The arrest of Probir Sikdar on Sunday illustrates the way in which draconian provisions of the Information and Communication Technology Act can be used to suppress independent journalism.
Sikdar, editor of Uttoradhikar 71 News, was sent to jail in a case for allegedly “tarnishing the image” of LGRD Minister Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain. A court on Tuesday has allowed police to hold him a further three days for questioning.
The case arises out of a Facebook post made by Sikdar in which he claimed three individuals, including the minister, had threatened his life over some of his investigations.
We have commented before on how the draconian nature of the ICT law enacted first by the BNP in 2006 and amended by the AL government in 2013, can be misused as a tool to clamp down on freedom of expression. The jailing of Sikdar over the disputed contents of a social media posting, is a case in point.
There is no reasonable justification for him to have been jailed in this matter. This is especially so given that the police reportedly did not investigate the alleged threats against Sikdar, before arresting him on a complaint filed by a local AL leader.
Like everyone else, the individuals accused by Sikdar have the right to dispute the facts and veracity of his reports in free media and to bring civil actions for defamation.
It is worrisome that draconian provisions of the ICT law have instead enabled a third party to summarily file a case and have Sikdar arrested and jailed. This means he now faces a potential seven-year prison sentence if found guilty in the defamation case brought under Section 57 of the ICT Act.
This loosely defined provision goes far beyond the standard national security and cyber-crime parameters found in analogous ICT laws in other countries. Its existence puts citizens at risk of a prison sentence if found guilty of defamation.
It means any newspaper or other media which publishes reports that can potentially be described as false, runs the risk of facing similar charges and imprisonment. The chilling effect on free debate and free media of such laws is self-evident.
We hope the courts will release Sikdar at the first available opportunity.
The government should support calls to release Sikdar and take steps to amend the ICT Act so that it can no longer be misused by influential persons to suppress legitimate journalistic inquiry and free expression.