We, the undersigned organisations, are seriously concerned about the legal proceedings against Rozina Islam, renowned Bangladeshi investigative journalist and winner of 2021 Free Press Award for Most Resilient Journalist.
Rozina Islam was arrested by Bangladeshi authorities on 17 May 2021 and has since been facing charges of up to 14 years in prison or even the death penalty. However, to this day there has been no real substantial review of her court case. We therefore call on the authorities of Bangladesh to immediately respect her fair trial rights.
Rozina Islam, who has reported and uncovered important public interest stories of government corruption and mismanagement of the pandemic in Bangladesh, was arrested on 17 May 2021 after a meeting at the Ministry of Health. After her arrest she spent six hours in confinement where she suffered physical and mental harassment.
The Ministry claimed to have found confidential files and photos of documents on her phone, which is why the police confiscated both her phone and passport during her arrest. Rozina is accused of violating the Official Secrets Act, a colonial era act dating back to 1923 aimed at preventing spying against the state and was never intended to be used against journalists. Certain sections of the act even directly contradict the since 1972 constitutionally enshrined right to freedom of expression. By imposing disproportionate restrictions on the accessibility and possibilities to gather information, the law infringes the right of access to information, a right that has been internationally recognized by prominent organs such as the UN and the OSCE as being an integral part of the fundamental right of freedom of expression. The use of such an outdated law without clear merit therefore seems to be an attempt to silence Rozina.
Following her arrest she spent seven days in prison without bail. There were no clear grounds as to why she was refused bail as she was not likely to abscond, destroy evidence or intimidate witnesses. It seems likely that the imprisonment was aimed at intimidating Rozina, especially considering that upon her release the magistrate said, ‘it is the duty of journalists to protect the image of society and state. I hope that from now on, we will all act responsibly’, seemingly suggesting she should be less critical in the future to avoid legal issues. Furthermore, she lost her official accreditation to enter Bangladeshi ministries, resulting in the inability to effectively exercise her journalistic profession after 17 years of work.
Fair trial rights
After her release, the persecution against her continued. Firstly, there is no clarity regarding Rozina’s court dates as these dates are continuously postponed or canceled at the last minute. This arbitrary rescheduling of court dates infringes her right to be brought promptly before a judge and her right to be tried without undue delay. This has happened more than five times since 23 May. In one of the more recent cases on 12 December,2021, however, the opposite happened as the new court date was announced just days in advance, severely impeding her right to adequately prepare for a trial.
Moreover, to this day, there still has been no real substantial review of her court case, as all court hearings have either immediately dismissed evidence or been procedural of nature and have reviewed the return of her passport and press accreditation card, the first of which was temporarily returned to her for six months on January 24th 2022. The right to a fair trial encompasses a fair review of the charges by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal and without undue delay. All the more so as Rozina faces serious charges of up to 14 years or even the death penalty.
Rozina’s case is illustrative of a broader and increasingly violent crackdown on press freedom in Bangladesh. At least 80 journalists were reportedly attacked, injured, or killed while doing their jobs in 2021. Those who expose government corruption or express dissent are particularly at risk. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has explicitly raised concerns about attacks on the media in the country, including arbitrary arrests of journalists and violations of their fair trial rights.
We therefore reiterate that the right to a fair trial is a human right which implies that every single person has this right simply for being a human. The right to a fair trial has been constitutionally enshrined in Bangladesh as well as recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bangladesh is a state party..
We therefore call on the authorities to:
- respect Rozina’s fair trial rights, including by guaranteeing she has adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense and ensuring a substantive assessment of the charges brought against her during the next court date on March 2nd 2022; and
- refrain from (mis)using outdated laws such as the Official Secrets Act, that were never intended to be used against journalists, and either repeal the law as a whole or revise it to bring it in line with international law and standards..
Free Press Unlimited
Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
The Coalition For Women In Journalism (CFWIJ)
Center for Communication Action
The Africa Women Journalism Project (AWJP)
Rural Digital Youth Resiliency Project (RDYR)
International Press Institute (IPI)
Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA)
Media Guard Association
The Stage Media-Liberia
PRANTO- A House of Consultants