Bangladesh's parliament on Wednesday passed a controversial digital security act despite protests by journalists who say the law will severely curb media freedom in the country.
The new law, which according to a draft carries heavy jail sentences for secretly recording government officials or spreading “negative propaganda” using a digital device, was approved by a voice vote, parliamentary spokesman Mohammad Kamal told AFP.
Post and telecommunications minister Mustafa Jabbar, who placed the bill, told parliament the law would help fight digital crime and protect people's lives and assets, The Daily Star newspaper said.
Hundreds of journalists have staged demonstrations against the law in recent months and editors have said the law poses serious threats to freedom of expression and media in the country.
This week the Sampadak Parishad, a council of top editors, urged authorities not to pass the law, saying it would seriously curtail democracy in Bangladesh.
The council raised concerns over some sections of the law but a parliamentary standing committee which scrutinised the draft act only made minor changes.
Matiur Rahman Chowdhury, the editor-in-chief of Bengali daily Manobjamin and a member of the council, expressed his shock at the passage of the law, saying it was “very unfortunate”.
“This law will make independent journalism very difficult in the country,” he told AFP.
According to a draft of the Digital Security Act 2018 approved by the cabinet earlier this year, a journalist could be convicted of espionage for entering a government office and gathering information secretly using an electronic device, an offence that would carry a 14-year jail sentence.
It also provides for a life sentence for spreading “negative propaganda” about the country's war of independence or its founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman using a digital device.
Media rights groups in Bangladesh and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) have already condemned the bill.
Last month top journalist and activist Shahidul Alam was arrested during massive student protests in the capital Dhaka for making “false” and “provocative” statements on Al Jazeera and Facebook Live.
He is being investigated for allegedly violating Bangladesh's already stringent internet laws enacted in 2006.
Rights groups, UN rights experts, Nobel laureates and hundreds of academics have called for the immediate release of the 63-year-old, who says he has been beaten in custody.