A parliamentary body of Bangladesh would redraft the Digital Security Bill 2018 clarifying ambiguities which would threaten the free media and the freedom of speech considering recommendations made by journalist leaders on Tuesday.
The parliamentary standing committee on post, telecommunications and ICT ministry after hearing objections raised and recommendations made by Editors’ Council, Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists and Association of Television Channel Owners at its meeting in the Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban decided to hold more meetings before recommending the passage of the bill.
The leaders of the trade bodies opposed eight sections of the bill saying that those were against the freedom of speech and independent journalism.
Emerging from the meeting, law minister Anisul Huq said that the bill would be redrafted taking cognisance of the issues raised by journalist community.
‘We will finalise the bill sitting with the representatives of media again and then place it before the parliament for passage,’ Anisul told waiting reporters.
‘We want to enact the law for the country not for any certain individual. We are not enacting any law obstructing journalism or targeting journalists. We cannot enact any law against the freedom of the press guaranteed by the constitution,’ he said.
‘We want to say clearly that the bill is aimed at curbing digital crimes not for infringing freedom of the press or obstructing journalism,’ said post, telecommunication and ICT minister Mustafa Jabbar.
The government on April 9 tabled the bill in parliament amidst outcries from the almost all quarters, including journalist community, for dropping provisions having wider scope of interpretation, under which many, including journalists, were prosecuted for Facebook posts and news reports.
The bill is currently under scrutiny by the parliamentary body.
The leaders of trade bodies of editors, journalists and television owners at the meeting opposed eight sections of the bill – Sections 8, 21, 25, 28, 29, 31, 32 and 43, meeting sources said. Editors’ Council, Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists also submitted written statements to the parliamentary body.
Editors’ Council demanded that Section 43 be dropped as it proposed to empower a police official to frisk or arrest anyone on suspicion without any warrant issued by a court.
The section says if a police official believes that an offence under the proposed law has been committed at a place, or is being committed, or there is a possibility of commission, or there is a possibility of destroying evidence, s/he can search the place or frisk any person present there.
The council observed that Section 8, which would empower the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission to remove or block certain information and data allegedly threat to digital security, would curb the freedom of press as law enforcers might use their authority on media.
Editors’ Council said that sections 21, 25, 28, 29 and 31 proposed harsher punishment for several offences without defining them specifically. Such ambiguity in the definition of the offences may make the law ineffective and create scope for misuse of the law, the council observed in its written statement submitted to the parliamentary body.
It said that Section 21 should clearly define ‘spirit of liberation war’ so that no vested interests could misuse it. This section may hamper new writing, research and study of liberation war and its history, the council observed, adding that the proposed sentence for imprisonment for 14 years and a fine of Tk 1 crore was too harsh.
The section proposed the punishment for spreading propaganda against the country’s founding president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the 1971 Liberation War through electronic media or any other digital device.
Section 32 of the bill proposed that a person might be jailed for up to 14 years and/ or fined Tk 25 lakh on charge of computer spying or digital spying for illegally entering offices of the government, semi-government, autonomous or statutory bodies and collecting or preserving or sending any top secret or secret documents through a computer, digital device, computer network, digital network or any electronic form and helping others to do that.
The council observed that the punishment was too harsh.
The council questioned the reasonableness of the restrictions the bill proposed to impose on freedom of thought and conscious, and of speech guaranteed by the Article 39 of the constitution citing the criteria to measure the reasonableness of a restriction set by the Indian Supreme Court declaring some provisions of the information and telecommunications act of India unconstitutional. There must be a reasonable and manageable standard for drawing a precise line between allowable and forbidden speech, expression and information, it said.
The council also said that the offences under Sections 21, 25, 28, 28 and 31 had already been dealt with in the Penal Code, but the bill proposed harsher punishments.
‘We had a fruitful discussion on eight sections of the bill,’ said Editors’ Council president Golam Sarwar, also Bangla daily Samakal editor.
‘We hope that proposed digital security act will see significant changes so that it does not hamper freedom of media,’ said Editors’ Council general secretary Mahfuz Anam, also the Daily Star editor.
Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists faction president Monjurul Ahsan Bulbul said that they expressed their concerns over the wide scope of misuse of the proposed law. ‘We have also proposed for opening a cell at the Press Council to consider any allegations raised against journalists at first for breaching this law,’ he said.
Association of Television Channel Owners president Salman F Rahman and its vice-president Mozammel Babu and BFUJ secretary general Omar Faroque also attended the meeting.
After the meeting, committee chairman Emran Ahmad told reporters that the committee would consider the proposals of the journalists.
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