President Abdul Hamid on Monday assented to the Digital Security Bill transforming it into an act, ignoring calls from national and international journalists, freethinkers and rights groups for returning it to parliament for a revision.
Concerns expressed by journalists, including newspaper editors, over the bill were neither discussed nor placed in the weekly cabinet meeting on Monday, despite assurance given by three ministers to Editors’ Council and other journalist bodies on September 30.
‘I couldn’t place the concerns of journalists at today’s cabinet, as there were too many agenda,’ law minister Anisul Huq told New Age.
‘I will try to discuss the matter in the next cabinet meeting,’ said Anisul, who told New Age on Sunday, ‘I have given words to them [journalists] and will keep that.’
After separate meetings with Editors’ Council and other journalist bodies at secretariat on September 30, Anisul Huq and information minister Hasanul Haq Inu, in presence of posts, telecommunications, and information technology minister Mostafa Jabbar, assured that they would place the concerns before the cabinet.
‘In the morning the president has assented to seven bills, including the Digital Security Bill, passed in the 22nd session of the current parliament,’ president’s press secretary Joynal Abedin told New Age.
Jatiya Sangsad on September 19 passed the Digital Security Bill, ignoring the concerns expressed by different national and international quarters, including the European Union and journalists at home and abroad as poses threat to freedom of speech and the press.
Parliament secretariat on October 4 forwarded the bill to the president for his assent.
Left democratic alliance, a combine of eight leftist political parties on October 3 urged the president not to assent to the bill and send it back to parliament for a revision terming it repressive.
Committee to Protect Journalists had urged the president to return the bill to parliament for revision.
Transparency International Bangladesh had also made a similar call on the president from a programme in Dhaka on September 26.
The bill caused huge protests from freethinkers and media people.
Newspaper editors’ body Editors’ Council raised concerns about and objections to Sections 8, 21, 25, 28, 29, 31, 32, 43 and 53 of the bill saying that the sections posed serious threats to freedom of expression and media operation. Dhaka Reporters Unity raised objections to Sections 8, 32 and 43, terming them obstruction for working journalists’ professional freedom.
Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists and Dhaka Union of Journalists factions said that the proposed law incorporated colonial Official Secrets Act 1923 and such a law was unimaginable in a civilised country.
Editors’ Council observed that Section 8 of the bill, which empowered authorities and law enforcers to remove or block certain information and data, was a threat to digital security and would hit the heart of publication either in print or online. Empowerment of law enforcers to block any report and confiscate any photograph may lead to disruption of any media outlet, it said.
Section 43 says that if a police official believes that an offence under the law has been or is being committed at a certain place, or there is a possibility of committing crimes or destroying evidence, the official can search the place or any person there and arrest the person without any warrant issued by a court.
Editors’ Council termed the section the ‘most dangerous of the provisions’ of the bill that would empower the police to enter any premises, search any computer system, seize any computer network and its servers, bodily search anybody and also arrest anybody on suspicion.
Section 32(1) said that any individual would be punished with imprisonment for 14 years or a fine of Tk 25 lakh or both for committing any offence under the Official Secrets Act 1923 through any digital device.
Section 32(2) said that any individual would be punished with imprisonment for life term or a fine of Tk 1 crore or both for repeating the offence.
Editors’ Council said that this was a sweeping restrictive law from the colonial era that was promulgated to protect the British administration from any sort of accountability. It is shocking to see it being incorporated for digital platforms. Anything that is not made public by the government is deemed an ‘official secret’, it said.
According to Section 29, a person may be jailed for three years or fined Tk 5 lakh or both for offences stipulated in Section 499 of the Penal Code through a website or in electronic form.
As a law already exists to deal with defamation, a separate law for digital media is not needed and there is no logic for any enhanced penalty for digital media from print media for the same crime, the council said.
Section 31 says that a person may face up to seven years’ imprisonment or a fine of Tk 5 lakh or both for deliberately publishing or broadcasting something on a website or in electronic form which can spread hatred and create enmity among different groups and communities, and can cause deterioration in law and order.
Editors’ Council said that any news about discrimination against Dalits, or ethnic groups and exploitation of disadvantaged groups might be interpreted as causing disaffection between different groups.
Section 21 says that any person may be punished with jail for 10 years or a fine of Tk 1 crore of both for making propaganda against the ‘Liberation War, spirit of the Liberation War, Father of the Nation, National Anthem and National Flag’ or assisting in making such propaganda. Any repetition of the offence would warrant jail for life term and, or, a fine of Tk 3 crore.
The council said that they were committed to the preservation of the dignity and correct history of the Liberation War and ‘given the past experience of attempts at its distortion, we understand the need to do something in this regard.’
It said, ‘The spirit of Liberation War is a vague term. Without further defining the crimes under this section and clearly specifying what constitutes a crime, we run the risk of serious abuse of this law and harassment of journalists.
Spirit of Liberation War is a vague term and is very subjective and cases can be filed against journalists as interpretations can vary, the council said.
According to Section 25, a person may be punished with jail for three years and, or, a fine of Tk 3 lakh if s/he is found to have deliberately published or broadcast in a website or electronic form something which is attacking or intimidating or which can make someone feel disgruntled; knowingly published or broadcast false and distorted (full or partial) information to annoy or humiliate someone; knowingly published or broadcast false and distorted (full or partial) information to tarnish the image of the state or to spread rumours.
Any repetition of the offence would warrant up to five years in jail or Tk 10 lakh fine or both.
Editors’ Council said that this would directly affect all investigative reporting in the media. Such reports are usually about some irregularities performed by institutions and individuals. Corrupt people will use this law to intimidate journalists and media organisations and try to prevent the publication of such stories on the pretext that the reports have attacked or intimidated them. Actually, every such report can be said to fall under one or more of the above categories and can be used to harass the media, said the council.
Section 28 says that if any person or group deliberately and knowingly and with the intention of hurting religious values or sentiments or with the intention to provoke such sentiment publishes or broadcasts information, the person may be punished with imprisonment for five years or a fine of Tk 10 lakh or with both.
The council says the term ‘religious sentiment’ is an undefined term. How can a reporter know how and when religious sentiment has been hurt? This term lends itself to diverse interpretations and no journalist will feel comfortable about reporting on such issues. This will prevent journalistic scrutiny over a large area of society.
According to the Section 53, offences under Sections 17, 19, 21, 22, 23, 24, 26, 27, 28, 30, 31, 32, 33 and 34 of the bill are cognisable and non-bailable.
Editors’ Council says that out of the 20 or so provisions dealing with offences and punishment, 14 are cognisable and non-bailable. Given the fact that police have the power to arbitrarily arrest without warrant and on mere suspicion, this law presents a real threat to media freedom as so many offences have been made cognisable and non-bailable.
‘The Digital Security Act clearly violates the citizens’ constitutional right to the freedom of speech and expression and the freedom of the press, within reasonable restrictions, guaranteed in the constitution’ Mahfuz Anam said in an article written on behalf of Editors’ Council and published by all leading dailies on September 28.
In the face of huge criticism, three ministers on September 30 said that concerns expressed by journalists, including editors, over the bill would be taken into consideration and placed before a cabinet meeting for further discussions.
Journalist leaders on September 30 threatened tougher protests if objected sections remained in the proposed legislation that might curb freedom of media after the proposed discussion in the cabinet.
President Abdul Hamid also gave assent to another six bills, National Sports Council Bill 2018,
The State-Owned Manufacturing Industries Workers (Conditions of Service) Bill 2018, The Bangladesh Freedom Fighters Welfare Trust Bill 2018, Community Clinic Health Assistance Trust Bill 2018, a bill recognising Qawmi madrasa degree Dawra-e-Hadith equivalent to the post graduate degree in Islamic studies and Arabic and Bangladesh Road Transport Bill 2018.
Rights activists said that the provision of maximum five-year jail and fines for rash and negligent driving causing deaths or serious injuries in the road transport bill lenient.
Transport workers, however, said that the bill’s provision that if the driver intentionally killed someone, the person would be tried under 1860 Penal Code’s section 302 with highest punishment of death sentence was too harsh.
Owners and workers of goods transports began work abstention from Sunday for an indefinite period on the demand of change of bill that allows trial under penal code’s section 302.
Bangladesh Road Transport Workers Federation threatens for strike from October 12, if the bill was not changed.
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