Human Rights Watch has called on Bangladeshi authorities to drop all charges against renowned journalist, Rozina Islam.
Her colleagues believe that her detention is related to her reporting on corruption and mismanagement in the public health sector, including the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Islam is accused under sections 3 and 5 of the Official Secrets Act and sections 379 and 411 of the Penal Code, for allegedly attempting to “collect sensitive government documents and taking photos of them” at the Health Ministry.
If convicted, she faces up to 14 years in prison and the possibility of the death penalty.
According to reports, Islam went to the Health Ministry on May 17, 2021, for a meeting with the health services secretary. She was confined to a room there for nearly six hours, during which she fell ill and fainted, before being taken to the police. The complaint filed by the Health Ministry states that she had taken government documents related to the procurement of Covid-19 vaccines. Islam denies these allegations.
Brad Adams, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement:
“Bangladesh authorities should produce evidence of wrongdoing or immediately release Rozina Islam and stop arresting journalists for doing their job, which is also to highlight governance flaws. Instead of locking up critics, encouraging a free press should be central to the government’s strategy to strengthen health services in combatting the pandemic.”
The arrest of Islam has sparked protests among journalists across Bangladesh and has been condemned by several organizations, including the Bangladesh Editor’s Council, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the UN. The Bangladesh Editor’s Council has said that Islam’s arrest under a colonial-era law is “the manifestation of the negative attitude and the evil mentality of the authorities concerned to gag newspapers.”
Bangladesh authorities have a history of going after journalists and the media for reporting critically on the government’s response to the pandemic.
In May 2020, authorities arrested four people and charged seven others for “spreading rumors and misinformation on Facebook” because they criticized the government’s response to the pandemic. One of the arrested, Mushtaq Ahmed, died in custody on February 25 after being held in pre-trial detention for nine months during which it has been credibly alleged that he was tortured.
The authorities have also increased surveillance of anyone who might spread “rumors” about the Covid-19 pandemic and ramped up media censorship. Human Rights Watch and eight other organizations wrote to Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, on World Press Freedom Day, on May 3, raising concerns over continuing attacks on the media including arbitrary arrests, torture, and extrajudicial killings.
Authorities are admonished to produce evidence of wrongdoing or immediately release her and should encourage a free press as a central strategy to strengthen health services in combatting the pandemic.
The arrest of Islam has sparked protests and has been condemned by several organizations and the UN. Bangladesh authorities have a history of going after journalists and the media for reporting critically on the government’s response to the pandemic.