Bangladesh President Abdul Hamid on Monday gave his assent to a controversial new law that media groups say could cripple press freedom and restrict free speech in the South Asian country.
Parliament passed the Digital Security Act on September 19, combining the colonial-era Official Secrets Act with tough new provisions such as warrantless arrests.
“The president gave his assent to Digital Security Act today, by making law, ”his press secretary, Joynal Abedin, told Reuters.
Last month, media groups called off protests against the law after the government promised to change it. But their concerns were not taken into account, said Manzurul Ahsan Bulbul, former chairman of the Federal Union of Journalists of Bangladesh who participated in talks with the government.
“We are frustrated because at the meeting we made several proposals but none were reflected in law,” he told Reuters.
“Now we will see what the cabinet decides and, accordingly, we will take action. “
Abedin said the government could only consider changing the measure after it became law.
“The law can be changed at any time if the cabinet wishes, so the journalist community need not worry,” Justice Minister Anisul Haq said. New York-based Human Rights Watch called the law “a ripe tool for abuse and a flagrant violation of the country’s obligations under international law to protect freedom of expression.”
Opponents say the digital law is the latest authoritarian move by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who was criticized for cracking down on student protests in August and a war on drugs that sparked charges of extrajudicial killings by security forces, a charge denied by the government.
Hasina championed digital law as necessary to fight cybercrime.
“Journalists only think about their best interests, not society and that is the only reason they raise their voices,” Hasina said this week.
Dozens of people, including journalists, have been jailed for criticizing the government online since Hasina returned to power in 2009.
The law has also drawn opposition internationally.
US Ambassador to Bangladesh Marcia Bernicat said last month that “the digital security law could be used to suppress and criminalize freedom of expression, all to the detriment of democracy, development and prosperity in Bangladesh.