Rozina, who had been unjustly harassed and mistreated by the officials of the health ministry, was granted bail after six days behind bars. Both the laws under which she was charged are bailable and so she could have been given bail immediately. So there is scope to question who are responsible for her six days in jail and this certainly will be discussed. The question of remand must also be raised. The court rejected the remand plea on the very first day, but that does not mean the issue should be overlooked. It has become a normal practice nowadays to appeal for remand the moment a case is filed. And it is a matter of grave concern that the police completely ignore the Supreme Court’s directives concerning remand — for interrogation to take place in presence of a lawyer, medical treatment in case of illness and so on.
The strong stance of those who relentlessly protested against the injustice towards Rozina, who stood up for press freedom, has created a new precedence. This took place within the country and outside, simultaneously. What was the reason behind this staunch protest and solidarity? In short, it was objective journalism. Her professionalism was reflected in her rising above political bias to report on serious instances of corruption, injustice and discrepancy. She won repute among readers of the anti-corruption mindset by reporting on the sentence of murder convict Joseph being commuted and later pardoned, the presidential pardon for the son of the notorious municipal mayor Taher of Lakhsmipur, at least half a dozen secretaries using false freedom fighter certificates to avail various benefits, fake gold used for crests, corruption in the jails, the health minister remaining away from office for a months during the pandemic, corruption in the health ministry and more.
It is a matter of professionalism. Not all journalists receive the same degree of empathy. Actually, in order to prove press freedom, the government or leaders of the ruling party reel out a long list of dozens of TV channels, hundreds of newspapers and thousands of online news portals. But in most cases these lack the elements of journalism. It is now clear that the people have no interest in the journalism that spews out praise or criticism for vested political purposes. And because of the exponential spread of social media, somehow or the other news of public sufferings is exposed. That is why the people expect mainstream media to reveal the details behind these sufferings, to expose and to analyse.
The Digital Security Act is the most feared obstacle to these expectations of the public. In their objection to this law, the Editors Council referred to at least eight sections that were non-bailable and obstacles to the free flow of information and freedom of expression. The unofficial figures of the cases, arrests and punitive action taken under this law over the two and a half years since its enactment, indicate what a menacing weapon it has become to suppress divergent views and to conceal the truth. According to a report of Prothom Alo last December, over 2000 cases were filed under this law in just a matter of two years, meaning three cases a day, on average. And in this study on how the Digital Security Act 2018 was being applied, professor Ali Riaz said that it was politicians who were most accused under this law and then journalists.
Other than the government, everyone wants the controversial clauses of this law to be repealed. Those in power are happiest with the non-bailable clauses of this law because this can be used to keep anyone in jail for months on end even before trial. The question may be asked as to why the Digital Security Act was not used against Rozina. Perhaps by using the nearly 100-year-old Official Secrets Act, the government let the people know that they had quite few more laws up their sleeve. Other than the charges under the Official Secrets Act, the video clips that went viral on social media showing how Rozina was mistreated in the secretariat, were also unprecedented. Such misbehaviour by government officials is not only unacceptable, but also a punishable crime, including attempt to murder, under the criminal code.
There was an unprecedented wave of protest across the country against the mistreatment of a journalist. Journalists turned up at police stations, turning themselves in for voluntary arrest. The people took to the streets not just in the capital city Dhaka. In the remote town Naogaon, Abdul Malek Dewan went on hunger strike. Women journalists in Dhaka also took up a token hunger strike.
There were two more reasons behind the widespread protests. These protests were a reflection of the people’s mounting grievances and anger against rampant corruption and irregularities. And the reason why journalists rose above the political divide to join in the protests was to stand beside someone who had written against the suffocating environment which had prevented them from writing.
Why did this arrest catch international attention? From the statements of the ruling party leaders, it seems the credit for the protest overseas goes to BNP. They also pointed to the civil society’s reactions within the country. But that is not the real picture. While democracy is being targeted worldwide, freedom of the press, which is the medium of free expression, has gradually been prioritised by those who uphold democracy. The democracies of the west in recent times have been taking quite a few steps for the protection of press freedom and journalists. One of the major measures was embargo on those who oppressed journalists.
Through the joint efforts of the UK and Canada, in 2019 an initiative was taken up to encourage the government of various countries to join in the global pledge to protect journalists and the media. An independent commission headed by the former chief justice of the UK, Lord David Newburgh, drew up the recommendations of what this pledge would include. His deputy in the commission was Amal Clooney, the lawyer who stood up for press freedom and who had defended an Al Jazeera journalist in the Egyptian court. She also fought the legal battle for Rappel editor Maria Ressa who had invoked the anger of the Philippines authorities. The recommendations of this panel included a travel ban on persons involved in oppressing journalists and freezing their assets overseas. It also recommended similar action against public prosecutors and judges who were involved in the unjust imprisonment of journalists. The UK and the US have already started imposing such embargoes. There have been embargoes imposed against those involved in the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and also certain government officials of Russia, China and Hong Kong. That is why the oppression of journalists in any country understandably catches global attention.
The Dhaka-based newspaper New Age’s cartoonist Mehdi used the picture of Rozina encaged in a prison van as a poignant symbol of press freedom behind bars. Rozina has been able to return to her 9-year-old daughter, but has press freedom been able to return to the newspaper pages, to the televisions or the mobile screens? As long as the Digital Security Act, Official Secrets Act and the defamation clauses of the penal code remain, this cannot be ensured. That is why, like the fight for Rozina’s freedom, the fight for freedom of the press must continue as a united struggle.
* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist and columnist.
* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.
Updated On: 25 May 2021