Arrest of journalist in Bangladesh highlights growing restrictions on press freedom – The Diplomat

At around 3:30 p.m. on May 17, Prothom Alo’s senior correspondent and investigative journalist Rozina Islam visited the Ministry of Health in Dhaka to meet with the secretary of the Health Services Division and perform her duties as diligent reporter covering the ins and outs of Bangladesh’s COVID-19 response. . After a few hours, a strange news broke that Rozina had been detained at the Ministry of Health without any official arrest warrant issued by the authorities.

Journalists from across town 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 filed a complaint under the Colonial-era Official Secrets Act, accusing Rozina of spying. Over the next few days, journalists from across the country protested the government’s actions and demanded Rozina’s immediate release.

According to the complaint filed by the authorities, a police officer on duty from the Secretariat saw Rozina in the office of the secretary of the Division of Health Services at around 2:55 pm. Immediately, officials, including Deputy Secretary Kazi Jebunnesa Begum and the assistant of Secretary Saiful Islam, rushed into the office and questioned Rozina about her motives.

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

However, Rozina has denied all of the allegations against her. The Prothom Alo investigative reporter claimed she took no records of the play. Instead, she went to meet the secretary of the Health Services Division around 3:30 p.m. on May 17, when the secretary’s assistant, Islam, behaved badly with her, and she was taken into custody. for five hours.

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

On May 18, just one day after his five-hour incarceration at the Secretariat, a court in Dhaka sent Rozina to jail.

During the May 18 press conference, Maleque also alleged that Rozina attempted to take a government file, containing state secrets, without the proper permissions. The minister also developed seemingly unfounded claims that Rozina was confined in the secretariat room for six hours, claiming that 5 to 6 officials of different ranks were present at that time and that the police arrived in the half. hour after incident. Rozina and members of her family replied that she had been “assaulted” for reporting corruption to the Ministry of Health and had not committed any crime.

On the same day, the editor of Prothom Alo – the boss of Rozina – Sajjad Sharif said that she was a seasoned and award-winning journalist who exposed all kinds of corruption in the government ranks and helped the state to take corrective action based on its reports. . Public health has become an important point of attention since last year. Rozina has reported various irregularities, corruption and mismanagement in the health sector during the pandemic, only to succumb to revenge from those angry at her reports, Sharif said.

His latest investigative report described corruption within the Health Services Directorate General’s recruiting committee. The main focus of the recruitment initiative was to hire technical staff at public hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, Rozina’s report pointed out that a section of candidates who sat for recruitment exams paid 1.5-2 million Bangladeshi takas ($ 17,694 – $ 23,592) each to pass them. Mistrust grows when the candidates who obtained 60 to 79 points out of the 80 possible in the written exams were unable to answer the questions in the oral tests. At the same time, candidates with lower marks on the written exams performed well on the oral tests. Rozina also pointed out that a member of the recruiting committee was offered 10 million Bangladeshi takas ($ 1,17,961) in cash up front, with promises of more money and promotion later if some candidates had to pass the verbal tests.

Rozina’s arrest comes at a time when the Bangladesh government is accused of aggressively cracking down on media freedom. Prominent journalists in Dhaka, as well as human rights groups, said Rozina was arrested because she had honestly reported on the government’s response to the pandemic.

Saad Hammadi, South Asia expert for Amnesty International, said that “the circumstances of Rozina Islam’s arrest and the authorities’ failure to provide concrete evidence indicating a recognized criminal offense raises concerns that it is targeted for his 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 indicted under the infamous Digital Security Act of 2018 (DSA) – considered the Bangladesh government’s first tool to suppress the free press – during the coronavirus pandemic. The most notable of the defendants was the writer Mushtaq Ahmed, who died in prison on February 25 this year after being locked up under the DSA regime for nine months.

According to Amnesty International, at least 247 journalists were victims of attacks and intimidation by officials and others in 2020.

On May 23, Rozina Islam was released on bail on condition that she hand over her passport to a lawyer and legal guardian.

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