Bangladeshi reporter arrested and publisher sued in growing crackdown on government’s critics
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for the immediate release of a reporter for Bangladesh’s leading daily newspaper, who is facing a possible 14-year jail sentence on spurious charges in reprisal for his reporting, while his newspaper’s editor and publisher is himself being prosecuted on the same charges. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina must end her government’s increasingly authoritarian response to criticism in the media, RSF says.
Shamsuzzaman Shams, a reporter for Prothom Alo, the country’s leading Bengali-language daily, was dragged from his bed at his home in a northwestern suburb of the capital, Dhaka, at 4 a.m. yesterday (29 March) by a team of eight policeman sent to arrest him. They left with him, his laptop, a computer storage device and two phones, RSF was told by a relative present at the time.
The police did not show any warrant when they arrested him, but the interior ministry finally acknowledged a few hours later that he had been arrested under the Digital Security Act (DSA) for writing a “false, fabricated and ill-motivated” article. He was eventually sent to jail this morning (30 March).
It was also on the basis of the DSA that, a few hours later, a first investigation report was filed against the editor and publisher of Prothom Alo, Matiur Rahman. Sections 25, 31 and 35, which punish, among other things, the publication of “any information that tarnish the image of the nation”, are invoked.
“Make no mistake, the arrest of Shamsuzzaman Shams and the case filed against Matiur Rahman have no legal basis and are clearly an act of intimidation by the government towards all journalists. We demand that the charges filed against them be dropped at once and, with less than a year to go to parliamentary elections, we call on Sheikh Hasina’s government to respect journalistic pluralism and independence, or else these elections will lack all democratic credibility.
All Shams did – by way of “wicked motivation” – was interview members of the poorest sectors of the population about the effects of the past year’s soaring food prices for a story published in the newspaper on 26 March. It was also posted on Prothom Alo’s Facebook page, with one of the quotes highlighted alongside the photo of someone who had provided one of the other quotes for the story.
This error was seized on by a pro-ruling party blogger as grounds to accuse Shams, in a Facebook post, of fabricating interviews to “embarrass the government” and, although Prothom Alo quickly posted a clarification about the photo, Channel 71, a constant source of pro-government propaganda, immediately went into top gear, launching an all-out smear campaign against Shams, leading to his arrest.
RSF sent an email yesterday to police inspector general Mohammad Ali Mia, the head of Bangladesh’s Criminal Investigation Department, asking on what evidence he had based his decision to order Shams’ arrest. The email has so far remained unanswered. Meanwhile, Shams has not been allowed to see a lawyer.
Shams’ arrest comes less than two weeks after Mahinur Khan, the younger brother of expatriate journalist Zulkarnain Saer Khan, was attacked on 17 March near his home in Mirpur, in the centre of Dhaka, by four men armed with steel bars.
It did not take him long to discover why he was being attacked. His assailants shouted: Your brother is a journalist? He writes about the prime minister? Against the government? Now we’ll show you.” They also filmed the attack as it was taking place and named his brother.
Zulkarnain Saer Khan fled to the United Kingdom two years ago because he feared for his life after receiving threats. When reached by RSF, he said his brother and his entire family had been in a state of total panic since the 17 March attack. “Since that day, my brother has no longer even dared to send his son to school.”
Pluralism in danger
Khan has investigated such subjects as intelligence agency involvement in ballot box stuffing and links between the ruling party and gangster networks, and has worked for various media outlets including the Bangladeshi exile news website Netra News, the Israeli daily Haaretz and the Qatari international TV news network Al Jazeera.
“It’s not hard to assume that the attack was initiated by someone who is unhappy with my journalistic work, given what they shouted at my brother,” Khan told RSF. “They even filmed while beating my brother. Probably to show someone who ordered the attack.”
Last September, RSF reported that the Bangladeshi authorities were persecuting the relatives of expatriate journalists in retaliation for critical reporting about the government by these journalists.
Within Bangladesh, it has become extremely risky for media outlets to directly criticise Sheikh Hasina’s government, as RSF reported a month ago. With less than a year to go to the parliamentary elections scheduled for January 2024, the room for journalistic freedom is being reduced at an alarming pace in Bangladesh.