Afsan Chowdhury, an independent media analyst and former correspondent of the BBC, believes it's no secret that the intelligence agencies frequently tap phone calls. " I was told that government agencies had tapped Selim Samad's phone to track him down while he was running away from home fearing police arrest," Afsan says. Samad, a stringer working with two visiting Channel Four journalists was arrested and later charged with sedition for working with the foreign newsmen.
Though different intelligence agencies have long been doing it, eavesdropping on phone conversation is illegal. In fact, tapped materials cannot be produced before the court as breaching individual's privacy, in such a way, is declared an offence by the Bangladesh Telecommunication Act 2001.
Section 71 of the Act states, "A person commits an offence, if he intentionally listens to a telephone conversation between two other persons, and for such offence, he shall be liable to be sentenced to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding 50 thousand Taka or both." But the government has recently decided to amend the law, allowing its spies to overhear people's phone conversation and bust emails, a recently published newspaper report says.
The report, quoting an unnamed source says, a leading intelligence agency backed by others has initiated the move and has been able to persuade the Prime Minister's Office to bring changes to the law, citing the rise of terrorist activities in Bangladesh and September 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Centre. Saber Hossain Chowdhury, Political Advisor to the Leader of the Opposition Sheikh Hasina Wajed, thinks government's logic behind enactment of such draconian law is flimsy and self-contradictory. "BNP led Four Party Alliance claims the law and order situation is good in the country; and at the same time they are enacting laws that you need when the country is in Emergency or at war with external enemies," Saber says.
On the other hand, amending the existing telecomm act on the pretext of fighting terrorism is laughable. Even the US government, in its much- criticised Homeland Security Act, wasn't able to put clauses that would breach individuals basic privacy, Saber says. "The government, which was on a repressive mode, has found a deceitful excuse in the terror attack on the twin towers," he says. Saber declares the move as the single most dangerous attack on personal liberty.
Ironically the government, particularly the office of the home minister, has been vigorous in denying the presence of AL-Qiada-like terror groups in the country. But if the government goes on with its move to amend the law, might be seen as tacit admission of its failure to curb religious extremism.
Interestingly, the proposed law will not be able to track down foreign terrorists who are using Bangladesh as their sanctuary. "A post-paid GSM mobile user either from India or Pakistan or from any other country can roam in Bangladesh. If one such user is an insurgent, or drug dealer or arms smuggler and visits here, the local intelligence may tap calls but cannot catch the caller, unless the corresponding GSM provider reveals the address," writes telecom expert Abu Saeed Khan, in a local daily. Everything will then depend on the goodwill and telecom law of that particular country. Goodwill and security measures won't work on terrorists using cells from multiple GSM service providers, Saeed says. In fact, it will be practically impossible to trace the terrorist if he uses different addresses.
So all roads lead to a plausible conclusion-- whatever the government says, this law is meant to be used on political dissidents. Many fear, the proposed amendment, when it takes effect, will be used as a weapon of blackmailing. "They can distort the voice, using the latest gadgets, and can later use it to blackmail people," Debashish Paul, a schoolteacher comments. Saber, too, thinks the government might record "different words in a particular conversation to produce a twisted version of it to the court as evidence."
Ironically, the main opposition, Bangladesh Awami League (AL), an otherwise street agitation-savvy organisation, has so far remained unusually silent about the new measures. Debashish believes the AL's silence can only be explained in one way--the party wants to use this law whenever it returns to power. "This law is going to be another Special Powers Act,' says Debashish, referring to the infamous law that allows the arrest and confinement of any citizen without any warrant or whatsoever for as long as 30 days. "This is unfortunate. Our elected government is making a law that would have put Hitler and his entire Nazi apparatus to shame," Debashish bitterly says.
September 26, 2003
This article was published in the Znet.