17 May 2021, it's just another day for Rozina Islam, a senior reporter of the Daily Prothom Alo. She is out on her mission to find news. She is known for her courage, integrity and eye for details – all good qualities of an investigative journalist.
She is known to have exposed many instances of corruption at various layers of the bureaucracy, especially in the ministry of Health. Due to the ongoing Covid -19 pandemic, the ministry of health and its directorates have become the centre point of public scrutiny. Usually, this ministry does not draw as much attention as it is now because of its many failings in providing much needed services to the people during the pandemic.
She went to the secretariat, which houses various ministries of Bangladesh. It is not easy to get in there without passes and permissions. It can be assumed that Rozina also had her permission to enter the heart of Bangladesh civil service. From all the information available right now, it is also plausible to conclude that she was a frequent visitor at the secretariat due to her professional assignments. Hence, she was known by the officials.
It is also very realistic to conclude that Ms Rozina earned some sort of notoriety among the officials in the health ministry for her investigative journalism and exposing various cases of large-scale corruption. The events of the day started taking a wrong turn when the officials started accusing her of entering the office rooms and stealing government documents.
According to the case filed against her she had pictures in her mobile phone and also various documents were found in her body.
Rozina Islam was detained at the secretariate for five hours and then police came from the nearest police station after 8:30pm and arrested her. Case was filed against her almost near midnight by an official of the ministry of Health. Case has been filed against her under two Acts – sections 3 and 5 of the Official Secrets Act 1923 and Sections 389 and 411 of the Penal Code of 1860.
At this stage of this incident, it is important to evaluate these provisions and various other protections offered under Bangladesh law. The readers must note that under the legal system of Bangladesh - the constitution of Bangladesh is the highest form of law as it sets the ceiling for lawmaking by the Parliament. That means all laws in Bangladesh must be in synchronisation with the provisions of the constitution. If any law is enacted in contravention to the constitutional principles, then that law can be challenged in court and the court may declare it unconstitutional. Article 39 of the Constitution of Bangladesh guarantees press freedom along with other forms of freedom of expression. The spirit of freedom of the war of independence was reflected in the constitution where the founders of the nation put all their efforts to encapsulate it. Therefore, undermining press freedom itself is in contravention to the spirit of 1971.
The laws which have been used against Ms Rozina were enacted by the British and we are still trying to uphold that legacy. We have become independent but not been able to decolonise ourselves in any form. I wonder whether the use of these archaic laws of the colonial era is an expression of the psyche of our civil service who are clutching to the spirit of that by the gone era. Are we seeing an expression of the ruler and the ruled relationship?
As mentioned earlier, Ms Islam has been charged under sections 3 and 5 of the Official Secrets Act 1923. Looking at the very act it is plausible that the law should be applied in case of any breach of any prohibited place. According to section 2(8)(c) of the said Act the place must be declared as a prohibited place and such declaration must be displayed outside that building. I wonder whether at any point in time in the past the secretariat has been declared to be prohibited.
Section 3 and 5 of the Act in its plain interpretation and spirit is relevant for an act of espionage which is linked to military installations and their drawing or photograph or similar kind of documents. It is evident that the ministry of health does not deal with any such military issue. The language of the case filed at the police station seems to have interpreted these two provisions very widely, which is beyond any form of reasonableness.
Sections 389 and 411 of the Penal Code 1860 are related to extortion and handling stolen property. Given the circumstances of this case it is laughable that the filing officials even thought of using these two provisions. If someone enters a prohibited place and steals something from there then how can that person handle stolen goods? For an offence under section 411 the documents need to be stolen by someone else, not by the accused herself.
Ms Islam was detained by the officials of the Ministry of Health for 5 hours. Under what authority and law? Shahbag Police station is not five hours away. Looking at the pictures available in various newspapers it is clearly evident that she was assaulted by Health Ministry officials. She has been subjected to violation of sections 339 and 340 when she was unlawfully restrained and detained by the health officials. They have also assaulted her, which is a clear violation of section 351 of the penal code 1860. For this whole period, she did not get the protection of the law under Article 31 of the constitution of Bangladesh.
We can only hope that the courts with constitutional powers will look into these violations and intervene to release Ms Islam from the custody and the wrongful cases ultimately. Pursuant to her professional work she was upholding the spirit of the anti-corruption endeavours of Bangladesh government where it seeks the help of the citizens and media to expose such misdeeds.
The use of the official secrets act is a reflection that health ministry officials have blurred the difference between secret and confidential documents and information. The reference to agreements with other countries for covid vaccines is an attempt to play the card of national interest in a wrongful way. The interest of the country is served when its people feel confident about the state machinery, not the opposite. Unfortunately, Bangladesh ranks 151 out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom. We are consistently failing to ensure the freedom of the press and the incident of Ms Rozina Islam is probably the lowest point of our journey to the bottom of press freedom.
Shahariar Sadat is a supreme court lawyer