The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) expressed its deep concern about the Digital Security Act passed by parliament on 18 September, Agencies report.
The independent press freedom advocacy organisation, in a letter to Bangladesh president Abdul Hamid, called for returning the act to parliament for review.
The letter said CPJ is concerned that this legislation, if allowed to become law, would violate constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press, and would create extensive legal dangers for journalists in the normal course of carrying out their professional activities.
“CPJ respectfully urges you to exercise your constitutional authority to return the legislation to parliament for revisions that would eliminate these dangers,” read the letter signed by CPJ’s Asia Programme Coordinator Steven Butler.
The letter outlined the concerns repeatedly expressed by the Bangladeshi journalists and asked the members of parliament to address those.
“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 been repeatedly used to imprison journalists in defamation cases. Government ministers had previously acknowledged that police have misused Section 57, 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, CPJ added, is the inclusion of the colonial-era Official Secrets Act in the Digital Security Act, which seems to contradict the Right to Information Act 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.”
The letter expressed fear about the extremely heavy fines and punishments, up to Tk 50 million (US$600,000) and life imprisonment depending on the offense, 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.
CPJ also expressed concerns over the vague descriptions of potential offenses, such as hurting religious values or causing deterioration in law and order, and said this would invite arbitrary use and misuse of the law to restrict the media.
Praising Bangladesh’s 46-year history as a secular democracy with strong affirmations of human rights and freedom of speech and the press, the body feared this legislation will damage that tradition, and severely harm the country’s standing among the community of democracies as a defender of press freedom.
“We urge you to take action to prevent this, and ensure that the next bill the legislature sends you adheres to the guarantees made in Bangladesh’s constitution as well as to international norms,” the letter concluded.