Journalists in Bangladesh up in arms over new cyber law

Editors demand amendments to bill seen as further trampling on freedom of expression
Journalists in Bangladesh up in arms over new cyber law

A protest in Dhaka on Aug. 8 demanding an end to the abuse and harassment of journalists. Bangladeshi reporters and editors say the upcoming cybersecurity law threatens freedom of expression and freedom of the media. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)

Bangladeshi journalists have criticized the government in moving forward with a new cyber security law while ignoring their concerns about the curtailing of freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

In a statement on Sept. 16, the Sampadak Parishad (Editors' Council), a forum of newspaper editors, expressed "surprise, disappointment and shock" at the final report issued five days earlier by a parliamentary standing committee on the draft Digital Security Act 2018.

"The report has totally ignored the protests and concerns expressed by journalists and media organizations," it said.

"We are forced to reject said report as it suggests no fundamental changes to Sections 8, 21, 25, 28, 29, 31, 32, and 43 of the draft act, which pose serious threats to freedom of expression and the operations of the media," continued the statement, which was signed by the editors of 19 national dailies.

They welcomed the inclusion of the Right to Information Act (RTI) under Section 3 of the law, but expressed concern at the inclusion of the British colonial era Official Secrets, which they argued contradicts the RTI.

The statement claimed the ruling Awami League (AL) has ignored the concerns put forward by the media at three meetings between government officials and associations of journalists.

The new law tramples on people's constitutional right to freedom of expression, as well as other basic democratic rights, the editors said as they urged parliament not pass the bill until further amendments are made.

The Digital Security Bill 2018 has raised eyebrows since its inception some two years ago due to a number of controversial provisions.

Section 32 states that anyone who illegally enters the offices of the government, semi-government or autonomous bodies to gather information, and uses an electronic device to covertly record information, can face up to 14 years in jail, a fine of up to 2 million taka (US$24,000), or both.

Section 43 allows police to search and arrest anyone without a court warrant.

The government moved ahead with the new law after facing a barrage criticism both at home and abroad for the widespread abuse and harassment of journalists, dissidents and critics under the already repressive provisions of the Information and Communication Technology Act 2013.  

The government said the new cyber law aims to curb the recent spike in cyber crime and outbreaks of violent extremism fueled by digital platforms.

Father Augustine Bulbul Rebeiro, secretary of the Catholic Bishops' Social Communication Commission, also expressed dismay over the law.

"In its current state, it threatens our basic freedoms and will discourage journalists from investigative reporting on issues such as corruption and irregularities," Father Rebeiro, editor of the Catholic weekly Pratibeshi (Neighbor), told ucanews.com.

"There's a high chance the police will use it to abuse their discretionary powers, and it would surely force journalists to censor themselves to avoid harassment," he said.

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"I think the law has created a sense of panic among the media community here. As such, the government needs to rethink it before moving to a final decision."

Syed Shukur Ali, secretary of Dhaka Reporters' Unity, a leading association of journalists in the country, echoed similar sentiments.

"Journalists can't play their role properly if they are under constant fear of abuse and harassment," Ali told ucanews.com.  

"The government needs to take into account the concerns of editors and journalists and make the necessary changes to the law to make it acceptable."

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