When we say journalism is the fourth estate, we mean this profession stands in line with law, justice, and administration to protect the sovereignty of the state. And preserving public rights and working for the public interest is the ultimate goal of this estate.
Rozina Islam of Prothom Alo was doing exactly that thing as an investigative journalist. Her investigative journalism has exposed various cases of large-scale corruption in the health ministry during the pandemic.
But now she is behind bars, and according to the case filed against her, under an archaic colonial law – the official secrets act of 1923, she has been accused of entering office rooms and stealing government documents. She allegedly took pictures on her mobile phone, and various documents were found on her body. If proven guilty, she may end up serving three years in prison.
Now, we all probably know this entire story. What we do not know is – why journalists are repeatedly targeted here. From journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol, cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore to writer Mushtaq Ahmed, all these names and incidents feel connected. They had all been hard-pressed to practice their freedom of speech.
And these incidents give rise to a question: who gains and who loses through such repression of freedom of speech?
"It is a loss of the entire nation", says Professor Kaberi Gayen, Chairman of the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism of Dhaka University. "This incident has proved that the administration clearly believes they can vex and abuse anyone they want to, as if they won't face any legal consequences for that."
"Political and corporate pressure has turned journalism into a compromised profession, and these incidents give us a message that journalists will only speak what they are allowed to,"the professor raises alarm about a scary future.
The journalists and the experts we spoke to implied there is a growing desire among the country's bureaucrats to remain intangible and immune to criticism. And hence, what is happening to Rozina and others may be a camouflaged message drawing borders on investigative journalism.
Sayeed Alamgir, a journalist based in Cox's Bazar district, said, "What happened to Rozina Islam is utterly horrifying for us journalists. But this is something we face every day in the local sphere. We have a local journalist whose only laptop and camera have been destroyed so that he cannot work anymore. Local political leaders and corporate goons come to our houses and threaten us in the middle of the night."
Rozina Islam represents one of the leading newspapers of the country, and her stories have unearthed some serious corrupt practices in various branches of the government. Perhaps her reputation and contribution to the country's investigative journalism played a role in widespread protests to release her. This unity among the journalists is praiseworthy.
Suliman Niloy, a senior journalist, believes that time has not come yet to decide who gains and who loses from this, but "for the last ten years, I have seen some of the most talented journalists of our country change profession and even leave the country.
"That's how journalism as a profession has shrunk. There might be a time when worthy and talented ones' will stop stepping into this professional ground and journalism will turn into nothing but a lap dog."
Suliman, however, is a believer in the legal system. "This battle will define the situation – if Rozina wins, it will prove that journalism still has a chance in this country."
But does it? We started the article with journalism's role as the fourth estate that stands in line with other pillars to protect a country's sovereignty. But the incident of Rozina Islam shows that the law can be used against journalism.
Monjurul Ahsan Bulbul, former president of Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists, says "The Right to Information Act 2009 was legislated as a people-oriented and progressive law. It is an act to make citizens aware of their right to know information. Certainly, it was colliding with the already existing law - The Official Secrets Act of 1923."
This act was formulated in 1923 by British colonials to prevent newspapers from publishing any administrative secrets and thus prevent the anti-British revolutionaries from getting any information.
Kaberi Gayen says, "Even Britain doesn't have this archaic law anymore. But our bureaucracy still has that colonial mindset. The bureaucrats will not allow you to have information with RTI, and on top of that, they have formed a digital security act where Article 32 approves the official secrets act."
Under this very recent law, article 32 reads, "If any person commits or abets to commit an offence under the Official Secrets Act, 1923 by means of computer, digital device, computer network, digital network or any other digital means, he shall be punished with imprisonment for a term not exceeding 14 (fourteen) years, or with fine not exceeding Taka 25 (twenty five) lac, or with both and (2) If any person commits the offence referred to in sub-section (1) for the second time or repeatedly, he shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with fine not exceeding Taka 1 (one) crore, or with both."
This reminds us of the military rule in the 1980s. After the restoration of an electoral system in the 1990s, one much-awaited development in the post-Ershad era was the annulment of multiple articles of the "Special Powers Act" that eased press restrictions to a large extent. After that, journalism was thought to have a fearless voice as it resulted in the "mushroom growth" of media houses.
But now we can see that the laws made recently are choking journalism.
As we explore who gains and who loses from this imprisonment of the fourth estate, we cannot but notice that no one is questioning that official who left 'national secret information' lying on the table unguarded. No one is even questioning that secretaries do not have the right to detain someone, let alone abuse or torture.
As the unaccountability of the mighty bureaucrats grows more obvious every day, today in Bangladesh, the fourth estate remains imprisoned for defending the rights and interests of the people.