By Serajul Quadir
DHAKA (Reuters) - Journalist groups in Bangladesh have cancelled planned protests against a new law they say cripples press freedom after the government offered talks instead.
The law, which combines some existing measures such as the colonial-era Official Secrets Act with tough new provisions, was passed by parliament on Sept. 19, three months before an expected national election. It now awaits the signature of President Abdul Hamid to come into force.
Journalist groups and unions had planned protests in Dhaka on Thursday and Saturday, but the government has now invited them to join talks expected on Sunday.
"If we can achieve our demand through discussion then that is good for all," said Saiful Islam, president of Dhaka Reporters Unity, a forum for journalists.
The unions and the Editors Council of Bangladesh, which represents the country's largest daily newspapers, will attend the talks.
"The information ministry is very much aware about the concern of the journalist community," Bangladesh’s Information Minister Hasanul Haq said in the letter. "It is of the utmost necessity to sit with the Editors Council to discuss the issue, to settle the concerns and ensure free movement of information."
The journalists' groups have called on the government to revise or drop multiple sections in the law they say stifle media freedom and breach their right to free speech.
They are unhappy about a provision that allows police to arrest any individual without a warrant.
There is a maximum sentence of 14 years for espionage if an individual is found secretly recording information with electronic instruments inside a government building.
Another section imposes the same jail sentence for spreading "propaganda and campaign" against Bangladesh's 1971 war for independence from Pakistan. A further element journalists have opposed is the inclusion in the law of the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which includes a sentence of up to 14 years for sharing state secrets with an enemy.
"This section of this law is a major obstacle for journalists in revealing truth," said Reaz Uddin Ahmed, acting chairman of the Editors Council.
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".
Critics see the law as an authoritarian move by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, already facing flak for violently suppressing protests last month by school students demanding improved road safety and over a campaign against drugs in which security forces are accused of extrajudicial killings.
Hasina has defended the new law by saying it is aimed at controlling cyber and digital crimes.
"The journalists are only thinking about their interest, not about society and only for that they are raising their voices," she said this week.
Scores of people, including journalists, have been jailed in Bangladesh under Hasina's rule since 2009 for criticising the government online.
(Writing by Zeba Siddiqui; Editing by Gareth Jones)