Hundreds Protest After Bangladesh Arrests Journalist under Official Secrets Act

Ahammad Foyez
Hundreds Protest After Bangladesh Arrests Journalist under Official Secrets Act Police escort journalist Rozina Islam (center) to a court in Dhaka, May 18, 2021.

Hundreds of reporters demanded the release of a veteran journalist who was formally arrested Tuesday under Bangladesh's Official Secrets Act, on suspicion of photographing without permission documents related to the government’s purchase of COVID-19 vaccines from China and Russia.

Health Minister Zahid Maleque said the documents for the vaccine deals had non-disclosure clauses, but a lawyer for arrested journalist Rozina Islam accused the ministry of targeting her because of her recent reports that exposed alleged graft in the public health system.

“The [health] ministry officials filed the case against Rozina to get revenge as she wrote several reports on the corruption of the ministry officials,” said Ehsanul Haque Somaji, the attorney for Islam and her employer, Prothom Alo, one of Bangladesh’s most popular daily newspapers.

“It was a false case and the sections of the laws mentioned in the case were conflicting with each other,” he said, without elaborating.

Islam’s sister, Sabina Yesmin Juli, denied that the journalist took photographs while at the health ministry, where Islam went to meet a senior official and collect a document on Monday. Islam was waiting to meet the health secretary in person and visited the room of his personal secretary, Sabina Yesmin said.

“My sister told me that she did not take any pictures and did not take any documents from the office. Some employees tried to put some papers in her bag at the ministry room,” Sabina Yesmin told reporters.

International media advocacy and human rights groups condemned the arrest, saying Bangladesh’s government was cracking down on journalists doing critical reporting on the administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and other policies.

Islam was detained on Monday after a health-ministry official filed a complaint against her at the Shahbag police station under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act.

She was produced in court on Tuesday, where Metropolitan Magistrate Mohammad Jasim ordered Islam jailed. Jasim also scheduled a bail hearing for Islam on Thursday.

“She was trying to steal non-disclosure documents of the agreements with Russia and China that [were] signed recently,” Health Minister Maleque told reporters in Dhaka on Tuesday.

“We are committed to these states not to disclose the agreements. The documents were confidential, if they become public, then they [China and Russia] may refuse to provide us vaccines because of breach of promise. It could cause huge damage to the country,” the minister said.

Islam’s sister alleged that the journalist was harassed for five hours after being detained at the health ministry on Monday afternoon. Maleque denied that Islam was harassed or assaulted at his ministry.

Journalists with the Prothom Alo newspaper form a human chain in front of the daily’s office to protest the arrest of senior colleague Rozina Islam, in Dhaka, May 18, 2021. [BenarNews]

 ‘Exposed the weaknesses of the ministry’

Meanwhile, journalists nationwide staged demonstrations against Islam’s arrest.

In Dhaka, dozens of reporters gathered at the premises of the Shahbag Police Station to demand her unconditional release.

Elias Khan, general secretary of the National Press Club, said a delegation of journalists met with Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal.

“The minister told us that he is optimistic about the bail of Rozina in Thursday’s hearing,” Elias told BenarNews.

For the past several months, Islam was reporting on corruption in the country’s public health sector.

In an April 12 report, for instance, she reported that two members of a recruitment committee at the Directorate General of Health Services had complained about candidates allegedly paying off officials to be selected for posts.

Last June, she reported that the Health Minister had been tardy in attending to official duties during the pandemic.

“Her reports have clearly exposed the weaknesses of the ministry to safeguard the health rights of the people during the coronavirus pandemic,” the Law and Mediation Center group said in a statement, according to news agency Agence France-Presse.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, meanwhile, demanded that Islam be released and all charges against her be dropped.

“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,” Aliya Iftikhar, senior Asia researcher at CPJ, said in a statement.

She was referring to how the Official Secrets Act stipulates a maximum prison term of 14 years for anyone convicted under it.

“Bangladesh police and authorities should recognize that Rozina Islam is a journalist whose work is a public service and should immediately drop the case against her and allow her to go free,” Iftikhar said.

Dozens of cases have also been filed against journalists under another draconian act, the Digital Security Act of 2018.

In March, the United Nations human rights chief said “the ill-defined, overly broad provisions of the Digital Security Act … have been used to punish criticism of the government.”

Michelle Bachelet’s comments came after Mushtaq Ahmed, a 53-year old writer, died in jail after being incarcerated for 10 months under the DSA, for his criticism of the manner in which the government was handling the COVID-19 pandemic.


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