Victim journalists fearful after arrest, torture

Muktadir Rashid | 01 August 2021

A number of journalists have said that their arrest, prosecution or intimidation have badly affected their journalistic performance.

They have said that they continue their carrer in journalism with the fear of further harassment or intimidation as their sufferings keep haunting them.

‘I cannot forget how I was confined, humiliated and tortured for hours. It’s indeed traumatic for any reporter,’ said Daily Prothom Alo reporter Rozina Islam, who was confined for five hours in a room at the health ministry, publicly harassed by sharing partial video clips of her ill treatment by officials and police members on May 17.

She was accused of lifting official documents and handed over to the police in a case filed with Shahbagh police station under the Official Secrets Act and the Penal Code.

Rozina, who has made a number of reports on corruption and irregularities in health sector, was released on bail on May 23 following national and international condemnations and protests.

New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists on July 7 termed the case against Rozina as one of the 10 most urgent cases of journalists under attack globally.

‘I was so traumatised that I thought whether I could report again against wrongdoers,’ said Thakurgan district correspondent of Daily Ittefaq and Independent TV Tanvir Hasan Tanu, who was arrested under the Digital Security Act on July 10 after he had reported substandard food supplies at Thakurgaon General Hospital.

Ailing Tanvir was released on bail after about 19 hours of the arrest.

Arrest, humiliation, prosecution, assaults and intimidation are not nothing new in Bangladesh but the use of special laws—the Digital Security Act and the Official Secrets Act—which rights defenders consider repressive, causes an extremely frightening situation for the journalists.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office of the United Kingdom in its 2020 report on Human Rights and Democracy on July 8 said, ‘Media freedom remained under pressure.’

British rights organisation Article 19 in its 2020 report recorded 293 attacks on 265 journalists in Bangladesh.

According to the report, 16.32 per cent of the incidents were physical assaults in which 11 journalists sustained grievous injuries and 92 suffered minor injuries and 47 received threats.

In 71.95 per cent of the attacks, journalists and other communicators were prosecuted for speaking out or expressing their views online, it added.

Hedait Hossain Molla of Daily Dhaka Tribune was arrested on January 1, 2019, a few days after he had reported miscalculations in vote counting by the returning officer in Khulna in the national elections on December 30, 2018.

Hedait, the first journalist prosecuted under the Digital Security Act, told New Age that following his release on January 3, 2019, he always worried about his carrier in journalism fearing further repression and had not dared to share his reports in social media.

He said that the police investigation relieved him of the charge but he did not get justice for the harassment. ‘None was punished for the harassment’, he added.

In a report launched in April 2021, the Centre for Governance Studies analysed 426 cases filed under the act between January 1, 2020 and March 25, 2021 naming 913 people, including 97 journalists.

It said that 273 of the accused people were arrested and occupations of 240 of them were confirmed. About 13 per cent of them were journalists.

Rights organisation Odhikar in its annual report 2020, released on January 25, 2021, stated that the government continued to put pressure on the media to disrupt objective and impartial news distribution, which forced many media outlets and journalists to maintain self-censorship.

The report said that 154 journalists were injured, assaulted, attacked, harassed and threatened, 7 were arrested, 1 was tortured, 3 were abducted and 70 other journalists were prosecuted in 2020 while carrying out their professional duty.

Odhikar in its first quarterly report on April 8 stated that one journalist was killed, three were injured, 11 were assaulted, 12 were attacked and two were threatened while discharging professional duty.

Hedait alleged that the district administration had denied him of invitation to its programmes for a long time hampering his reporting.

Dhaka Tribune’s correspondent Ariful Islam Rigan was picked up by an executive magistrate-led mobile court, tortured in custody overnight and sent to jail in Kurigram in March 2020. The mobile court jailed him for a year and fined Tk 50,000 on allegation of the recovery of half a bottle of alcohol and 150gm marijuana from his possession after he had written a report that agitated Kurigram deputy commissioner Sultana Pervin.

‘I am yet to forget what I experienced after being picked up from my house. I was released but I am yet to get justice for the torture in the custody,’ he said. 

There was no specific data of how many journalists left their profession or even the country following intimidation.

The governments always try to create an environment of fear for journalists as they cannot hold sway over the mass people through the informed and critical information, said former National Human Rights Commission chairman Mizanur Rahman, also Dhaka University law professor.

For this reason, he said, nothing happened to the health ministry but a journalist faced the trouble for reporting corruption and irregularities in the health sector.

It is the responsibility of the government to ensure press freedom in Bangladesh, said information secretary Md Mokbul Hossain.

The information and broadcasting ministry is working for the betterment of the journalists, he said.

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