By Md. Kamruzzaman
DHAKA, Bangladesh: Hundreds of journalists held a human chain and organized demonstrations in Bangladeshi Capital Dhaka, demanding the immediate release of a female journalist, who was reportedly harassed and arrested from the Country’s Secretariat on Monday during her attempts to do an investigating report on corruption in the Health Ministry.
Journalist Rozina Islam, a senior crime reporter of the Country’s leading daily newspaper the Prothom Alo, was held by the government officials and then handed over to police in charge of illegally “collect sensitive government documents and taking photos of them” at the Health Ministry Monday evening.
She was later shown arrested under the controversial Official Secrets Act that was enacted during the British regime in the region more than seven decades ago to harass the opponents of the colonial rulers.
Rozina Islam is a prize-winning journalist who secured several local and international awards for her investigating reports on corruption.
Journalists urged the government to unconditionally release Islam within the next 24 hours or they would hold tougher movement.
Agitated media workers also carried banners and festoons and chanted slogans against a 2018 black law, the Digital Security Act, under which dozens of journalists across the country have been arrested and harassed several times.
International rights watchdog, Human Rights Watch, in a statement on May 3, 2021 said that at least 247 journalists were reportedly “subjected to attacks, harassment, and intimidation by state officials and others affiliated with the Bangladesh government in 2020”.
“More than 900 cases were filed under the draconian Digital Security Act with nearly 1,000 people charged and 353 detained – many of them journalists,” the statement recorded.
Accusation of torturing
Speakers at the rally accused that some officials at the Health Ministry tortured Islam physically and mentally before handing over her to the police at night.
“We are earnestly requesting the government to release Islam and arrest those perpetrators who were involved in harassing her,” Syed Ishtiaq Reza, a senior journalist said while addressing the human chain and demonstrations.
Journalists also argued that investigating journalism against corruption helps the government to ensure rule of law and justice. “So the government should pay attention to the corrupt officials and bureaucrats, not reporters.”
Meanwhile, University Teachers’ Network, a platform for private and public university teachers of Bangladesh, on Wednesday issued a statement protesting the harassment and arrest of Islam.
The statement signed by 100 teachers of various universities and members of the network.
Earlier, the United Nations, Amnesty International, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and some other rights organizations also expressed concerns and urged the Bangladeshi government for the immediate release of Islam and ensuring freedom of expression and free media.
“The UN and donors should continue to take every opportunity to call on the government to repeal the Digital Security Act and release all those detained under it,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Bangladesh has also slipped one notch in this year’s World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders, also known as Reporters sans frontières (RSF), in April this year.
Bangladesh ranked 152nd out of 180 Countries while its position was 151st last year, according to the report.
The government assured of justice
Road Transport and Bridges Minister and ruling Awami League Party’s General Secretary Obaidul Quader, however, urged journalists to show patience and play a responsible role over the Islam issue.
He also assured journalists that justice would be ensured as a case has been filed and the matter is under trial.
Referring to the allegations of torturing Islam, Quader said “action would be taken as per the investigation committee report if there were any mistreatments to Rozina”.
Islam, a 42-year-old journalist with Prothom Alo, the largest circulated newspaper in Bangladesh, is known for her investigative reports that exposed corruption in the country and recently reported on the mismanagement of the public health sector in Bangladesh. Islam has been charged with theft and has been accused of photographing sensitive state documents, Harun-or-Rashid, an additional deputy commissioner of Dhaka Metropolitan Police, was quoted as saying. According to reports, the police got a complaint, that an on-duty police officer saw Islam in the office of Md Saiful Islam Bhuiyan, the personal secretary to the secretary of Health Services Division.
Updates in the previous Story
Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged authorities to drop oppressive charges against Islam and allow journalists to work freely.
“Bangladesh authorities should produce evidence of wrongdoing or immediately release Rozina Islam and stop arresting journalists for doing their job, which is also to highlight governance flaws,” said Brad Adams, HRW Asia Director. “Instead of locking up critics, encouraging a free press should be central to the government’s strategy to strengthen health services in combating the pandemic.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists also called for Islam’s immediate release. “We are deeply alarmed that Bangladesh officials detained a journalist and filed a complaint under a draconian colonial-era law that carries ridiculously harsh penalties,” said Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ’s senior Asia researcher in a statement.
After days of nationwide protests against her arrest, authorities in Bangladesh granted her conditional bail.
The writer is an Asia-based prize-winning freelance journalist who mainly writes on diplomacy, refugee, human rights, and climate change. His articles have been frequently published by DND News Agency, Turkish Anadolu Agency, TRT World, South Asian Monitor, and other media outlets as contents of agencies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org / https://twitter.com/mkbablu