Rozina’s bail a welcome relief
We are relieved that journalist Rozina Islam has been finally granted bail by the court after six days of imprisonment. We thank the court and congratulate the wider journalist community and all those who came out in support of Rozina and the freedom of the press. The bail brings only temporary relief, however, as the court has set a July 15 date for the next hearing in the case. While we are encouraged by the news of the bail, the circumstances under which this case was initiated leading to her detention raise several questions.
First, we must reiterate that whatever the charges against her, Rozina was only performing her professional duty like any journalist serving public interests. Any problem the health ministry had with her alleged conduct should have been handled more responsibly and professionally, instead of confining her for nearly six hours and humiliating and harassing her. So it is only fair to ask whether the ministry's actions leading to Rozina's arrest warrant judicial scrutiny to the same extent as her alleged conduct. Secondly, we fail to understand the obligation for Rozina to surrender her passport, one of the preconditions for her bail. She is a respected journalist well-known for her work, not some criminal to be treated as a flight risk. This obligation, we feel, may be construed as prejudgment on her innocence.
Third, and most frightening, is the prospect of the investigation officer being allowed to conduct a forensic analysis of two cell phones seized from Rozina. If it comes to pass, it will not only constitute a breach of her privacy and compromise her position as an investigative journalist, but will also set a bad precedent affecting the work of all investigative journalists who must protect their sources to access vital information. As we made clear in our report yesterday, "the nature of Rozina's work was such that it relied on government whistleblowers who she protected under the cloak of anonymity, and the upcoming forensic analysis raises questions about whether their identities would now be revealed." What this means for the future of journalists—and the safety of their sources—is anybody's guess. Section 5 of the Public-Interest Information Disclosure Act 2011 is there precisely to avoid such a situation.
Unfortunately, we are passing through a time when there are few safeguards for journalists as draconian legal instruments like the Digital Security Act and the defamation act—and now, a century-old law like the Official Secrets Act—are being used or invoked to silence them. This is unfortunate because journalism is a public good, and when journalists are silenced, it is the public who stand to lose the most. As for Rozina, her bail is a step in the right direction, but the case remains in place. If it is allowed to continue, it will not only further affect her work and reputation but also cast a long shadow on the future of investigative journalism in Bangladesh. We urge the government to immediately withdraw this case and all such cases filed to harass journalists.