The arrest of a female Bangladeshi investigative reporter who wrote scathing stories on the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has triggered protests by hundreds of reporters.
Rozina Islam, an investigative journalist for Prothom Alo newspaper, the country’s largest circulated newspaper, was detained late on Monday under the Official Secrets Act, police said.
She appeared in court on Tuesday charged with stealing health ministry documents under the act. She is set to appear in court on Thursday.
Islam, known for unearthing government corruption, faces up to 14 years in prison and the death penalty if formally charged and convicted.
Rights groups and media watchdogs say a crackdown on the media has grown during the coronavirus crisis and hundreds of journalists went to the Dhaka police station where the 42-year-old reporter was taken.
The Committee to Protect Journalists called for Islam’s immediate release. “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 in a statement.
The authorities must drop the cases against the journalist and release her immediately in the interest of the state's international commitment at protecting the right to freedom of expression.
“Bangladesh police and authorities should recognise 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.”
Some journalists tried to block entrances to the building and the protests continued on Tuesday.
Before her formal detention, Islam spent five hours at the health ministry, which accused her of stealing documents, according to a ministry complaint seen by AFP news agency.
Pandemic worsened press freedom
Leaders of journalist unions and advocacy groups who spoke at the protests said Islam had been arrested because of her reports on the government’s response to the pandemic.
Her stories included how urgent medical equipment was left at Dhaka airport for months, bribes were being offered to recruit doctors and procurement at the health ministry was plagued with corruption.
“Her reports have clearly exposed the weaknesses of the ministry to safeguard the health rights of the people during the coronavirus pandemic,” the Law and Mediation Centre group said.
It demanded Islam’s immediate release.
Bangladesh embassy in Doha denied that Islam was arrested for her “previous professional work”, reiterating that she was found in “unauthorised possession of confidential and sensitive” official documents.
“The regular course of law would be pursued and the government has full confidence in the judiciary regarding the fair trial of the case,” it said in a statement mailed to Al Jazeera.
Bangladesh has reported just over 12,000 coronavirus deaths and nearly 800,000 infections, but experts say this grossly underreports the true toll.
Activists also say the pandemic has worsened freedom of the press in Bangladesh, with the government increasingly using a draconian digital security law to stifle criticism.
According to Rezaur Rahman Lenin, a UN rights consultant, at least 85 journalists have been charged under the 2018 law during the pandemic.
Saad Hammadi, South Asia expert for Amnesty International, said Islam’s arrest “is an attack on journalistic freedom.
“The authorities must drop the cases against the journalist and release her immediately in the interest of the state’s international commitment at protecting the right to freedom of expression,” he said.
Earlier this month, nine non-governmental organisations wrote to Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, against the Bangladesh government’s increasingly violent crackdown on media freedom.
At least 247 journalists have reportedly been subjected to attacks and intimidation by officials and others last year, according to a report by Amnesty International.