On May 17, 2021, Rozina Islam, an award-winner Bangladeshi investigative journalist and a senior correspondent at Prothom Alo, was arrested after spending almost five hours in confinement at the Ministry of Health in Dhaka. Following her arrest, the journalist is facing charges of theft and espionage under the Official Secrets Act of 1923, a notorious law dating back to 1923, which prohibits access to confidential information. Her passport and mobile phone were confiscated during her arrest. Rozina lost her official accreditation to enter Bangladeshi ministries, resulting in her inability to exercise her journalistic profession after 17 years of work. If the journalist is convicted, she may face up to 14 years in prison.
Before her arrest, Rozina reported in several reports that exposed the Health Ministry’s mishandling of the pandemic. The journalist covered an alleged graft at the ministry, the corruption in the doctors’ recruitment process, and how they urgently needed medical equipment for coronavirus treatment that was left at Dhaka airport for months.
The journalist was kept in custody for seven days without further clarification of the reason behind refusing bail. The main intention behind this arbitrary detention was solely to intimidate Rozina. The magistrate of the trial's words for the journalist, “it is the duty of journalists to protect the image of society and state. I hope that from now on, we will all act responsibly” proves the intention.
Following her release, the state authorities continued targeting Rozina. The Financial Intelligence Unit authorities contacted all of the registered banks in Bangladesh for her account details in August. The letter asked the banks to release the transaction details of any account affiliated with Rozina. This persistent targeting affected Rozina’s mental health, and she was unable to focus on her work. Furthermore, CFWIJ confirmed that Rozina is being pushed to remain silent and not write any further investigation stories due to persistent surveillance since her arrest on May 17.
Rozina’s case is an example of the media crackdown in Bangladesh against independent media. The country ranked 152nd out of 180 countries in this year's World Press Freedom Index, by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The intimidation tactics indicate that critical voices are silenced through imprisonment. Since January alone, there have been nine cases of legal harassment, three journalists have been arrested, seven journalists were attacked, and one journalist was killed in Bangladesh (IPI Factsheet January - May 2021).
Furthermore, various laws have been enacted that hinder the work of independent journalists, such as the 2018 Digital Security Act, which allows police officers to detain people without a warrant. Rozina’s case highlights how other laws, such as the Official Secrets Act, which is aimed at protecting state secrets, are being used to silence critical journalists.
On September 15, Rozina will appear in court to defend herself against the baseless charges she was accused of. The CFWIJ and Free Press Unlimited will closely monitor and follow the trial. We are deeply concerned about the pending lawsuit and her treatment thus far. The previous arrest and lawsuit can be seen as part of a larger crackdown in Bangladesh on press freedom and journalists.
We, therefore, urge international organisations:
- To pressure the Bangladeshi authorities to immediately return Rozina’s passport and mobile phone;
- To strongly condemn the previous arrest and imprisonment of Rozina and to respect her right to a fair trial in the further duration of the case, starting with the hearing on September 15th;
- To urge the Bangladeshi authorities to immediately release all those who have been imprisoned solely for exercising their right of freedom of expression;
- To call on the Bangladeshi authorities to overhaul the Official Secrets Act, since it clashes with fundamental freedoms and increases the lack of transparency and accountability of crimes by public officials;
- To call on Bangladeshi authorities to overhaul the Digital Security Act, which is similarly used to silence critical voices and limits the fundamental right of freedom of expression.
The Coalition For Women In Journalism
Free Press Unlimited
Media Guard Association
James W. Foley Legacy Foundation
Overseas Press Club of America
Overseas Press Club Foundation
Valentina Gjorgievska Pargo, Journalist & Founder of INFE Mаcedonia
Marcela Turati, Mexican journalist, Quinto Elemento Lab
Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma
International Women’s Media Foundation
Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)
Women In Journalism Institute, Canada
Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom
CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
Sevim Arbana, Peace Woman and Human Rights Activist