GENEVA (22 February 2023) – UN experts* today urged the Bangladesh government to drop the charges against investigative journalist Rozina Islam and end the practice of protracted prosecution of journalists and human rights defenders.
“We are seriously concerned that the criminal charges and the prolongation of the investigation against Ms. Islam appear to be in direct retaliation for her investigative reporting,” said the experts.
In 2021 Rozina Islam, a journalist employed by Bangladesh’s largest daily newspaper, Prothom Alo, reported on alleged corruption and mismanagement in the health sector and irregularities in the procurement of emergency medical supplies in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. On 17 May 2021, Ms. Islam went to the Bangladesh Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to meet with senior officials. While there she was detained and accused of having used her cell phone without permission to photograph documents related to government negotiations on the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines. She was later charged under the Official Secrets Act and the Penal Code.
On 3 July 2022, the Dhaka Metropolitan Police submitted its final report to the court stating that no substantial evidence had been found to support the allegations against Rozina Islam. Seven months later, following a petition by the Ministry of Health in January 2023, the same court ordered the police to carry out further investigations. The next hearing is expected to take place on 28 February.
“The protracted nature of Rozina Islam’s case reflects a dangerous trend in Bangladesh and beyond to bring serious charges, often on unsubstantiated grounds, against journalists and editors and then leave the cases hanging unresolved in the judicial process as a way of threatening, intimidating, harassing and silencing them,” said the experts.
“The judicial system should not be instrumentalised to chill critical reporting, undermine press freedom and encourage a culture of self-censorship,” said the experts.
“The government should review its prosecution policy of journalists and the use of the colonial era Official Secrets Act and the more recent Digital Security Act, and it should bring the laws and practices in line with its international human rights obligations,” advised the experts.
Noting that independent, uncensored and unhindered press is a cornerstone of democratic society, the experts called on the Government of Bangladesh to drop the charges against Ms Islam and withdraw other protracted cases against journalists and editors.
The experts noted that women journalists are doubly at risk as they also often face gender-based discrimination, harassment and violence.
“We urge the government to promote a safe and enabling environment for journalists and human rights defenders, and we stand ready to provide our technical advice and support to the authorities,” said the experts.
The experts are in communication with the government of Bangladesh on these issues.
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*The experts: Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Ms. Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Ms. Reem Alsalem, Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, its causes and consequences; and Ms. Margaret Satterthwaite, Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers.