(Reuters) - Bangladesh has some broad media laws to tackle issues ranging from defamation to fake news, and the spread of propaganda, but many in the local media allege these laws are now being used to curb free speech and rein in press freedom in the country.
Ahead of nationwide elections on Dec. 30 this year, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government recently announced it was considering a new Broadcast Act that would give a government-appointed commission wide-ranging powers over media outlets.
More than 30 senior editors and other journalists, across digital, print and television formats in Bangladesh, say they fear this law on top of the recently passed Digital Security Act and the existing Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, will further erode press freedom in the country.
These are the broad powers under the new and existing laws:
The ICT was originally enacted by the government of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia in November 2006 to regulate digital communications. In 2013, Sheikh Hasina’s government toughened the ICT Act, eliminating the need for arrest warrants.
The maximum jail term for offences under the law was increased to 14 years from 10 years with the 2013 amendment, and offences under Section 57 of the law were made non-bailable.
Section 57 of the Act authorizes prosecution of anyone who publishes, in electronic form, material deemed fake, obscene, defamatory, or any material that tends to deprave or corrupt its audience. It also allows for prosecution if any material causes, or may cause any deterioration in law and order; prejudices the image of the state, or a person; or causes, or may cause hurt to religious beliefs.
A Human Rights Watch report this year noted that the “broad and sweeping” terms of the law invite its misuse. It found that between 2013 and April 2018, police submitted 1,271 chargesheets under the law, most under Section 57 of the Act.
The DSA enacted by PM Hasina’s government in October, melds the colonial-era Official Secrets Act with tough new provisions. The government said it is meant partly to replace the vagueness of Section 57 of the ICT, but rights activists allege the DSA is even broader and even more alarming. Hasina has defended the law as necessary to combat cyber crime.
The law allows police to arrest anyone without a warrant if they believe that an offence under the law has been, or is being committed, or they believe there is a possibility of a crime and risk of evidence being destroyed.
The law carries prison sentences of up to 14 years for any person trying to secretly record information inside government buildings. Critics say this makes investigative journalism into any government corruption almost impossible.
It also allows for up to 10 years imprisonment for spreading propaganda opposing Bangladesh’s liberation war, and its national anthem and national flag via digital devices. Any repeat crimes carry the maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
The proposed new Broadcast Act that is under consideration would apply to print, broadcast and digital media, and it would give a government-appointed Broadcast Commission wide powers to levy fines of up to 50 million taka ($596,018) and withdraw the operating licenses of outlets it deems to be in violation of the law.
The commission could also recommend prosecution of anyone it deems guilty, and courts will be allowed to imprison those found guilty under the law for up to 7 years.
Offences under the proposed new law include the telecasting, broadcasting or publishing of any statement deemed to be against the country, or against public interest; sharing any misleading or untrue information or data on a talk show; broadcasting any show, or ad contrary to national culture, heritage and spirits; telecasting any show or advertisement with scenes of aggression or indecent language.
Telecasting or publishing any advertisements for slimming and weight-reduction products would also be offences under the law.
Reporting by Serajul Quadir and Ruma Paul; Writing by Euan Rocha; Editing by Martin Howell and Raju Gopalakrishnan