Freedom of press, expression heading towards bleak future

Mohiuddin Alamgir | Published: 00:06, Oct 05,2018 | Updated: 01:30, Oct 05,2018


Editor’s Council holds a meeting with ministers over Digital Security Bill. — New Age photo

Journalists and freethinkers are of the opinion that the Digital Security Bill passed by Jatiya Sangsad on September 19 poses a threat to the right to freedom of press and expression.
Talking to New Age, they said that the bill was passed aiming to gag the press and critics of government and violating the country’s international commitment to protect freedom of express.
The Digital Security Bill already caused huge protests from freethinkers and media people.
Journalists, national and international rights groups, academics and freethinkers demanded changes to the bill saying that it would be misused against media people, critics and freethinkers as similar provisions stipulated in the Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act was misused.
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.
After separate meetings with Editors’ Council and journalist bodies at secretariat, law minister Anisul Huq and information minister Hasanul Haq Inu made the assurance in presence of posts, telecommunications, and information technology minister Mostafa Jabbar, who piloted the bill.
Journalist leaders threatened tougher protests if objected sections remained in the proposed legislation that might curb freedom of media after the proposed discussion in the cabinet.
Newspaper editors’ body Editors’ Council general secretary Mahfuz Anam said that they raised concern about the bill as it breached fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution and it was against the freedom of expression, freedom of the press, spirit of the Liberation War, democracy and ethics of journalism.
Prime minister Sheikh Hasina and other ministers continued claiming that the bill was not against journalists and freedom of press and expression but for curbing digital crime and the spread of cyber crimes.
‘It is not against the journalists,’ said Hasina said replying to a query at a press conference in New York on September 28.
She said that the spread of cyber crimes was a global phenomenon that warranted the enactment of the proposed law.
‘You [journalists] are only seeing one side of the law fearing it may gag you. In fact, there is nothing to muzzle the journalists,’ she said.
The prime minister said that the cyber security issue also featured at the UN General Assembly as every country was worried that terrorist and militant activities were incited using the ICT.
She also asked if it was not essential to check various offences in social and digital media at a time when everyone, including minor children, was stepping into the wrong paths due to lack of cyber security.
‘Why journalists will be scared if they practise fair journalism? Journalists who will not give false information do not need to be concerned about the bill,’ she said at a press conference at the Ganabhaban residence in Dhaka on Wednesday.
Earlier on September 19, the parliament passed the bill ignoring all recommendations and concerns of journalists, including newspaper editors.
The Digital Security Bill was tabled in parliament on April 9 amid growing concerns among journalists and rights activists that freedom of the press and expression would be seriously jeopardised if the bill was passed.
Posts, telecommunications ICT minister Mostafa Jabbar said that misuse of information technology and cyber crimes significantly increased in the country making the enactment of a law inevitable to check such crimes and ensure digital security.
Maximum and safe use of information technology is essential for turning the country into a Digital Bangladesh in line with prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s vision, he said.
Editors’ Council raised concerns about and objections to Sections 8, 21, 25, 28, 29, 31, 32, 43 and 53 of the bill saying that they 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 proposed to empower 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.
Editor 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 face up to three years in jail or a fine of 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.

Protesters hold a demonstration against Digital Security Bill. — New Age photo

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 brought 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’s observation 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.
The Digital Security Act is in contradiction with the Right to Information Act.
‘We have explained in details and made a section by section analysis as to why the Digital Security Act is against our constitution, against our fundamental rights, against the freedom of speech and the freedom of journalism and as such against democracy.
‘It is, thus, that the Editors’ Council is forced to reject this law,’ the article read.
Former Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists faction president Manjurul Ahasan Bulbul expressed fear that the bill’s stipulations could be misused against working journalists.
He requested the government to review the bill as it could be used as a tool to create fears among working journalists.
Supreme Court lawyer and rights activist Shahdeen Malik expressed disappointment over parliament passing the bill calling it a ‘black chapter’ in the legislative history of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists faction president Molla Jalal and Dhaka Reporters Unity president Saiful Islam said that there were some provisions in the bill that threatened press freedom and professionalism of journalists.
Regarding the editors concern law minister Anisul Huq said, ‘Since the bill was passed by the parliament, I along with information and ICT ministers will place the objections before the cabinet.’
He said, ‘After the discussion at cabinet, we will hold meeting with editors again to resolve the issue through discussions.’
Hasanul Haq Inu said that prime minister was pledged bound to ensure democracy and freedom of press and ensure security of media people.
National and international rights groups continued protesting against the bill saying that it would gag freedom of expression and press and demanded that the government must scrap or reconsider the bill.

Rights activists hold a demonstration to protest at the recent passing of Digital Security Bill by parliament. — New Age photo

The bill passed, despite vehement opposition from the country’s journalists, strikes a blow to freedom of speech in Bangladesh, Human Rights Watch said on September 24.
The law which replaces the much-criticised Information and Communications Technology Act retains the most problematic provisions of that law and adds more provisions criminalising peaceful speech.
The bill is a tool ripe for abuse and a clear violation of the country’s obligations under international law to protect free speech, Asia director of New York-based HRW Brad Adams said, adding ‘with at least five provisions criminalising vaguely defined types of speech, the law is a license for wide-ranging suppression of critical voices.’
Several provisions violate international standards on free expression, he added.
The United States on September 30 stressed the need for bringing about changes to the bill in conformity with the Bangladesh constitution and maintaining international commitments on rights of the people.
The European Union reiterating its concern over the passage of the bill on September 27 said it unduly restricts the freedom of expression and media and undermines judicial procedural guarantees.
They called upon the government to continue consultations on the bill and pursue the commitments taken during the universal periodic review in May, so as to ensure that the Digital Security Bill would be in accordance with the universal declaration of human rights, the international covenant on civil and political rights, as well as the constitution of Bangladesh, said the statement.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent press freedom advocacy organisation, urged Bangladesh president Abdul Hamid to ‘return’ the bill to parliament for revision, expressing their concern over the bill.
Transparency International Bangladesh also made similar call on Hamid from a programme in Dhaka on September 26.
‘The passage of this law utterly undermines any claim that the government of Bangladesh respects freedom of speech’, Adams said. ‘Unless parliament moves swiftly to repeal the law it just passed, the rights of the country’s citizens to speak freely will remain under serious threat.’

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