EDITORS of more than a dozen daily newspapers stood, lining along the footpath, in front of the National Press Club in Dhaka on Monday. Many other journalists working with the newspapers, even of the ones with their editors not standing in the line, stood on the road. While many of them were covering the protests — editors for the first time in Bangladesh’s history taking to the streets in a human chain seeking amendments to some sections of a law meant fairly enough to put a curb on the freedom of expression and the freedom of the press — journalists outnumbering them gathered in the place, standing in silence, speaking to fellows, watching the event that has not so far happened and ambling around but, specifically, standing in protest to secure the space and the environment they work within every day.
The president signed the Digital Security Bill 2018, placed and passed in the parliament on September 19 and forwarded to the president for its passage on October 4, into a law on October 9. The editors, and journalists, opposed eight sections — 8, 21, 25, 28, 29, 31, 32 and 43 — of the bill that could threaten the freedom of expression and of the media, saying that the bill is opposed to the basic practice of democracy and the fundamental principles of journalism. After the passage of the law, the editors had an exception to section 53, as they said when they announced, at a briefing at the National Press Club on October 13, their protests for Monday.
The Editors’ Council, which met the law, the information and the information and communications technology minister when the bill came to be widely discussed in public in April, took up its objections to some sections of the law with the ministers and talked about concerns for a probable curb that the law could entail on the freedom of expression. The ministers then conceded that the concerns that the editors were concerned about were ‘largely logical.’ One of the ministers assured the mitigation of the fears.
After the passage of the bill in the parliament, which suggested that the government was going ahead without mitigating the fears of the editors, the Editors’ Council announced protests for September 29. This did not happen as the information minister on September 26 invited the Editors’ Council to a discussion on the issues for September 30. The council on September 28 postponed the protests, scheduled for the next day, and sat with three ministers on September 30.
The Editors’ Council and other journalists’ organisations took up their issues with the three ministers and the information adviser to the prime minister at meetings on September 30. The ministers said that they would discuss the concerns at the cabinet meeting. Instead of keeping the promise, ranking leaders of the government, meanwhile, started preaching that the law was not meant to hamper the work of journalists. The president signed the bill into a law on October 8. As the editors’ concerns were not attended to and not even discussed at the cabinet meeting, the law minister, who met the editors and journalists on September 30, sought to say that the concerns could be discussed because of too many issue being on the agenda of the cabinet meeting that meanwhile took place.
The law, having some contents with an underlying intent to curb the freedom of expression, has incorporated the infamous Article 57 of the Information and Communications Technology Act 2016, in whole but with an amendment to a section which, before its passage, required the law enforcers to have sanctions from the director general of the Digital Security Agency, to be set up under the law that nullifies the act of 2016, for the arrest of anyone and search of any place and the seizure of anything being about digital. The passage, with the amendment, allows the law enforcers to do all this on suspicion without any sanctions of the court of law. The provision seems to be meddling with the constitutional conferment of the freedom of expression and the freedom of the press and stands directly antithetical to the right to information law, making information elusive and criminalising any disclosure of official information.
The law also provisions for punishment, 14 years’ imprisonment or Tk 2.5 million in fine or both, for offences categorised under the Official Secrets Act 1923. The act of 1923 is an anti-espionage act held over from the British colonisation of the Indian subcontinent, which even Britain modified in 1989, exactly a hundred years after the colonial rulers in India had enacted it, as it stands in conflict with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. The ministers are reported to have been saying that there are no reasons for fears because of the inclusion of the offences categorised under the Official Secrets Act into the Digital Security Act as there has been no case filed under the act of 1923.
A good example of the section hampering journalism could be the imprisonment of two Myanmar reporters, working with the Reuters. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who have been in jail since their arrest in December 2017, were imprisoned, for seven years, in September 2017. They were collecting evidence about the murder of 10 Rohingyas by the army at Inn Din in northern Rakhine in September 2017. They were arrested, before the publication of any report, while they were carrying official documents they had just been given by police officers, which suggests that they were framed. Even if they had not been framed, they would have probably been jailed for carrying official documents as Myanmar’s state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi later said that the two Reuters reporters were convicted under the Official Secrets Act and were not jailed for their journalism.
A half of the process — carrying or laying hands on official secrets — that came to be classified as an offence under an act holds back the other half of writing reports and publishing them. Abdul Gafoor Abdul Majeed Noorani, popularly known as AG Noorani, an Indian lawyer based in Mumbai who is also a constitutional expert and political commentator, in his weekly column in the Dawn newspaper on October 13 dealt on the issue, saying that there is scarcely ‘a journalist of any repute who has not at some point handled documents marked “Secret” by a civil servant.’ He referred to an editorial by the Times (London), when Lord Derby lectured the press to be responsible, to have addressed the issue as far back as 1952.
The editorial said, as Noorani quotes,: ‘We cannot admit that its [the press] main purpose is to share the labours of statesmanship… The purposes and the duties of the two powers are constantly separate, generally independent, sometimes diametrically opposite.… To perform its duties with entire independence, and consequently with the utmost public advantage, the press can enter into no close or binding alliances with the statesmen of the day, nor can it surrender its permanent interests to the convenience of the ephemeral power of any government.
‘The first duty of the press is to obtain the earliest and most correct intelligence of the events of the time, and instantly, by disclosing them, to make them the common property of the nation.… The responsibilities of the two powers are as much at variance as their duties. For us, with whom publicity and truth are the air and light of existence, there can be no greater disgrace than to recoil from the frank and accurate disclosure of facts as they are. We are bound to tell the truth as we find it, without fear of consequence — to lend no convenient shelter to acts of injustice and oppression, but to consign them at once to the judgement of the world.’
Laws are meant to govern society, with all its people, in a commensurate measure. Anything below the requirement could render the law ineffective and anything above could make it repressive. The late journalist Nirmal Sen, reminiscing about the late Enayetullah Khan, who founded the weekly Holiday and daily New Age, in an article in the volume which marked the 51st founding anniversary of the National Press Club in October 2005, referred to an incident where Abdul Malek Ukil, who was minister in charge of home affairs in the cabinet, tells Nirmal Sen of a sentiment of Bangladesh’s founding president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. While he was giving some good news, Malek Ukil told Nirmal Sen, quoting Sheikh Mujib as saying to Malek Ukil: Look, Malek. Nirmal Sen has reservations about the Press Act [The Printing Presses and Publications Act 1973]. Amend the Press Act in consultation with him. See that the journalists agree the Press Act. You will speak to him and set the issues right.
Abu Jar M Akkas is deputy editor at New Age.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Opinion