Tough new Bangladesh measure becomes law, seen curbing free speech

DHAKA (Reuters) - Bangladesh President Abdul Hamid on Monday gave his assent to a controversial new law that media groups fear could cripple press freedom and curb free speech in the South Asian nation.

FILE PHOTO: Bangladesh's President Abdul Hamid (R) enters a car after attended a wreath-laying ceremony at the mausoleum of the late Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, Vietnam August 9, 2015. REUTERS/Kham

Parliament passed the Digital Security Act on Sept. 19, combining the colonial-era Official Secrets Act with tough new provisions such as arrests without a warrant.

“The president has given his assent to the Digital Security Act today, making it law,” his press secretary, Joynal Abedin, told Reuters.

Last month, media groups canceled protests against the law after the government promised to amend it. But their concerns were not addressed, said Manzurul Ahsan Bulbul, a former president of the Bangladesh Federal Journalist Union who took part in talks with the government.

“We are frustrated as, during the meeting, we placed several proposals but none was reflected in the law,” he told Reuters. “Now we will see what the cabinet decides and accordingly will take action.”

Abedin said the government could only consider amending the measure after it became law.

“The law can be amended at any time if cabinet desires, so the journalist community need not to be worried,” Anisul Haq, the law minister, told Reuters.

New York-based Human Rights Watch has called the law a “tool ripe for abuse and a clear violation of the country’s obligations under international law to protect free speech”.

Opponents say the digital law is the latest authoritarian move by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, criticized for suppressing student protests in August and a war on drugs that has prompted accusations of extrajudicial killings by security forces, a charge the government denies.

Hasina has defended the digital law as necessary to combat cyber crime.

“The journalists are only thinking about their interest, not about society and only for that they are raising their voices,” Hasina said this week.

Scores of people, including journalists, have been jailed for online criticism of the government since Hasina returned to power in 2009.

The law has also drawn opposition internationally.

The U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, Marcia Bernicat, said last month the “Digital Security Act could be used to suppress and criminalize free speech, all to the detriment of Bangladesh’s democracy, development and prosperity.”

Reporting by Serajul Quadir; Writing by Euan Rocha; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Clarence Fernandez