Law minister Anisul Huq has expressed his hope that Section 57 of the ICT Act will eventually cease to exist. Additionally, we have been given to understand that Section 57 could be repealed next month. There have been, we have cause to believe, intense deliberations on the law at meetings of the cabinet. All of this demonstrates the keen awareness the government now appears to be developing about a measure that ought not to have been there in the first place. That it is there, that until it is taken off the statute books altogether we will not be at peace is a truth neither we nor the government can deny.
Quite a few have been the laws that have damaged democratic institutions in Bangladesh since it was liberated in December 1971. And we as citizens have borne the brunt of it all. We have paid a price that we thought we did not have to pay once we found ourselves free as a republic. It was our considered opinion, in the course of the War of Liberation and immediately after, that all the bad laws we lived through in our twenty four years of existence within the state of Pakistan --- martial law, Section 144, Defense of Pakistan Rules, etcetera --- were finally behind us and we were free to go ahead and frame our own social system based on rules and laws compatible with our cultural and political legacy.
That was not to be. The earliest of shocks that came our way postliberation was the Special Powers Act. It damaged the image, to a significant extent, of the government led by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. And then was imposed on the country the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution in January 1975 through which the country effectively turned into a single-party state. Though defenders of the amendment have consistently argued that it was a necessary move, it was anything but. And in line with the amendment, the government found itself armed with the authority to decree all political parties other than the ruling party, rechristened as Baksal, and all but four newspapers out of existence.
The legacy of bad laws was given a worse turn through the violent coup d’etat that overthrew the legally established government of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in August 1975. It was a moment of supreme irony for the nation. Where we had persuaded ourselves into thinking, once the Pakistan army surrendered on December 16, 1971, that the black era of military rule was finally over, here was a worse instance of such rule in the guise of a handful of majors and colonels under the leadership of a man who was a senior politician of the Awami League. Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed followed that darkness through with another sinister move. He had a notorious Indemnity Ordinance, preventing any trial or prosecution of Bangabandhu’s assassins, come in.
Our national tradition of black laws took a horrifying turn when general Ziaur Rahman took the odious step of tampering with the Constitution in his capacity as military ruler. He knifed the nation’s supreme law and removed from it the high ideals of socialism and secularism. And then, through the parliament his regime caused to be elected in 1979, he had the Indemnity Ordinance become part of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. It was a move that for twenty-one years, until the election of an Awami League government in June 1996, allowed the assassins of 1975 to strut about on the national stage freely and with impudence.
The coup of August 15, 1975, the so-called Sipahi-Janata Biplob of November 7, 1975, the Ershad seizure of power on March 24, 1982 all added to the darkness looming over the nation. All these episodes and all others that preceded them should have been replaced by laws and traditions commensurate with the political and social aspirations of the country. The fact that there are yet people who insist that elections be held under interim or caretaker arrangements, who should be piling pressure on the ruling circles and the opposition for making the argument for a powerful, well-organized Election Commission but do not is proof yet once again that our democracy remains tenuous.
And Section 57 has only validated our fears that much as we would like our democracy to prosper and flourish, there are people in the corridors of power who somehow do not appear to share our sentiments. Section 57 has in a number of instances been misapplied and media persons have suffered. More to the point, this law has embarrassed the government at home and abroad, to a point where any attempt to explain it as not being at variance with the tenets of democracy has sounded, and rightly too, extremely unconvincing.
Let Section 57 go, in the larger interest of the country. It undermines democracy and strikes at our core values. Its existence intimidates the media. It impedes the functioning of bold, transparent and, therefore, healthy and purposeful journalism.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is the Associate Editor of Asian Age