The Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent press freedom advocacy organisation, has expressed deep concern about the Digital Security Act that was passed by Parliament on September 18, and urged President Abdul Hamid to return it for review.
"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," Steven Butler, CPJ Asia Program Coordinator, it said in a letter to President Hamid.
CPJ is concerned that this legislation, if allowed to become a law, would violate constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press, and create extensive legal dangers for journalists in the normal course of carrying out their professional activities, reads the letter a copy of which UNB received from the CPJ.
CPJ respectfully urged the Bangladesh President to exercise his constitutional authority to return the legislation to Parliament for revisions that would eliminate these dangers.
"Specifically, we ask that legislators address the concerns that have been expressed repeatedly by the community of journalists in Bangladesh, as outlined below," the letter reads.
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, according to the letter sent to President.
"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 is the inclusion of the colonial-era Official Secrets Act in the Digital Security Act, which seems to contradict the Right to Information provisions included elsewhere in the legislation, reads the letter.
"The extension of the Official Secrets Act into the digital sphere escalates the hazards faced by investigative journalists who play a vital role in exposing corruption in government."
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 is similarly concerned that the vague descriptions of potential offenses, such as hurting religious values or causing deterioration in law and order, would invite arbitrary use and misuse of the law to restrict the media.
It said Bangladesh has a proud 56-year history as a secular democracy with strong affirmations of human rights and freedom of speech and the press.
"This legislation promises to damage that tradition, and to severely harm Bangladesh's standing among the community of democracies as a defender of press freedom," says the letter.