Global spotlight on PM Sheikh Hasina regime’s lapses after detention of reporter critical of it
Rozina Islam, known for investigative reports exposing corruption and nepotism in Bangladesh govt, was arrested under a British-era law, leading to an outcry by media and human rights bodies
Bam Ganatantrik Jote (Left Democratic) front comprising Bangladesh Samajtontri Dal, Communist Party of Bangladesh, Bangladesh Samajtontri Dal Marxvadi, United Communist League of Bangladesh, Samajtontri Andolan and Ganatantric Biplabi Dal have in a joint statement demanded that the criminal case against leading Bengali morninger Prothom Alo’s senior reporter Rozina Islam be withdrawn unconditionally.
The forty-two year-old reporter, arrested nearly a week ago, was released from the women’s cell of Kashimpur central prison in Dhaka on Sunday after a Dhaka court had granted her interim bail till July 15.
The intrepid reporter, well-known for having filed a series of investigative reports exposing corruption and nepotism, was accused of having used her cell phone without permission to photograph documents related to government negotiations to buy coronavirus vaccines in the room of an official involved in the process, despite her strong denial and terming the accusations as ‘concocted’.
An FIR was filed against Islam under the Official Secrets Act and Sections 379 and 411 of The Penal Code on a complaint filed by the Health Services Division with Shahbagh police and on 18 May, the court sent Islam to jail after rejecting the police's demand for her five-day remand.
Under the Official Secrets Act (framed by the British colonial era in undivided India in 1923), Islam faces charges attracting a 14-year imprisonment and even death penalty.
According to Bangladesh Health Minister Zahid Maleque, documents for the vaccine deals had non-disclosure clauses, and “She was trying to steal non-disclosure documents of the agreements with Russia and China, signed recently. We are committed to these states not to disclose the agreements. The documents were confidential. If they become public, then they may refuse to provide us vaccines because of breach of promise. It could cause huge damage to the country.”
Islam’s attorney Ehsanul Haque Somaji has flatly denied the accusation, stating, “It was a false case and the sections of the laws mentioned in the case were conflicting with each other.”
He further alleged that the Ministry of Health kept targeting Islam for her recent reports that exposed alleged graft in the public health system.
The BGJ condemned her detention for five and half hours at the secretariat where she allegedly underwent mental and physical torture, something unthinkable in a civilised state.
The health minister’s denial (and his allegation that the Islam slapped the departmental secretary) was termed as ‘shameless defence of gullible bureaucracy’.
The Awaji League-led coalition, headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed, is sharply divided over the arrest of Rozina Islam. While she was under detention, Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Moment said she would get fair justice. Apart from this assurance, he admitted that her arrested had affected Bangladesh’s image abroad.
Actually, Islam’s hard-hitting reports on corruption involving the Ministry of Health and others, involving millions of dollars spent on procuring health equipment to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, unnerved vested interests, which is why she was arrested and harassed in jail. Little wonder, the national media and working journalists were up in protest, forming human chains covering almost all districts, even Pabna, Tangail, Satkhira, Jessore and Noakhali.
Global human rights groups had categorically criticised the arrest and demanded Islam’s unconditional release.
Human Rights Watch appealed to the Bangladesh authorities to drop oppressive charges against Islam and allow journalists to work freely. Its Asia director Brad Adams stated, “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. 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 New York-headquartered HRW expressed concern on repression of dissent, not sparing journalists and scribes. “At least 247 journalists were reportedly subjected to attacks, harassment and intimidation by state officials and others affiliated with the government in 2020. More than 900 cases were filed under the Digital Security Act, with nearly 1,000 people charged and 353 detained, many of them journalists,” it observed.
A similar stand was taken by the Committee to Protect Journalists before Islam was released. CPJ’s Senior Asia Researcher Aliya Iftikhar issued a statement which said, “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.”
Civil rights groups are deeply worried over suppression of press freedom in Bangladesh in recent years, including unleashing of violence. Nine of them jointly wrote to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, drawing attention to increase in violent attacks at the behest of Bangladeshi government against journalists and suppression of press freedom.