Updated at 3:30 p.m. ET on 2020-01-17
The editor-in-chief of one of Bangladesh’s largest newspapers Thursday was named in an arrest warrant for alleged negligence in a teenager’s death by electrocution, officials said, while journalism advocates described the court action as another potential blow to press freedom in the country.
Matiur Rahman, who leads Prothom Alo, along with deputy editor Anisul Hoque, four other staffers and four employees of an event management firm, were named as targets of arrest warrants issued by a Dhaka court over the death of Naimul Abrar Rahat, 14. The teen died after being electrocuted during an event hosted by one of the paper’s magazines in November, a lawyer for the victim’s father and police said.
“Police have found the allegations against the accused valid. The death occurred because of negligence … So, we argued for issuing arrest warrants under Section 304 of the Penal Code. The court has taken the findings of the police to cognizance and have issued the arrest orders,” Omar Faruk Asif, an attorney representing Rahat’s father, who had filed complaints with police and a Dhaka court over the youth’s death, told BenarNews.
According to a report by the Associated Press, Rahat suffered an electrical shock by touching a wire behind the stage during a Nov. 1 celebration of the anniversary of the Kishor Alo magazine, a publication that caters to Bangladeshi youths. In his complaint, the teen’s father alleged that, because organizers of the event had been negligent in ensuring safety, his son was electrocuted.
Rahat, who died at a hospital, was a student at the Dhaka Residential Model College.
Late Thursday, Matiur Rahman, who is also Prothom Alo’s publisher, declined to comment on the warrant for his arrest, saying he could be held in contempt of court if he spoke publicly about the case.
The court issued the warrants against Rahman and the nine others under Section 304, which deals with “rash or negligent acts.” A person found guilty of committing a related offense can face up to five years in prison.
“The court, after receiving the case, had ordered to exhume the body for an autopsy and asked the Mohammadpur police station to investigate and file a report,” Abdul Alim, a police investigator, told BenarNews. “We have acted according to the court order and have filed our investigation report.”
The warrants for the arrests of the ten came out a day after New York-based Human Rights Watch, in its annual global report for 2019, criticized Bangladesh’s record for press freedom and free speech during the year after Hasina secured a record fourth term.
“The silencing of critics, journalists, students and activists did not subside even after the Awami League claimed the 2018 election,” the watchdog said in its report. “Instead, the landslide victory seemed only to embolden authorities in their crackdown.”
On Thursday, media personalities in Bangladesh said the warrants against Rahman and the others were highly questionable and could be a ploy to muzzle Prothom Alo.
“There is scope to question the motive behind implicating the editor in the case,” Ali R. Raji, a professor in the Mass Communication and Journalism Department at Chittagong University, told BenarNews.
Shaban Mahmud, the secretary general of the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists, demanded transparency in the case.
“We expect utmost transparency in issuing an arrest warrant against a prominent editor,” he said. “[W]e want to believe that the judicial process will not be influenced in any way.”
Kader Gani, the president of the Dhaka Union of Journalists, expressed doubt that Rahman, if arrested and prosecuted, would get a fair trial.
“It is a ploy of the government to keep Prothom Alo under pressure as part of its policy to muzzle the media,” he said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version misidentified professor Ali R. Raji.