The picture that went viral on social media sparking outcry has sent a clear message that journalism appears to be a "crime" for Jagonews24 Thakurgaon correspondent Tanvir Hasan Tanu who fell sick at police custody after arrest and was shifted to a hospital where he found himself handcuffed to a wrought iron bed.
Thanks to digitisation of Bangladesh, the image of the handcuffed journalist lying on a hospital bed was captured by his local colleagues, who posted it on Facebook, drawing attention of people both at home and abroad.
What's the "crime" he committed?
According to media reports and the document of the case filed against him and local correspondents of two other news platforms, patients in Thakurgaon Adhunik Hospital got daily foods worth Tk70 each when the government allocated Tk300 for each of them.
That's all. The news reports, the hospital authorities claimed, were aimed at creating trouble for the government by instigating public resentment, which could deteriorate law and order situation.
The other serious charge against the journalists is tarnishing "image" of the hospital, its physicians and staff, and also the contractor who supplies foods.
The "aggrieved" authorities did not choose any of the established ways like sending a rejoinder to the news platforms to refute anomalies in food supply. They neither sued the journalists and news platforms seeking compensation for "damaging" the hospital's image nor did they file a case under the Penal Code of 1860 against them for defaming the hospital and staff.
They found the Digital Security Act appropriate and filed a case against the journalists under the Act, which has been mired into controversy for its indiscriminate use to muzzle dissenting voices and media.
Their opting for the law to use it against journalists proves they are meritorious. They know well that filing case under the Penal Code will follow an established procedure. Without court's order, police cannot arrest journalists.
But, the digital security law empowers police to arrest anybody facing charge of defamation. So, they are successful in the mission. Tanu was arrested within hours after filing of the case on Saturday.
He was kept waiting in the police custody before he was produced before the court the next day. Tanu, who tested negative for Covid 19 less than a week ago, fell sick with breathing complication in the custody. In the middle of night, he was shifted to the hospital where he was seen lying on a bed with one of his hands handcuffed to the iron bed.
He was handcuffed when the police brought him to a Thakurgaon court. They also prayed that the court put him on a five-day remand.
Tanu was not unfortunate like other journos, who had to land in jail after denial of bail. He got bail but will have to face the case anyway.
However, the harassment and trauma the journalist endured for around 20 hours must have had a chilling effect on local journalists who report on various anomalies and alleged corruption in the local administration. Such an environment may help crooked officials, but not contribute to improving the quality of services people have the right to get.
Like many other previous occasions, police did excesses by handcuffing the journalist. Handcuffing is prima facie inhuman and unreasonable.
A notorious and rowdy criminal may be handcuffed so that he cannot escape. The journalist was not charged with any grievous offence like murder.
But he was subjected to endure inhuman and degrading treatment. Police action, hence, is a clear violation of the article 35 (5) of the constitution that also clearly states: "No person shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment or treatment."
It also violated Police Regulation of Bengal. Section 330 (a) of Police Regulations, Bengal, prohibits using strict measures by saying the use of handcuffs or ropes is often an unnecessary indignity.
It says: "Prisoners arrested by the police for transmission to a magistrate or to the scene of an enquiry, and also under-trial prisoners, shall not be subjected to more restraint than is necessary to prevent their escape. The use of handcuffs or ropes is often an unnecessary indignity."
The way the police treated the journalist is also against the Torture and Custodial death (prevention) Act 2013 that criminalises inhuman, cruel, degrading punishment and treatment.
Thakurgaon incident is not an isolated one. Many journalists have been subjected to prosecution under the controversial digital security law in the last two years. Every incident appears as a fresh blow to free media.
The Thakurgaon hospital authorities may have forgotten that they are part of such a health sector which is mired deep into alleged widespread anomalies and corruption.
What the hospital authorities did is a manifestation of the health ministry's attitude towards a free press. After the pandemic broke out, the ministry made efforts to block flow of information to the media as it earlier instructed doctors and nurses not to give information to journalists. Last week, Dhaka district civil surgeon office has issued such an instruction afresh.
Handcuffing a journalist on charge of "false" report that hurts authorities' interest is a clear attempt to muzzle freedom of the press guaranteed by the constitution. Such an incident has reiterated the fact that press freedom in Bangladesh is facing restriction. Doesn't it tarnish the image of the country?
The abuse of the Digital Security Act to gag free speech and media has already drawn huge criticism at home and abroad. The incident of handcuffing the journalist in Thakurgaon on defamation charge under the controversial law will be added to the tally of other such past incidents preventing Bangladesh from doing better on the global press freedom index.