Some journalists in Bangladesh allege 'breach of trust' over press freedoms

DHAKA (Reuters) - More than 100 journalists staged a protest in Bangladesh’s capital on Thursday, their faces covered in black cloth, accusing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of breach of trust in enacting a law they fear is aimed at curbing press freedom.

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Hasina’s government has defended the Digital Security Act, passed by parliament last month, saying it aims to control cyber crimes.

But journalists say the law that carries prison sentences of up to 14 years for anyone trying to secretly record information inside government buildings will create a climate of fear.

They said the government had gone back on its commitment to reconsider some of the harsh provisions.

The Editors’ Council expressed “deep disappointment” that a promise made by cabinet ministers in recent weeks to work toward amending the law had not been kept.

“(The council) considers this a breach of trust that it had reposed, in good faith, on the commitment made by three senior cabinet ministers,” the group said in a statement.

Information Minister Hasanul Haq and two other ministers had promised journalists last month that their concerns over the law would be raised at the weekly cabinet meeting chaired by the prime minister, the council said.

Haq told Reuters there were other items on the agenda at recent cabinet meetings, due to which the journalists’ concerns could not be discussed. “We have told the prime minister about the concerns of the Editors’ Council and we hope that in next cabinet meeting they may be raised for discussion.”

Critics see the law as Hasina’s latest move to suppress freedom of speech ahead of national elections in December, when she will be seeking a third consecutive term against an opposition in disarray.

The main opposition party’s leaders have been jailed this year over charges ranging from corruption to a plot to assassinate Hasina.

The new law combines existing measures such as the much-criticized colonial-era Official Secrets Act with tough new provisions.

The Editors’ Council asked that the law be amended in the last session of the parliament that starts on Oct. 21.

Writing by Zeba Siddiqui; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani