DHAKA – The Bangladesh parliament was set to approve a law that would entail life imprisonment for revealing state secrets and prison terms for propaganda against the state, a move which journalists on Tuesday criticized as a crackdown on freedom of expression in the country.
The parliament has until Thursday, the last day of the current legislative session, to approve the Digital Security Act, proposed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government in 2016 and later revised by a parliamentary committee.
“We believe the digital security act is against independent journalism. If it is approved, independent journalism would be difficult and the devolvement of democracy would be hampered,” Mahfuz Anam, the editor of Daily Star – the largest selling English language newspaper in the country – and the general secretary of Editors Council, told EFE.
The ruling Awami League party enjoys a majority in the house and the bill is expected to be approved.
Those found guilty of divulging state secrets could be jailed for life and forced to pay fines of up to 10 million taka (around $112,000), according to the draft of the bill seen by EFE.
The bill, which specifically targets crimes over the internet, also hands down punishments of up to 10 years in prison and a 10 million taka fine for “negative propaganda” against former-president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Hasina’s father, or against Bangladesh’s Liberation War.
According to the draft, publication of “false and distorted” information against the state or “spreading rumors” will be punishable by up to three years in jail.
Anam criticized the inclusion of a clause in the act which would make the 1923 Official Secrets Act applicable in the digital age.
“The Official Secrets Act is already there but it is not being used. (...) This is a binned law of (the) colonial era. No one uses it. Bangladesh also does not use it,” he said.
“They are reviving it. Naturally, whatever you publish against the government, it can be a violation of secrecy. It is a law of the British period. No way it can exist in independent, democratic Bangladesh,” the editor added.
The next general elections in Bangladesh are set to be held towards the end of the year, and activists believe the law could be used against dissidents during the electoral process.
Imran Ahmad, the chairman of the parliamentary committee which proposed the bill, told EFE that they had already addressed the concerns of the editors and had reached an understanding.
“I don’t know why they are expressing concerns now. We tried to adjust their advice to the maximum,” he said.