A prominent Bangladeshi woman investigative journalist was released from jail on Sunday after a court granted interim bail to her, a week after she was arrested on charges of “stealing important government documents” under a colonial-era official secrecy law that triggered widespread protests at home and abroad, including by the UN.
Rozina Islam, a senior reporter of Bangla daily Prothom Alo, the largest daily newspaper based on circulation, was arrested on Monday after she allegedly used her cellphone without permission to photograph documents related to government negotiations to buy coronavirus vaccines, while she waited in the room of an official involved in the process. Ahead of her arrest, Islam was detained for over five hours at the Health Ministry.
She walked out from the Kashimpur Women’s Central Jail on Sunday evening after a magistrate court in Dhaka granted her bail till July 15 on a bond of Taka 5,000 (USD 60) with two guarantors and condition of submitting her passport.
“I will most certainly continue working as a journalist,” 42-year-old Islam told journalists and a group of her supporters after coming out of the jail on the outskirts of the capital.
While pronouncing the bail order, 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.”
The health ministry filed a case against Islam under the draconian 1923 Official Secrets Act that carries harsh penalties, including a possible death penalty.
Media and human rights activists criticised the arrest and demanded he release.
Reacting to reports of Islam’s arrest, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ spokesperson Stephane Dujarric on Tuesday said it is obviously “something concerning”.
“Journalists need to be able to do their work free of any sort of harassment or physical threat anywhere around the world. And, obviously, that includes Bangladesh and every other country. I think we have seen the very important work that journalists all around the world have done during the pandemic, and they need to be able to continue that work, wherever they may work,” Dujarric said at a regular media briefing at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
Islam, who earned the reputation of being an investigative journalist, has in recent months published several reports exposing the health ministry’s alleged malpractices during the COVID-19 pandemic, drawing public attention.
She also published several reports involving the health sector which included alleged graft in procurement at the health ministry, corruption in doctors’ recruitment and how urgent medical equipment for coronavirus treatment were left at Dhaka airport for months.
Several legal experts and senior lawyers said they could not recall any instance when the 1923 Official Secrets Act was used against any journalist.
Journalists’ unions and different media platforms staged demonstrations in Dhaka and other districts, demanding her release and punitive actions against the officials who “harassed” her.
The protests embarrassed senior government leaders while several ministers called the incident “unexpected” or “undesirable” and assured that Islam would get justice if proved innocent during the trial process.
The Detective Branch of police, meanwhile, has sought a court permission for the forensic examination of her seized cell phone.