Journalists in Bangladesh are up in arms against the arrest, under the Official Secrets Act, of a leading investigative journalist Rozina Islam on the charge of “stealing” documents from the Health Ministry.

In an unusual reaction, Rozina’s journalistic fraternity has sought to join her in custody. Editors and international rights watchdogs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have condemned the arrest.

Their concern is heightened by the fact that Bangladesh is ranked 152 nd., out of 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

The adverse reaction to the arrest both at home and abroad has embarrassed the Sheikh Hasina government. Even as detectives were telling the media that they would not be able to get to the bottom of the “espionage” before July, and the Dhaka Metropolitan Magistrate was dragging his feet on granting Rozina bail, an embarrassed government transferred the official who filed the case against her.

Foreign Minister A.K.Abdul Momen said: “This is a regrettable and unexpected incident for the government. As the Foreign Ministry, we face questions over this. Such incidents occurred only because of a few government employees, and it should not be repeated. Journalists are a very helpful force for the government as they unearth corruption and inform both the people and the authorities. Corruption would not be revealed without journalists.”

Rozina, who had exposed high corruption in the Health Ministry, especially during the pandemic in the Bengali daily Prothom Alo, had gone to the Health Ministry on May 17 for news gathering at the invitation of her source, a Deputy Secretary Shibbir Ahmad. But she was detained at the office of Md Saiful Islam Bhuiyan, an aide to Health Services Secretary Lokman Hossain Miah, for five hours.

She was then taken to Shahbagh Police Station around 8:30 pm and Deputy Secretary of Health Services Shibbir Ahmed filed a case against her under the Official Secrets Act. According to senior Dhaka journalists, it was a sting operation.

Writing in The Daily Star Deputy Editor Syed Abraful Haque said: “ A journalist was being hounded like a criminal over her attempt to collect information. Any attempt by journalists to get hold of information is not a crime but an act of courageous journalism. The sole purpose behind this courageous effort is to inform the people and their representatives in public offices. And, journalists' dig at information is made lawful by Article 39 of the constitution. Having been safeguarded by the constitution, they use this freedom of expression to help fight corruption and injustices, and reveal what those in corridors of power want to hide. So, it's not reporters but their harassers who should be put in the dock.”

Haque further said: “The intention of the government machinery is quite apparent: suppress the flow of information to media outlets, at any cost. The Official Secrets Act of 1923 and the Digital Security Act of 2018 are ready to be used against journalists to stem the flow of information. In addition to the laws, the government order on public servants "say nothing to media" is also in full force. If the flow of public interest information is choked, it's only natural for journalists to try desperate methods. Possibly, that's the case with Rozina.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists has called on Bangladeshi authorities to immediately release journalist Rozina, withdraw the investigation against her, and stop arresting journalists under the Official Secrets Act.

“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,” said Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ’s senior Asia researcher.

“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 added.

Legal experts point out that the Official Secrets Act contradicts the Bangladesh constitution. Questions have also been asked about whether the Official Secrets Act is applicable to journalists.

Supreme Court lawyer, Tanzim Al Islam, said that the Official Secrets Act is contradictory to the Public-Interest Information Disclosure Act (Provide Protection) of 2011 because the latter guarantees the protection of the people who disclose the information and in some cases stipulates rewards for them. Bangladesh journalists can use the Public-Interest Information Disclosure Act passed a decade ago, but they do not, pointed out lawyer Jyotrimoy Barua.

Nine Bangladeshi nongovernmental organizations said in a letter to Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, that UN experts should publicly and vigorously express concerns over continuing attacks on the media including arbitrary arrests, torture, and extrajudicial killings, and use all possible means to urge the Bangladeshi authorities to protect and respect freedom of expression.

According Human Rights Watch, at least 247 journalists were reportedly subjected to attacks, harassment, and intimidation by state officials and others affiliated with the Bangladesh government in 2020. More than 900 cases were filed under the draconian Digital Security Act with nearly 1,000 people charged and 353 detained – many of them journalists.

“Bangladeshi journalists are risking arbitrary arrest, torture, and their lives just to do their jobs,” said Angelita Baeyens, Vice President of International Advocacy and Litigation at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. “The UN and concerned governments should stand with journalists and make clear to the Bangladesh government that freedom of expression is essential to democracy.”

In recent months, a number of Bangladeshi journalists have been targeted for exposing government corruption or for expressing dissent. At least 17 journalists, a majority of them photographers, were injured covering protests over the visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in March this year. Demonstrators and police officers hit journalists with pistol butts, sticks, iron rods, stones, and bricks. Journalists shot by rubber bullets sustained bruises, swelling, bleeding, broken bones, a dislocated shoulder, and a cracked skull.

Media critical of the ruling Awami League party is frequently censored. The Bangladesh government has allegedly targeted websites and YouTube channels of Bangladeshi dissidents abroad, media reports said. In March, for instance, the Indian news website was inaccessible in Bangladesh, after publishing an article by a Bangladeshi writer criticizing Gowher Rizvi, a top adviser of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

The HRX went on to say that “with widespread repression of the media and the harassment of editors who publish reports critical of the government, journalists have taken to self-censoring at unprecedented levels given the risks of imprisonment or closure of media outlets.”

“The authorities continue to use the Digital Security Act (DSA) to harass and indefinitely detain journalists, activists, and others critical of the government, resulting in a chilling effect on expression of dissent. Bangladesh authorities are poised to undertake even more prosecutions of DSA cases, as the Law Ministry has approved a proposal to expand the number of special tribunals specifically for these types of cyber crimes.”

“The UN and donors should continue to take every opportunity to call on the government to repeal the Digital Security Act and release all those detained under it,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW.

RSF calls for the release of Bangladeshi journalist Rozina Islam, unfairly  accused of espionage | RSF