When journalism is criminalised

Rozina Islam has been arrested for a standard journalistic practice in Bangladesh — she should be applauded, not prosecuted.

When journalism is criminalised
Rozina Islam, a senior journalist from the leading newspaper Prothom Alo is taken to jail on May 18th following a court hearing after being detained by the police for alleged offences under the Bangladesh Penal Code and Official Secrets Act. Photo: Harun-Or-Rashid/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News

Every day, dozens of Bangladeshi journalists descend on the Secretariat, the complex of buildings in the capital city which houses the government ministries. These reporters have a special pass that gives them access directly into the buildings where ministers and their civil servants carry out the main work of government business. Some of these journalists are reporters that service the Secretariat beat, while others are journalists who have a different beat — health or crime, for example — but are given access to the Secretariat.

These journalists walk freely through the corridors of the ministries, knocking on any of the office doors, and meeting bureaucrats at all levels including ministers. Their role is to find stories for their papers and they will often come back to their offices with “chotha”, copies of bundles of official documents which civil servants have provided them. Much of the collected  information allows journalists to write accurately on complex policy issues, but there will be some which provide the basis for more investigative pieces of reporting. Of course, whether these particular stories  are published or not depends on the political complexion of the media outlets which the reporters work for and the risks their editors are willing to take in publishing articles critical of the government.

One such reporter with a Secretariat pass is Rozina Islam, a journalist at the country’s leading Bangla newspaper Prothom Alo, who on May 17th was arrested under the Official Secrets Act of 1923 and the Penal Code 1860, after being detained for five hours inside a ministry office. Yet, what she is really accused of doing is standard journalistic practice in Bangladesh — no different from what dozens of other reporters with access to the Secretariat do on a daily basis. They meet with joint secretaries, deputy secretaries, and those below them and persuade these bureaucrats to provide them copies of documents. The government — including all previous administrations — have been well aware that this is the practice. It is in fact the information ministry that provides journalists with the Secretariat passes and allows them to wander through the ministry corridors, meeting with the civil servants.

It is for this reason that the detention and subsequent arrest of Rozina is highly arbitrary. If the police want to start arresting journalists for accessing Secretariat documents, they should arrest most of the Secretariat beat reporters and other journalists with Secretariat passes, along with the hundreds of civil servants that assist them. The health ministry has claimed that Rozina “stole” documents — but this is unlikely and officials have to say this in order to justify an arrest as well as avoid arresting the civil servants that copied documents for her.

But why was Rozina specifically targeted now?

It is likely that the health ministry was particularly angered by a series of stories that she has written on corruption, incompetence and mismanagement in the ministry, starting in June 2020 when she reported on the health minister’s failure to attend office for at least a month at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Nearly a year later, on April 12th, Prothom Alo ran her article about large scale corruption in the appointment of ministry staff. The story was based around a letter sent to the secretary of the health services department of the health ministry by members of the recruitment committee which claimed that candidates had to pay between Taka 15-20 lakhs ($17,000 to $23,000) to ensure that they passed the written test. In addition, a member of the recruitment committee claimed, according to the report by Rozina Islam, that a deputy secretary had offered him one crore taka ($118,000) for ensuring that the committee would agree to recruit a list of people who had already paid the bribe for a guaranteed pass in the written test.

The following day she wrote an article about how much-needed oxygen supplies were lying in Dhaka airport for ten months, and 300 ventilators remained unused at the Central Medical Stores Depot, due to mismanagement of a World Bank/ADP funded health ministry project.  

Then on April 20th, Rozina wrote another article about irregularities in the purchase of Taka 350 crore ($41.3 million) based on a letter sent by the director of the central pharmacy to ministers.

And then on May 18th, the newspaper ran another of Rozina’s articles about how the Bangladesh government had not yet signed a formal agreement with Russia to jointly produce a coronavirus vaccine, contrary to what the foreign minister had earlier stated.

These are all well researched articles, based on leaks from the country’s bureaucrats, highly embarrassing for the health ministry — and are almost certainly the reason for her arrest. Her detention should be seen as reflecting the deterioration in media freedoms  within the country.

Every country has its own particular media culture. In many places, the idea that journalists can roam around ministries and enter the offices of civil servants at any time would be seen as highly unusual. But it is a long-standing practice in Bangladesh — and it does allow reporters working for the small number of independent newspapers to publish very important stories that expose corruption and hold the government to account. In a growing authoritarian country, where there is limited transparency in many areas of government, this is a very important accountability mechanism.

As long as — and particularly because — this remains a standard journalistic practice in Bangladesh, one which is facilitated and known about by the government, no journalist should be prosecuted for using this route to gather information.

Rozina should instead be widely applauded.●

David Bergman (@TheDavidBergman) — a journalist based in Britain — is Editor, English of Netra News.