Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu yesterday admitted for the first time that the government has moved to amend the Printing Presses and Publication (Declaration and Registration) Act 1973, but denied the move was aimed at gagging the media.
He also refuted reports that a government committee was "working secretly" to revive the provision of the law to cancel declarations of newspapers for publishing anti-state news or news hurting religious sentiments.
Inu, who has been claiming his ignorance about the move, said the government or his ministry was not considering empowering the deputy commissioners (DCs) with the authority to cancel a newspaper's declaration.
Although an eight-member committee led by an additional secretary and two joint secretaries of the information ministry is working on it since January, the minister had all along maintained that his ministry was doing nothing about it.
But yesterday he said the move was aimed at updating the law and it was in its initial stage.
“After a draft is prepared, we will put it on the internet and hold talks with different stakeholders before its finalisation,” he told a news briefing at the secretariat.
“The law was formulated about 41 years ago. Since then, the media landscape and dynamics have changed with the development of various technologies. The existing sections relating to inspection and supply of copies of the declaration fees and other fees, and ownership should be changed now," Inu said, reading out a statement.
His statement came amid news reports that a committee was covertly working to restore the provision of cancellation of newspaper declarations.
Talking about the draft of the amendment, Inu said the deputy commissioners first demanded powers to cancel declarations at last year's DC conference. Later, the matter came to the information ministry through the cabinet division and a committee was formed on January 1 this year to make the law up-to-date.
The committee was asked to submit recommendations in this regard to the ministry in six months upon consultation with the stakeholders.
At the committee's first meeting on February 24, it asked the Department of Films and Publications (DFP) to prepare a draft of the amendment.
Accordingly, it prepared the draft and sent it to the committee on March 18. But the committee at its second meeting on April 28 rejected the draft and asked the DFP to send a draft in the English language.
According to the first draft, the DC, who is also the district magistrate, can cancel the publication of a newspaper for any anti-state or anti-religious content. This would be implemented by the information ministry or the court. The authorities of the accused newspaper would have the opportunity to defend themselves and submit an appeal within 60 days of the order.
Inu termed the draft contradictory and said the matter relating to anti-state and anti-religious contents could be dealt with under existing laws.
“The present government believes in the freedom of media, not gagging of it,” he said, adding that the DCs have given declarations for over 600 media outlets since the Awami League government took office in 2009.
Replying to a query, Inu said no journalist forum or leader had demanded or recommended updating the law.
On Social Welfare Minister Syed Mohsin Ali's comment that the government would curtail media freedom, Inu said it was Mohsin's personal position and it did not reflect the government's stance.
Declarations of several publications were cancelled between 1974 and 1990. Following years of movement, Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed in 1991 annulled the clause that went against press freedom.