Laws that curtail the freedom of speech do not help democracy Free speech is the essence of democracy.
The right to free speech is one of the most sacred constitutional rights of citizens, which allows them to speak, express, or write anything they wish without fear of punishment.
These rights can be monitored by the law to a certain extent, but only when the limitation imposed is proportionate and necessary. Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) (Amendment) Act, 2013 has, again and again, become a matter of debate in Bangladesh over the past year.
The act says that if any person deliberately publishes any material in electronic form that causes the law and order situation to deteriorate, prejudices the image of the state or person, or hurts religious sensibilities, the offender will be punished with a maximum of 14 years and a minimum seven years of imprisonment.
It also states the crime to be non-bailable.
A writ petition filed before the High Court in 2015, challenging this controversial section, noted that the provisions there conflicted with Articles 27, 31, 32, and 39 of the constitution.
In the last few years, we have witnessed a variety of measures taken that muzzled our right to free speech.
Many were arrested and put behind bars, triggering public debate on the legality of Section 57 of the ICT Act from the perspective of international human rights standards.
The ambiguous wording and the vague nature of the section allow its misuse by law enforcement agencies as well. Freedom of speech is an indispensable part of the enjoyment of our liberty. Free speech facilitates the participation of the public in formulating social policies, and in the decision-making processes of governance.
Without freedom of expression, citizens cannot adequately exercise their rights, or make informed choices.
It has been recognised by all developed nations as a basic right, granting ordinary citizens access to information which would let them hold the government accountable. This thing called freedom of speech receives a very high degree of constitutional protection in developed countries, as it plays a significant role in the development of a society, and ultimately for the state.
People have the right to disagree with the government, to disagree with any political party, religious group, or individual. None of this can be considered an offence unless they attempt to incite hatred, preach distorted information, defame people, or rile people up for hate crimes or violence.
A free society is more dynamic than a closed one, as it allows citizens to explore new ideas, to criticise the actions of public bodies.
Bangladesh is at a crossroads
Our nation is now at a crossroads, where modern digital technology has permeated every household.
Due to the sea change brought on by the introduction of social media, people of the younger generation are more connected to each other than ever before in human history. These users can take part in debates and discussions on different sites.
It does not mean that everyone has to agree with each others’ views, but we have to learn how to allow others to express their own views without interruption, harassment, discrimination, hatred, and violence.
Free speech creates the kind of environment in which dissenters and critics find room to carry out their constructive criticism and debates in order to strengthen democracy for the welfare of the people at large.
Therefore, it is high time to look into and change any of our laws which may curtail that basic right.
Dhaka Tribune, May 11, 2017