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Bangladesh Journalist’s Arrest Highlights Growing Curbs on Press Freedom

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Bangladesh Journalist’s Arrest Highlights Growing Curbs on Press Freedom

Investigative reporter Rozina Islam was arrested on charges of espionage many consider dubious.

Bangladesh Journalist’s Arrest Highlights Growing Curbs on Press Freedom
Credit: Flickr/Hassan Sami Adnan

Around 3:30 pm on May 17, Prothom Alo senior correspondent and investigative reporter Rozina Islam visited the Health Ministry in Dhaka to meet the Health Services Division Secretary and perform her duties as a diligent reporter covering the nooks and crannies of Bangladesh’s COVID-19 response. After a few hours, strange news broke out that Rozina had been detained in the Health Ministry without any official arrest warrant issued by the authorities.

Journalists from around the city rushed to the Health Ministry and protested, demanding Rozina’s release. After spending five hours detained inside the building, Rozina was handed over to the police. The Health Ministry lodged a case under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, accusing Rozina of espionage. In the following days, journalists throughout the country protested the government’s actions and demanded Rozina’s immediate release.

According to the complaint filed by the authorities, an on-duty police officer in the Secretariat saw Rozina in the Health Services Division secretary’s office around 2:55 p.m. Immediately, officials, including Additional Secretary Kazi Jebunnesa Begum and the secretary’s aide Saiful Islam, rushed into the office and questioned Rozina about her motives.

At one point, Additional Secretary Kazi Jebunnesa Begum “frisked” Rozina’s body and allegedly recovered some ministry files. The complaint also mentions that Rozina’s phone had photos of documents that she had taken without the ministry’s permission.

However, Rozina denied all allegations against her. The Prothom Alo investigative reporter claimed she did not take any files from the room. Rather, she went in to meet the Health Services Division secretary at around 3:30 p.m. on May 17, when the secretary’s aide Islam misbehaved with her, and she was put in confinement for five hours.

Commenting on the allegation that the additional secretary grabbed Rozina by her neck at a May 18 press conference, Health Minister Zahid Maleque claimed that it was an unfortunate incident but Rozina was “not physically assaulted” inside the Secretariat. “She [Additional Secretary Kazi Jebunnesa Begum] told me that Ms. Islam was not physically assaulted. Rather, the journalist attacked her. When an attempt was made to stop Ms. Islam after the incident, she scratched her with her nails and slapped the additional secretary,” Maleque said.

On May 18, just a day after her five-hour confinement in the Secretariat, a Dhaka court sent Rozina to jail.

During the May 18 press conference, Maleque also alleged that Rozina tried to take a government file, containing state secrets, without appropriate permissions. The minister also elaborated on seemingly unfounded claims that Rozina was confined at the secretariat room for six hours, claiming that 5-6 officials of different ranks were present at the time, and the police arrived within half an hour of the incident. Rozina and her family members countered that she was “assaulted” because she reported on the corruption at the Health Ministry and committed no crime.

On the same day, the managing editor of Prothom Alo – Rozina’s boss – Sajjad Sharif said she is a veteran and award-winning journalist who has unearthed all sorts of corruption within the government ranks and assisted the state to take corrective measures based on her reports. Public health has become an important point of focus since last year. Rozina has reported on various irregularities, corruption, and mismanagement in the health sector during the pandemic, only to succumb to the vengeance of the ones angry about her reports, Sharif said.

Her latest investigative report described corruption in the Directorate General of Health Services recruitment committee. The recruitment initiative was primarily targeted to hire technical manpower in the government hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, Rozina’s report outlined that a section of candidates who sat for the recruitment exams paid 1.5-2 million Bangladeshi takas ($17,694 -$ 23,592) each to pass them. Suspicion grew when candidates who scored 60-79 marks out of a possible 80 in the written exams could not answer questions during verbal tests. Simultaneously, candidates with lower scores in the written exams did well in the verbal tests. Rozina also outlined that a member of the recruitment committee was offered 10 million Bangladeshi takas ($1,17,961) in cash up front, with promises of more money and a promotion later if certain candidates were made to pass the verbal tests.

Rozina’s arrest comes at a time when the Bangladesh government has been accused of aggressively suppressing media freedom. Notable journalists in Dhaka, along with human rights groups, have commented that Rozina has been arrested because she honestly reported on the government’s response to the pandemic.

Saad Hammadi, South Asia expert for Amnesty International, said “the circumstances of Rozina Islam’s arrest and the failure of the authorities to provide concrete evidence pointing to a recognizable criminal offense raise further concerns that she is being targeted for her critical reporting.” “In the absence of such evidence, the authorities must release her immediately.”

According to Rezaur Rahman Lenin, a United Nations rights consultant, 85 journalists have been charged under the notorious 2018 Digital Security Act (DSA) — considered the Bangladesh government’s first tool to suppress the free press — during the coronavirus pandemic. Most notable of those charged was writer Mushtaq Ahmed, who died in prison on February 25 of this year after being locked up under DSA for nine months.

According to Amnesty International, at least 247 journalists have reportedly been subjected to attacks and intimidation by officials and others in 2020.

On May 23, Rozina Islam was granted bail under the condition that she surrenders her passport to a lawyer and a legal guardian.