Journalists slam Bangladesh digital security law

Bangladesh journalists hold a protest against the recently passed Digital Security Act. (AFP)
Updated 28 September 2018

Journalists slam Bangladesh digital security law

  • A powerful body of editors of leading newspapers and TV stations has officially protested the bill, called the Digital Security Act
  • Observers say the bill is part of a broader campaign to silence critics in Bangladesh
DHAKA, Bangladesh: Journalists and human rights groups are demanding major amendments to a bill recently passed in Bangladesh’s Parliament, saying it will further choke constitutionally protected freedom of speech.
A powerful body of editors of leading newspapers and TV stations has officially protested the bill, called the Digital Security Act, and plans to form a human chain to protest Saturday in front of the national press club in Dhaka.
“We are moving toward a bad time. This law will hurt the media, democracy and freedom of expression,” said Khandakar Muniruzzaman, acting editor of the Bengali-language daily Sangbad and among those planning to participate in the protest Saturday.
Senior editors, journalist groups and human rights groups in and outside Bangladesh are echoing these concerns, demanding that lawmakers clarify sections of the bill they say could be wielded arbitrarily against government critics before the president signs it.
In Bangladesh, the president customarily signs anything passed by Parliament. He can send it back to Parliament, but if members think no changes are needed, it will go back to him for a signature. If the president does not sign it in six months, it automatically becomes law.
The bill would replace a previous information communication technology law, which was also criticized by journalists and human rights groups for its alleged use to crack down on dissent. Many editors and reporters have been sued for defamation under the law.
Observers say the bill is part of a broader campaign to silence critics in Bangladesh, and reflects a worrying trend in fledgling Asian democracies.
Journalists in Nepal are combating a similar law, part of an expansive rewriting of that country’s civil and criminal codes meant to define the parameters of Nepal’s new constitution.
Laws like the one recently passed in Nepal and the one pending in Bangladesh, where democracy was restored in 1990 after the military dictator was ousted, could make it more difficult for journalists to expose corruption.
Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who political opponents decry as an autocrat, defended the bill in Parliament last week, saying that it was meant to protect the country from propaganda.
“Journalism is surely not for increasing conflict, or for tarnishing the image of the country,” she said.
Bangladeshi journalists are taking particular umbrage with a section of the bill that authorizes up to 14 years in prison for gathering, sending or preserving classified information of any government using a computer or other digital device. The journalists say publishing such information is a way to hold officials accountable. The section evokes the sentiment of a British colonial-era law about protecting official secrets.
The bill would also authorize prison sentences of up to three years for publishing information that is “aggressive or frightening” and up to 10 years for posting information that “ruins communal harmony or creates instability or disorder or disturbs or is about to disturb the law and order situation.”
Government officials have listed incidents in recent years in which false social media posts about people disrespecting the Qur’an have incited violence.
Critics of the bill say existing criminal laws adequately address these concerns.
Fears of the broad reach of the bill extend beyond journalists.
Human Rights Watch said the law would be ripe for abuse, in part because it would empower police to search or arrest suspects without a court order.
“Bangladesh authorities have failed to address serious human rights violations, and when criticized, chosen to target the messenger,” spokeswoman Meenakshi Ganguly told The Associated Press.
“Bangladeshi journalists, already under pressure, will now worry about doing their job in exposing government failures,” she said.
Some critics say introducing such a law a few months before general elections, which are expected in December, could also target opposition activists and candidates.
Bangladesh’s main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, or BNP, has said the bill is intended to silence its members. Party leader former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, an archrival of Hasina, is currently in jail for corruption. Her supporters say her jailing is politically motivated, an allegation authorities have denied.
An election-time government is expected to be formed in mid-October that Hasina is supposed to head in line with the constitution, but the opposition says an election under Hasina could be rigged. The opposition wants a non-partisan caretaker government to oversee the elections.
The opposition says their activists are facing thousands of politically-motivated criminal charges, but police say they are following the law, without regard to suspects’ political affiliations.

Arab News’ 44th anniversary: The year’s top headlines

Updated 21 April 2019

Arab News’ 44th anniversary: The year’s top headlines

  • Arab News celebrates its 44th anniversary with a fast-rising global readership, and a host of new digital and print offerings
  • Throughout this year, Arab News has seen a significant increase in readership in the Kingdom and around the world

JEDDAH: Arab News celebrates its 44th anniversary today as the biggest English-language daily in the Kingdom with a fast-rising readership and a commitment to maintaining the quality journalism that has been a bedrock of the paper during its long history.

Throughout this year, Arab News has seen a significant increase in readership in the Kingdom and around the world, with new digital and print offerings, including the launch of the Pakistan edition, spearheading the newspaper’s global and digital expansion. A series of online and print elements — including Road to 2030, The Face, The Space, The Case and The Startup — draws attention globally and nationally.

A look back at the Arab News coverage that made headlines this year.


Arab News relaunch 

April 3, 2018: Arab News relaunched last year with a new design, and a new approach to stories that is better suited to the Internet age. Aside from a change in the newspaper’s masthead — the first since it began publication in 1975 — the newspaper had a radical redesign with an emphasis on elegant graphics and background facts giving richness to our stories. The relaunch — after an April Fools’ Day teaser campaign that suggested the paper would no longer be published in printed form — was announced at a gala dinner in Dubai.

Guests take a look at Arab News souvenir edition during the International Media Gala, organized by Arab News in Dubai. 

Women driving

June 24, 2018: The General Directorate of Traffic issued driver’s licenses to 10 women after a royal decree issued by King Salman in September 2017 announced the end of a decades-long ban on women driving. An iconic image of a Saudi woman driving by New Yorker magazine illustrator Malika Favre, commissioned by Arab News for the cover of its souvenir edition on June 24, was shared around the world. The design won two Awards of Excellence at this year’s Society for News Design honors. The cover image was also recognized in the international design awards run by HOW magazine. The end of the driving ban is a historic move that sends a clear message to the world that changes in Saudi Arabia under Vision 2030 are real and significant.


Prince Khaled bin Salman writes exclusively for Arab News

July 23, 2018: The world must confront Iranian aggression in a way that it failed to do in the 1930s with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, Prince Khalid bin Salman, the then Saudi Ambassador to the US, warned in an exclusive political essay published in Arab News.


Imran Khan interview

July 26, 2018: In an exclusive interview with Arab News in July, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chairman Imran Khan said his country enjoyed a “very special relationship with Saudi Arabia” and he planned to nurture it further.


Hajj coverage

August 19, 2018: As part of Arab News CSR initiatives, we gave out tens of thousands of umbrellas to protect pilgrims from the sun during Hajj season. An Arab News team also covered all the major days of Hajj, including Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah. A total of 2,371,675 pilgrims performed Hajj in 2018, according to the General Authority for Statistics. The pilgrims who came from outside Saudi Arabia numbered 1,758,722, while 612,953 came from inside the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia invited more than 800 foreign media representatives to cover Hajj events.

As part of Arab News’ CSR initiatives, the newspaper gave out tens of thousands of umbrellas to protect pilgrims from the sun at Hajj 2018.


Pope Tawadros II

Dec. 4, 2018: In an exclusive interview with Arab News Editor-in-Chief Faisal J. Abbas, Tawadros II, the 118th Pope of Alexandria, Patriarch of the See of St. Mark and leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, described events in Syria and Iraq, with the rise of Daesh, as “very painful,” and pointed out that Christians who had to seek asylum abroad were among the most affected. However, his concerns extended beyond the plight of Christians alone, and he argued that a “weakening of Arab countries” means “the weakening of Arabs as a whole … Christians and Muslims alike.”


Winter at Tantora

Dec. 20, 2018: The northern Saudi city of Al-Ula hosted a special season of events and festivities, as the Royal Commission for the Governorate of Al-Ula organized Winter at Tantora. The cultural festival was designed to showcase the wonders of Al-Ula, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to the world. It included cultural events, a spectacular equine experience, and musical performances by some of the world’s greatest artists, such as Saudi singer Mohammed Abdo, Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli, Iraqi musicians Ilham Al-Madfai and Kazem Al-Saher, Bahrain’s Rashed Al-Majid and Iraqi artist Majed Al-Mohandes.


MBS Asia tour
Feb. 17, 2019: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s tour of Pakistan, India and China made headlines around the globe. Saudi authorities praised the outcome of the Pakistan leg of the trip, with deals worth $20 billion signed by the two nations. During his visit to India, Crown Prince Mohammed said that he expects Saudi Arabia’s investments in the country to be worth $100 billion in the next two years. The crown prince also witnessed the signing of agreements in investment, tourism, housing and information and broadcasting. In China, he met with Vice Premier Han Zheng and attended the China-Saudi cooperation forum. That was followed by a ceremony to sign agreements on petroleum, chemicals, investment, renewable energy and anti-terrorism.

Faisal J. Abbas, Editor in Chief of Arab News, presents a copy of the newspaper to Pakistan President Dr. Arif Alvi on Feb. 18, 2018 on the sidelines of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Pakistan visit. (AN photo)

50:50 by 2020

March 7, 2019: The Arab News newsroom philosophy is based on gender equality. The proportion of women working for the newspaper rose to more than a third in 2018, moving closer to the goal of a 50:50 gender-balanced newsroom by 2020, according to the Arab News “gender equality meter,” published in March. Arab News last year outlined its aim to become the first newspaper in Saudi Arabia to have a gender-balanced newsroom. The announcement was made at the opening of the inaugural Arab Women Forum at King Abdullah Economic City. The drive, referred to internally as the “50:50 by 2020” initiative, covers all the newspaper’s bureaus and areas of operation.


Saudi National Day coverage

March 7, 2019: A video produced for Saudi National Day by Arab News scooped the top prize in an international media award ceremony held in Dubai. The video was commissioned to launch the newspaper’s ‘Road to 2030’ section which encompasses a series of reports focusing on tracking the progress and reforms happening in the Kingdom, such as allowing women to drive and reopening cinemas. The online video category at the WAN-IFRA Middle East Awards was the latest award given to the Saudi Arabian English-language daily since its relaunch in April 2018, after picking up silver in the “redesigned product category” at the WAN-IFRA Print Innovation Awards, held in Berlin on Oct. 9.


Preachers of Hate

March 25, 2019: Arab News in March launched Preachers of Hate — a weekly series, published in print and online, in which we profile, contextualize and analyze extremist preachers from all religions, backgrounds and nationalities. Subjects include the Saudi cleric Safar Al-Hawali, the Egyptian preacher Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the American-Israeli rabbi Meir Kahane, the Yemeni militia leader Abdul Malik Al-Houthi, and the US pastor Terry Jones, among others.


Sharqiah Season
March 14, 2019: The Sharqiah Season, a 17-day festival in Eastern Province cities, delivered extensive entertainment for both Saudis and visitors to the Kingdom. Key events included the Red Bull Air Race and the Formula 1 H20 boat event, as well as concerts by Akon, Deadmau5, Pitbull and French Montana.

First anniversary of cinemas
April 18, 2019: Arab News marked the first anniversary of cinemas opening in Saudi Arabia. As part of the country’s Vision 2030 program of reforms, Saudi Arabia lifted a 35-year ban on cinemas, paving the way for theater chains to unveil ambitious plans to open hundreds of cinemas across the nation in the next decade. The Saudi government announced that SR131 billion ($35 billion) will be invested in cinema and theater construction, mainly in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam. The Kingdom’s cinema industry — which will serve a population of more than 32 million, most of whom are under the age of 30 — is expected to generate $1.5 billion in annual revenue by 2030.