DHAKA (Reuters) - Bangladesh has drafted a bill that would punish media outlets if they publish or broadcast anything deemed to be against the “public interest”, in a move that journalists fear could further stifle press freedom in the south Asian country.
The “Broadcast Law 2018” comes just days after media outlets called for revisions to a new digital security law that allows for arrests without a warrant.
Under the draft law, approved by the cabinet on Monday, media outlets could be fined, lose their licences or see staff jailed if they publish or broadcast anything deemed to be “false” or against the national interest.
Nearly a dozen journalists contacted by Reuters on Tuesday criticised the draft legislation. Some said it was aimed at protecting corrupt officials. Most asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.
“The government is enacting one law after another to control media,” said a senior journalist of a television news channel.
The journalists, who have already criticised the government for so far reneging on a promise to rework the digital security act and address some of their concerns, also questioned the timing of both laws.
“Within a very short time, two laws have been drafted, and one has already been enacted,” said one senior editor, adding that the government might be attempting to intimidate the media ahead of national elections, fearing negative coverage.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will seek a third consecutive term in the elections in December, but the participation of the opposition is in some doubt as many of its leaders have been jailed under Hasina’s rule.
Critics have called her rule increasingly authoritarian, but the government has denied such accusations.
Cabinet secretary Shafiul Alam told media on Monday the new bill was aimed at “making broadcasting and online mass media stronger and dynamic”. He said the bill still has to be approved by multiple ministries and parliament before it becomes law.
The bill envisages a Broadcast Commission which could act if it finds any advertisement, story, song, or other content goes against Bangladeshi “sovereignty” or provokes “militancy, violence, destructive activities” or law and order concerns.
It lists a total of 24 crimes, which would be punishable by prison terms of up to seven years and fines of up to 50 million taka ($591,716).
“It looks like the people of the country are the opposition and the government’s enacting laws against the people while laws should be in place to protect them,” said Baki Billah, a blogger and political activist.
Hasina’s government is already facing international pressure following the arrest of photographer Shahidul Alam, who criticised the government response to student protests earlier this year.
Bangladesh alleges that Alam instigated trouble by spreading false news about the protests. His detention sparked widespread criticism from human rights organisations.
Reporting by Serajul Quadir and Ruma Paul; Writing by Zeba Siddiqui; Editing by Euan Rocha and Gareth Jones