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Unmasking Online Harassment: A Legal Roadmap to Combat Digital Menace

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

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In 2014, following the enormous leak of nude photos of several Hollywood celebrities, including Jennifer Lawrence, Selena Gomez, Kate Upton, and Ariana Grande, celebrities were facing a significant copyright issue. Celebrities who have agreed that the images are authentic have attempted to remove them off the internet, claiming ownership of their copyright.



What would be the legal ramifications if these leaks occurred in Bangladesh?

In a parallel incident back in 2019, intimate photos of a popular Bangladeshi actress were leaked online, causing chaos that lasted for several days. These private photos were shared in a Facebook group called 'Tech Binodon. To pursue legal action, the actress took the necessary steps by filing a writt en complaint with the Cyber Crime Division of Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP). This step was crucial in bringing the matter to the attention of law enforcement initiating an investigation into the cybercrime. The lack of progress in addressing these cases is primarily attributed to the ineffective implementation of laws. There is no visible deterrent punishment given to the harassers which could be set as an example to refrain the perpetrators from engaging in such activity.


The social stigma surrounding the circulation of nude photos through social media has been recognized as a significant barrier that prevents women from speaking out against the perpetrators.


Now, let’s talk about women who are not public figures or do not participate in the public domain. What is the legal position for them when their photos are leaked online?


The social stigma surrounding the circulation of nude photos through social media has been recognized as a significant barrier that prevents women from speaking out against the perpetrators. However, there has been a lack of substantial efforts to provide adequate support to these victims, impeding their ability to come forward and address this harassment. Online harassment can range from lewd comments on Facebook and other social media platforms to uploading an image on a public forum without consent, from exhibition of unwanted sexual attention to distribution of pornographic materials online.


Recently, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of Bangladesh Police arrested nine members of a pornography racket in Dhaka which was being run through the messaging app Telegram. The arrestees are—Abu Sayem alias Mark Suckerburg, 20, Moshiur Rahman Shuvo, 26, Shahed Khan, 22, Keton Chakma, 20, Nazmul Hasan Samrat, 22, Maruf Hossain, 34, Shahriar Afsan Avro, 24, Juanid Bagdadi Shakil, 20 and Jashim Uddin, 38. The agency claimed that the racket used to blackmail and sell indecent videos of juvenile girls for months and amassed more than Tk 1 crore in one year.


Cyber harassment and online blackmailing are increasing in Bangladesh, with women and children being particularly vulnerable. Despite efforts by the ministry to block pornographic websites, explicit photos and videos continue to circulate. Victims often feel helpless on how to address these situations, leading some to succumb to the demands of the blackmailers or even in some cases they commit suicide.




Law passed to tackle the digital blackmailing


The Cabinet has included the provision for punishment for violating privacy by taking one’s photo without permission or ill intent or publishing or distorting it without consent. The secretary said if any person takes one’s photo with ill motive or publishes or distorts it without his or her consent, it will be considered a criminal violation of privacy once the law is passed. He said the punishment of at least two years imprisonment, or maximum Tk 200,000 fine or both has been included in the law.



Available Legal Discourse


To address this issue, it is recommended that victims file a complaint at their nearest police station. Since the offense falls under cognizable categories, the complaint should be lodged under relevant sections such as Section 8(1) and 8(2) of the Pornography Control Act 2012 and Section 29(1) of the Digital Security Act 2018. By taking this step, the authorities will be informed and can initiate the necessary legal actions to investigate and address the cyber harassment and online blackmail incidents.


Victims can also seek immediate assistance by calling the 999 National Emergency Helpline in Bangladesh. This helpline is managed by the Bangladesh Police Force and is available 24/7. The 999 number is toll-free, meaning they won't be charged any fees for the call. By reaching out to the helpline, they can report the cyber harassment and online blackmail incidents, and the authorities will be able to provide guidance and support.


Victims often feel helpless on how to address these situations, leading some to succumb to the demands of the blackmailers or even in some cases they commit suicide.

Implementation of the law


While the Pornography Control Act 2012 and Digital Security Act 2018 in Bangladesh offer legal recourse for such reprehensible acts, there has been a disturbingly low number of cases filed to address this issue. It is important to acknowledge that if victims are unwilling to pursue legal action, it becomes challenging to effectively deter individuals from engaging in such abhorrent activities.


Digital blackmailing has become easier since legislative implementation is limited.

Moral Police on the Internet


However, the netizens are gradually becoming aware of their rights. Some women have taken control and exposed the harassers on the internet with their share of evidence. Often, these women who raise their voices against such crime also receive hate comments, and unnecessary media trials by third parties. It is very concerning that men are more scared of being “canceled” on the internet than serving jail time. This speaks volume about the current condition of our society.


Digital blackmailing has become easier since legislative implementation is limited. In a typical scenario, men are constantly threatening women and girls with obscene photos, thinking that there are no consequences. Thus, it can be concluded that the main obstacles are the lack of awareness, ineffective implementation of the law, and the social stigma associated with being a victim, which prevent women from taking legal action. To overcome these challenges, it is crucial to raise awareness about the reporting mechanisms and support services available to victims. By breaking the shackles, we all collectively have to create an environment where victims feel safe to report such incidents and avail themselves of the necessary resources to combat cyber harassment.


However, the lingering thought of many is whether the onus be put on women? What about the men who live fearlessly and without consequences of their actions? The entitlement and the ingrained patriarchy in such male perpetrators, is it a legal concern or a societal issue? It is a multilayered issue which requires our immediate attention on how our boys are raised, and how their unacceptable behavior is accepted and applauded by the masses.

 

Khandoker Asif Mohammad is a Barrister-at-Law, Lincoln’s Inn and an Advocate, District and Sessions Judge Court, Dhaka. He is currently working as an Associate at Khandoker & Associates.

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