Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed 1 October 2014
It is difficult to understand why a court has sentenced a 25-year-old man to seven years imprisonment for writing a satirical song about Sheikh Mujib and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
This seems so wrong in so many ways that I have scratched my head till it hurts.
I wish it were a hoax, but it’s not.
As a little bonus, the judge ruled the defendant will face a further six months behind bars if he fails to pay a fine of Tk10,000.
One really can’t blame the Cyber Tribunal (Bangladesh) for reaching this verdict. Even though its name sounds like something out of Blade Runner, it is a judicial body established under the Information and Communications Technology Act brought in by the BNP in 2006, and added to further by the subsequent AL government.
The ICT act has all along contained draconian provisions allowing very broad interpretations of what constitutes unlawful use of communications technology. That the police and judiciary would pursue gratuitously misguided complaints filed under the act and apply its punitive sanctions, was almost inevitable.
Already this year, we have seen two HSC students at Chittagong College sent to jail for the Kafkaesque offence of having insulting comments “found in the message inbox of their Facebook accounts.”
The current government has enabled this worrisome state of affairs by ignoring a High Court notice filed in 2010 asking it to explain why the overly ambiguous references to defamation, public discipline, and sovereignty contained in the ICT law are not in breach of the constitution’s guarantee of freedom of expression.
But the mindset reflected by the act and its overreaching provisions is not just the fault of any one political party alone. It is rooted in the controlling mentality of the bureaucrats and civil servants who advise our leaders.
Of course, there are some sound reasons, such as protecting national security and fighting piracy to have an ICT law. Moreover, panics about terrorism have inspired many free, democratic nations to adopt ambiguous, constitutionally unsound draconian laws about internet usage.
But let us be clear, many people and organisations warned that Bangladesh’s ICT act would be used to curb freedom of expression. And so, it is coming to pass.
The police report that they are investigating some 300 cases under the ICT act. From the instances we know about, such as the BUET lecturer sentenced to seven years imprisonment on the charge of publishing “fake, obscene or defamatory” information about the prime minister, it would appear many such complaints have nothing to do with national security, but are about harassing people who criticise or sometimes merely fail to wholeheartedly endorse the government.
The current case of Tonmoy Mollick being jailed for seven years, simply for writing a satirical song is particularly outrageous.
Like many people, my first thought on reading this news was to wonder what on Earth his lyrics said. Then I figured that to look them up would probably also be in breach of the ICT act. So I started scratching my head …
Leaving aside that it is an internationally accepted principle of defamation law that one can’t defame the dead, so it is spurious to bring in his purported defamation of Sheikh Mujib, I seriously doubt the prime minister has time to care about what may or may not have been said about her in the lyrics of a previously unknown songwriter. Indeed, as the advocate of Digital Bangladesh, she ought to be proud that technology has empowered an unknown individual to gain fame (of a sort).
Vulgar abuse, scathing criticisms, she has heard them all before from far better known persons and political opponents than this unfortunate defendant. If sycophantic complainants and prosecutors were hoping to impress her by bringing this case, I suggest they may be mistaken.
No, the real error lies in the law itself.
It is not worth speculating whether this case would have been brought if the songwriter had been more popular or had referred to figures from a different political party. Nor, is it worth asking individual MPs who voted for this law to examine their consciences as the constitution requires government MPs to vote in line with their party.
But the constitution is nothing without its fundamental guarantee of freedom of expression.
Citizens do not need permission to express a point of view. Nor should lawyers have to spend time explaining that satirical songs and suchlike are protected under the law.
By bringing this case and locking this individual up, the legal system has done more harm to the reputation of the prime minister than any words contained in a satirical song.
This case involves an individual who should be freed and a law which must be changed.
Do we really want to be known as a country that locks people up for writing a satirical song or disagreeing with the prime minister?