For what crime Rozina Islam, a senior correspondent of Prothom Alo, a renowned journalist, highly respected among her peers and known for her bold and insightful reporting, is going to be in jail till tomorrow when hearing of her bail petition will be held? The decision was made by a learned court. As we have the highest regard for the judiciary, we do not question the decision but only raise a few related questions with a view to understanding the law a little better.
1. The provision of bail exists to ensure that no one suffers or is punished before a trial is complete. Isn't Rozina being punished -- three days in prison, while being sick and a mother of a baby, along with the trauma and humiliation of being in prison -- before even a single minute of trial being held?
2. According to the law, there are three clear grounds on which bail can be denied:
a) The accused may tamper with the evidence;
b) The accused may threaten witnesses and thereby subvert the judicial process;
c) The accused may run away and thus escape the reach of the law.
Beyond these reasons there are no legal grounds to deny bail to any citizen of the country. None of the above three conditions apply to Rozina. She will be in jail for three days. And it's all due to postponement of bail hearing. She could have been granted bail yesterday.
The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898 (Act no. V of 1898) clearly states in section 497. (1) "When any person accused of any non-bailable offence is arrested or detained without warrant… is brought before a court, he may be released on bail but he shall not be so released if there appears to be reasonable grounds for believing that he has been guilty of an offence punishable with death or transportation for life.
Provided that the court may direct any person under the age of sixteen years or any woman or any sick or infirm person accused of such an offence be released on bail."
First as a citizen, then as a woman and finally as someone sick, Rozina is entitled to bail. With due respect to the learned judge, we repeat, we hold the judiciary in the highest esteem, would we be wrong to ask as to how the provision of 497 was followed in Rozina's case?
According to Barrister Tanjibul Alam, "The right of a woman to seek bail even if accused of a non-bailable offence is provided in section 497 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. There are a number of judicial decisions of the Appellate Division as well as the High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh and India that a person is entitled to bail if he is not likely to abscond, destroy evidence or intimidate witnesses".
The law could not have been clearer. Yet with all weight of the law on her side, Rozina had to face foot-dragging over her bail. Again, we do not question the learned judge but sincerely plead that we, the law abiding citizens, stand totally confused as to how we should understand the law and seek justice.
Rozina Islam has been charged under section 379 and 411 of the Penal Code of 1860, and section 3 and 5 of the Official Secrets Act of 1923.
The provisions of the Penal Code deals with theft. What did Rozina steal? She is accused of having taken some snapshots by her mobile phone which is now in the possession of police. Whatever she did, she did so while on duty as a professional journalist and in public interest. There was nothing personal in this matter, it was only journalistic and hence in public interest.
Section 3 of the Official Secrets Act refers to "spying" which happens only when information is collected and passed on to an "enemy" country.
Nothing like that happened here. Section 5 talks about "wrongful communication by officials" and entering "prohibited place". Again the room of PS to the secretary is "not a prohibited" place and there has been no "wrongful communication". In fact there has not been any communication at all except the harassment of Rozina.
We would like to state forcefully that the Official Secrets Act of 1923 is one of the most anti-freedom and controversial laws that exist in our statute books. This law clashes with the fundamental principles of our constitution that guarantees freedom of expression subject to reasonable restrictions under Article 39. It directly contradicts the Right to Information (RTI) Act which clearly states that the RTI will take precedence over other laws that contradict its provisions. It means that as long as the RTI exists the Officials Secrets Act should stand superseded by the RTI.
Journalists in Bangladesh have long struggled against this law and we consider it to be a law that encourages non-transparency and lack of accountability and as such corruption, nepotism and waste of public money.
Here are two examples of Rozina's several recent reports on corruption within the health ministry. On April 12, she published a two-part report titled "You will get Tk 1 crore now, and more later". This was a story of recruiting 1,800 employees in the ministry. Two members of the recruitment committee made a written compliant to the secretary of health services of the health ministry that Tk 15-20 lakh were taken from some candidates with the promise of passing them in the written test. This was revealed to the selection committee when candidates, during oral examination, could not answer questions in which they got 60 to 70 percent marks in the written examination.
Her second story titled "Irregularities involving Tk 350 crore for emergency purchases" revealed that medical equipment and health safety items were purchased from parties without any agreement, and other irregularities about which the director of Central Medical Stores Depot made a written complaint on February 9 this year.
It is a natural question as to who benefitted from such bold investigative journalism of Rozina Islam. We think there cannot be any doubt that the taxpayers benefitted, with whose hard-earned money such corruption takes place. Theoretically, a government, committed to good governance and judicious use of public money, should also be immensely benefitted.
Whatever Rozina did benefitted the public and the government. It is obvious that the documents that benefitted the public and the government's accountability process were not voluntarily given by government officials to Rozina. She got it somehow but her action was meant for public benefit. There was nothing personal in what Rozina did and the benefit for all her actions have been to the tax-paying public.
We urge the judiciary, the government and all others to consider that this was journalism meant for public service and without such investigative journalism our country will be mired in more corruption and misuse of our scarce resource. Such journalism is always necessary for any society to thrive, but it is more necessary in this time of pandemic triggered economic, social and more appropriately existential crisis.