Draconian digital law finalised, press freedom threatened

Staff Correspondent . Dhaka | Update:

No significant changes in Digital Security Bill 2018 have been recommended by the relevant parliamentary panel despite repeated assurances, given to stakeholders, of bringing major amendment to the proposed law.No significant changes in Digital Security Bill 2018 have been recommended by the relevant parliamentary panel despite repeated assurances, given to stakeholders, of bringing major amendment to the proposed law.

Instead, the provisions of the controversial section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act have been split into four sections and incorporated sparsely into the bill for its enactment by parliament any time soon.

Through this move, fear expressed and recommendations made by journalists have been ignored and stakeholders say freedom of the press will simply be threatened if this bill turns into law through rubberstamping by parliament.

The Editors' Council, a platform of the editors of major daily newspapers of the country, has already rejected the proposed law.

The chairman of parliamentary standing committee on posts, telecommunications and information technology ministry, Imran Ahmad, presented the report on the bill on Monday. Now, the minister concerned is likely to present the bill in parliament for passage.

In their recommendation, the parliamentary committee concerned dropped the phrase 'digital espionage' in Section 32, but inserted the colonial era 'Official Secrets Act, 1923'. It keeps provision for punishment of up to 14 years of jail.

The Editors' Council and many journalist leaders placed their objections to the Section as, they think, it is contrary the right to Information Act.

"The provisions of the law that go against freedom of the press remain as they were. There're no changes. Now, there is no longer any scope of the press freedom," Editors' Council general secretary Mahfuz Anam told Prothom Alo.

He expressed his conviction that this law will seriously hamper the progress attained after restoration of democracy in the 1990s. "It'll stop growth of democracy, as well," he added.

Bangladesh stands 146th among 180 countries, according to World Press Freedom Index 2018 prepared by Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF), which regretted growing media self-censorship amid endemic violence against journalists and 'systemic impunity' enjoyed by those responsible.

Section 43 of the bill sees no major changes

According to this Section, a police officer can search or arrest anyone without any arrest warrant. On this issue, the parliamentary committee recommended in the report that the police can carry out the job following the proposed digital security agency director general's approval.

About the section, former National Press Club president Shawkat Mahmud told Prothom Alo, "A government officer will be the director general of the agency and seeking his approval will be an official process."

"Overall, it's going to be a black law. The government has taken the move to enact the law of searching and detaining people without arrest warrant to stage another controversial election (to cling on to power)," he added.

The parliamentary committee did not bring any positive changes in provisions of publishing any information that the authorities would consider as aggressive, false, bullying, defamatory, or the one that hurts religious sentiment and causes deterioration in law and order.

However, the committee report recommends decreasing punishment in Section 28 for hurting religious sentiment, to jail term of five years from 10 years.

According to the bill, if anyone carries out any propaganda digitally against the father of the nation, the national anthem and the national flag, s/he will be sentenced to a maximum of 10 years of imprisonment, or fine of Tk 10 million or both.

On 29 January, the cabinet approved the draft of the Digital Security Bill 2018. Since then, the Editors' Council has been raising voice against eight sections (sections 8, 21, 25, 28, 29, 31, 32, and 43) of the draft law saying such provisions can pose serious threats to the freedom of expression and the free press.

On 9 April, the Digital Security Bill, 2018 was placed in parliament amid growing concerns among journalists and rights activists that freedom of the press and expression would be jeopardised if the bill was passed as it was.

The parliamentary committee sat twice with three organisations of journalists including the Editors' Council, Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ) and Association of Television Channel Owners for finalising their report.

At the meetings, the three organisations voiced concerns over several sections, especially 8, 21, 25, 28, 29, 31, 32, and 43.

On several occasions, journalists and media outlet owners were assured that corrective measures would be taken to address their concerns.

BFUJ's former president Monjurul Ahsan Bulbul told Prothom Alo, "It's a matter of regret that Official Secrets Act has been imposed (on us)."

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