Journalists on Thursday called off their plan to form a human chain to protest the recently passed Digital Security Act after a government official invited them to meet and discuss their concerns.
Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu sent letters to the Sampadak Parishad (Editors Council) and other journalism groups to meet Sunday, according to Saiful Alam, editor of the Daily Jugantor. The journalists are concerned the act would curtail freedom of expression and gag the press.
“We will attend the meeting,” Alam said. “As the government has invited us to a talk, we will announce postponement of the human-chain program.”
The Bangladesh parliament passed the act on Sept. 19 despite opposition from human-rights activists and journalists. It awaits President Abdul Hamid’s signature and would take into effect after publication in the official gazette.
Members of the Editors Council and other journalists had announced they would stage a protest by forming a human chain Saturday in front of the National Press Club in Dhaka. Journalists say multiple sections in the law threaten free speech.
The law minister, information and communication technology minister, and information adviser to the prime minister are expected to attend the talks, according to Alam.
The new law came a month after mass protests demanding road safety led to criticisms directed at the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Her supporters clashed with the demonstrators, authorities arrested dozens of the protesters and police detained renowned photographer Shahidul Alam.
“I don’t know why our journalists are becoming so sensitive,” Hasina told lawmakers this week. “Journalism is surely not for increasing conflict, or for tarnishing the image of the country.”
Inu, Hasina’s information minister, told BenarNews that the government has the authority to hold meetings with any stakeholders on any law.
“The journalists have voiced their concerns. We will listen to them. Actually, we want to know which sections of the law make them concerned,” Inu said. “We will take the necessary measure to solve the problems of the law, if any,” he said.
A.M.H. Bazlur Rahman, chief executive officer of the media rights body Bangladesh NGOs Network for Radio and Communication, welcomed the government’s offer.
“I think the talks should be initiated before passage of the law. While late, it is better that the government has offered talks to allay fears and concerns,” he told BenarNews.
He said all agree on the need to punish cybercrime.
“But a law passed to penalize cyber criminals should in no way curtail freedom of the press and freedom of expression,” Rahman said.
Rights groups raise concerns
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has objected to several sections of the Digital Security Act, alleging that it retains the most-problematic provisions of a previous law that has been severely criticized and adds more provisions criminalizing peaceful speech.
One section drawing complaints authorizes prison sentences of up to 14 years for spreading “propaganda and campaign against liberation war of Bangladesh or spirit of the liberation war or Father of the Nation.”
Another section carries a sentence of up to three years for publishing information that is “aggressive or frightening.” HRW pointed out that those terms are not defined in the law.
A section carrying a sentence of up to 10 years focuses on information that “ruins communal harmony or creates instability or disorder or disturbs or is about to disturb the law and order situation.” The same section covers speech that “creates animosity, hatred, or antipathy among the various classes and communities.”
A section updates Bangladesh’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Act criminalizing online defamation. Unlike ICT, the new section limits defamation to those requirements in the penal code. HRW points out that most nations consider defamation a civil and not a criminal offense.
“The new Digital Security Act is a tool ripe for abuse and a clear violation of the country’s obligations under international law to protect free speech,” said Brad Adams, HRW Asia director. “With at least five provisions criminalizing vaguely defined types of speech, the law is a license for wide-ranging suppression of critical voices.”
On Thursday, officials from the European Union, along with Norway and Sweden, issued a joint statement questioning the act.
“We reiterate our concerns around several provision of the Digital Security Act which unduly restrict the freedom of expression and the freedom of the media and undermine judicial procedure guarantees,” EU ambassadors said. “In its current form, the act could be used to suppress and criminalize the legitimate exercise of these freedoms.”