holding Bangladesh’s public officials and Members of Parliaments accountable.

Free expression and press freedom in Bangladesh are facing bigger threats than ever. Journalists are unable to protect their confidential sources, and public interest stories aren’t being told. National security agencies have greater access to their private data than ever before, without any oversight to protect their rights. More and more journalists are spied on by police.

Bangladesh law enforcement has a long history of spying on Bangladeshi citizens and infiltrating or otherwise obstructing political activist groups. Political spying was rampant during the Martial Law (military rules). Unfortunately it appears that these old tendencies have once again come to the fore. Law enforcement agencies across Bangladesh continue to monitor and harass groups and individuals for doing little more than peacefully.

Our right to know is at risk because of our badly flawed Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act and ongoing government obstruction. A strong ICT Act is vital to maintaining a healthy democracy. The public has the right to obtain the information they need to participate meaningfully in the democratic process, while also holding Bangladesh’s public and elected officials accountable. The current ICT Act fails to meet those standards.

An informed citizenry is necessary for a democracy to be truly representative, responsive and open. Without a knowledge base of information that is in the public interest, citizens will be incapable of making decisions that strengthen Bangladesh’s democracy. And the right balance for transparency will help to secure the public’s right to know and lay the groundwork for a broader revitalization of participatory democracy in Bangladesh.

But, even if the some of the sub-sections are dropped, that might not be the end of the story. It does not follow that the government who is watching this with exciting interest will walk away. The Genie is out of the bottle. It may be impossible to put it back. There is a lesson in that for all immature democracies.  When they think aloud about interfering with basic good governance concepts such as press freedom, they give those dark thoughts life in equally dark places.

We urge the government to implement legislative reform in one phase and to hear from other experts and frequent users of information system and ensure the right to know and our ability to meaningfully participate in the democratic process. This crisis must be met with urgent action from the government, not hesitant, piecemeal reform and further delay.

The writer is Former Head, Department of Medical Sociology

Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control & Research (IEDCR)

Dhaka, Bangladesh

E-mail: med_sociology_iedcr@yahoo.com

 

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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