Bangladesh journalist arrested after report on high food prices

Shamsuzzaman Shams, a correspondent for Prothom Alo, detained under the controversial Digital Security Act.

Journalists hold banners and placards as they protest against the newly passed Digital Security Act in front of the Press Club in Dhaka
Journalists in Dhaka protest against the Digital Security Act on October 11, 2018 [File: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters]

Dhaka, Bangladesh – Bangladeshi police have arrested a journalist of a leading daily under a controversial media law following the publishing of a story that criticised rising food prices in the country.

Shamsuzzaman Shams, a correspondent for Prothom Alo, was detained in the early hours of Wednesday at his home in the industrial town of Savar near the capital, Dhaka.

Bangladesh’s Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan later told reporters in his office that Shams was arrested under the Digital Security Act (DSA) as his report was “false, fabricated and ill-motivated”. The newspaper has denied the allegations.

Denounced by critics as “flawed” and “draconian”, the DSA allows for jail sentences of up to 14 years.

According to the Center for Governance Studies, a total of 138 cases were filed against journalists under the DSA between January 2019 and August 2022, in which a total of 280 people were accused and 84 were arrested.

Facebook post

The case against Shams was filed by a local leader of the governing Awami League in connection to the report that was published by Prothom Alo on March 26, Bangladesh’s Independence Day.

The story quotes a day labourer, Zakir Hossain, as saying, “What will I do with the independence if I can’t afford food? We need the independence of rice, fish and meat.”

Hours after the report was published in both print and online, lawyer Nijhoom Majumder posted a video on his Facebook page that has more than 200,000 followers declaring that he would investigate whether Hossain had indeed given that quote to Prothom Alo or the paper ran this story to “embarrass the government”.

In a Facebook post promoting the story, the publication used the photo of a different person also quoted in the story – a flower seller named Sobuj – alongside the quote given by Hossain.

Majumder tracked down Sobuj and said that he had not given that particular quote. Channel 71, a pro-government television station, accompanied the lawyer and ran a report accusing Prothom Alo of using false quotes.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Sajjad Sharif, the executive editor of Prothom Alo, admitted the Facebook post’s mistake but defended the story, saying the newspaper had not published any “false or fabricated quotes”.

“From our newspaper, we will provide all legal support to fight Shams’s case,” he said.

Prothom Alo removed the Facebook post and then reposted the story both on its website and Facebook page with a clarification.

Majumder told Al Jazeera that “it doesn’t matter whether Prothom Alo gives a clarification later on or not. The court will decide the outcome,” he said.

He also alleged that several media outlets, including Prothom Alo, criticised the government with false and fabricated facts.

“Their intention is to discredit what [Prime Minister] Sheikh Hasina has achieved for Bangladesh,” he added.

The latest data in February by the state-run Trading Corporation of Bangladesh, the prices of almost all essential items have increased by between 1 percent and 151 percent year-on-year on average in the country. The price of meat price has risen by an average of 39 percent, while rice was up by 30 percent.

According to research published on Wednesday by the South Asian Network of Economic Modeling, a Bangladeshi think tank, some 96 percent and 89 percent of poor people in the country have reduced their meat and fish consumption respectively in the last six months due to high inflation and rising food prices.

Qadaruddin Shishir, Bangladesh Fact Check editor at the Agency France Paris news agency, told Al Jazeera that Prothom Alo did not use any fake quotes in its story.

“Yes, there was confusion because Prothom Alo used the wrong photo with the quotes in its Facebook post but the newspaper issued a clarification. On the other hand, what lawyer Majumder or Channel 71 did was misleading. They tried to establish Sobuj gave that quotes when clearly it was given by day labourer Hossain whom they didn’t interview or bother to find,” he said.

Shishir said this was part of a misinformation campaign run by many pro-government activists and media. “They always try to muzzle down the media who run critical stories against the government narrative of continuous development,” he added.

Human rights groups have criticised Bangladesh for its press freedom record.

United States-based Human Rights Watch said last year that nearly 250 journalists were reportedly subjected to attacks, harassment, and intimidation by state officials and others affiliated with the Bangladesh government in 2020.

Global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders last year ranked Bangladesh 152nd out of 180 countries. It has called on Awami League “to end all intimidation of journalists who dare to continue criticising Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s policies”.

Earlier in March, the brother of journalist Zulkarnain Saer Khan, who worked on a report by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit about Bangladesh’s prime minister, alleged that he was beaten with iron rods by four men in Dhaka.

Last month, in an interview with Al Jazeera, Hasina said that from the formation of her government until now, “we have a continuous democratic process in our country and that is why the country has made progress”.

Source: Al Jazeera