Dhaka, Bangladesh – Newspaper editors in Bangladesh have staged a protest against a new digital security law they say will have a “chilling effect” on press freedom in the country.
Sixteen members of a top editors council formed a human chain in front of the National Press Club in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, in a rare protest on Monday, calling for an overhaul of the Digital Security Act.
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They carried a banner urging the government to “abolish anti-free speech” provisions in the recently enacted law.
Mahfuz Anam, editor of Bangladesh’s largest English-language newspaper, Daily Star, read out seven demands, including the scrapping of nine sections in the act which he said will curb media freedoms in the country.
“This law is incongruent with the intellectual environment of the digital age,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The growth of digital Bangladesh will be stifled.”
Zafar Sobhan, editor of Dhaka Tribune, said the law “will have a chilling effect on media freedom”.
The law – which came into effect on October 8 despite widespread criticism from journalists and human rights activists – authorises prison sentences for up to 14 years for anyone who secretly records government officials or gathers information from a government agency using a computer or other digital device.
It also sets similar punishments for people who spread “negative propaganda” about the country’s 1971 war of independence and its founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
The protesting editors said they were also concerned over a provision that allows police to arrest journalists and confiscate their equipment without a court order.
They fear such punishments will hamper investigative journalism and efforts to expose corruption in the South Asian country.
However, Hasanul Haq Inu, information minister, dismissed the journalists’ concerns, saying the government “enacted the law to protect citizens from increasing cyber crimes” and “not to control the work of media professionals”.
The government has no plan to amend the law, he said.
Earlier in the month, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told reporters that those who practise honest journalism without a “criminal mindset” or “plan to commit an offence” need not worry about the new law.
The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party has termed the Digital Security Act a “black law”, and its leaders have pledged to scrap it if they take power in general elections, scheduled for either December or January.
Critics of the law say it can also be used against dissidents, and was more draconian than the Information and Communication Technology Act, which has been used to target scores of people, including journalists, for criticising the government.
In August, Shahidul Alam, a photographer, was arrested under that law for “spreading misinformation and propaganda” against the government. He remains in state custody.
Olof Blomqvist, research and advocacy director with ASEAN parliamentarians for human rights, said it was “disturbing” that the government – instead of improving the ICT Act – “introduced a new law that again flouts international human rights standards”.