The Committee to Protect Journalists in a letter to the Bangladesh president expressed deep concern over the Digital Security Act passed on Tuesday by parliament, and urged him to return it for a review.
If this legislation is allowed to become law, it would violate constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press, the independent press freedom advocacy organisation said on Friday.
It would create extensive legal dangers for journalists in the normal course of carrying out their professional activities, the letter published on its website by Steven Butler, Asia programme coordinator of CPJ, added.
“CPJ respectfully urges you to exercise your constitutional authority to return the legislation to parliament for revisions that would eliminate these dangers.”
It specifically outlined concerns that have been expressed repeatedly by the community of journalists in Bangladesh and urged the legislators to address them.
“One of the most worrisome provisions of the Digital Security Act is an amendment added at the last minute in Section 43, which will allow police to arrest or search individuals without a warrant. In addition, the Digital Security Act includes problematic aspects of Section 57 of the Information and Communications Technology Act, despite public promises by government ministers to eliminate it.”
Section 57 has repeatedly been used to imprison journalists in defamation cases. Government ministers had previously acknowledged that police have misused the section, and had promised that procedures would be established to prevent this. Instead, journalists continue to be subject to the danger of arbitrary arrest in the normal course of their activities.
Also of concern is the inclusion of the colonial-era Official Secrets Act in the Digital Security Act, which seems to contradict the right to information provisions included elsewhere in the legislation. The extension of the Official Secrets Act into the digital sphere escalates the hazards faced by investigative journalists who play a vital role exposing corruption in government, it said.
The extremely heavy fines and punishments, up to Tk 50 million (US$600,000) and life imprisonment depending on the offence, threaten to make journalism an unacceptably hazardous profession and will result in a timid press that cannot play the important role required to support a vital democracy in Bangladesh, the letter reads.
The vague descriptions of potential offences, such as hurting religious values or causing deterioration in law and order, would invite arbitrary use and misuse of the law to restrict the media.
“Bangladesh has a proud history as a secular democracy with strong affirmations of human rights and freedom of speech and the press. This legislation promises to damage that tradition, and to severely harm Bangladesh's standing among the community of democracies as a defender of press freedom.”
SHUJAN ALSO VOICES CONCERN
Shushashoner Jonno Nagorik in a statement said sections 8, 28, 29 and 31 of the act can be misused to harass citizens, gag the press and repress freedom of expression.
“According to the provision of the newly passed Digital Security Act-2018, police can search, seize and arrest anyone without warrant. Therefore, we apprehend, police can harass general citizens abusing the law,” it said.
Incorporation of the colonial Official Secrets Act may create a corruption-inducive atmosphere, the civil society platform said.
It urged the government to make necessary amendments to the law.