Bids to silence journos deafening



Shortly before this story went to print last night, missing journalist Golam Sarwar was found unconscious beside a canal at Sitakunda’s Kumira.

On October 24, Sarwar, a journalist at www.ctnews.bd, a Chattogram-based news portal, published an article alleging that a minister’s family member is involved in land grabbing.

On the morning of October 29, he went missing while on his way to work. His family members told our correspondent that in the 96 hours since his disappearance, they had been contacted at least five times by his abductor, through Sarwar’s cell phone.

Each time, the abductor instructed the family to be prepared to pay the ransom, before switching off the phone.

In spite of the fact that Sarwar’s own cell phone had been used, police could not locate him.

“We are trying our best to locate the journalist,” Md Mohsin, officer-in-charge of Kotwali Police Station, told The Daily Star when Sarwar was missing.

Sarwar is currently undergoing treatment at Chattogram Medical College Hospital and details about his disappearance are yet to emerge.

A video emerged on social media of a terrified Sarwar repeatedly saying “I won’t write news anymore!” after regaining consciousness. The Daily could not independently verify the video.

Police officials said Sarwar did not reply to any queries till this report was filed around 9:30pm.

His family told our correspondent that they believe Sarwar was targeted for his work.

There is precedent for this suspicion — the 53-day enforced disappearance of Shafiqul Islam Kajol, the editor of The Daily Pokkhokal, who went missing immediately after being prosecuted under the Digital Security Act by ruling party lawmaker Saifuzzaman Shikhor and party activist Usmin Ara Beli.

Any legal step to investigate the conditions of his disappearance is yet to be taken, even though Kajol reappeared on May 3. Instead, he is undergoing trial for the three active cases against him filed under the controversial Digital Security Act for a Facebook post he had made about the lawmaker.

“It is clear from the way that police and the government have created a situation of impunity for crimes against journalists, that journalists can now easily be silenced. Not just state actors, but non-state actors have realised this,” said Faruq Faisel, regional director at human rights organisation Article 19.

Kajol was denied bail a total of 13 times, according to Article 19.

The first occasion was on May 18, when Kajol’s lawyer sought bail from Jashore District Chief Judicial Magistrate Court. Kajol was then under arrest under Section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which allows the police to arrest a person, without a warrant, suspected of being involved in a crime. The court’s judge Sahadat Hossain rejected the bail petition.

The next instance was on June 14 when three separate virtual courts in Dhaka refused to hold hearings on bail petitions placed by his lawyer because he had not yet been “shown arrested” in the three cases filed under the Digital Security Act.

At that point, Kajol had been in judicial custody since May 3. A month and a half had gone by with Kajol waiting in prison but the police had not even formally processed arrest charges against him. So, without an arrest, there could be no bail.

On June 24, by which time Kajol had been formally arrested, Metropolitan Magistrate Dhiman Chandra Mondol of Virtual Court-4 denied him bail.

Then again on June 28, Metropolitan Magistrate Debdash Chandra Adhikary rejected Kajol’s bail petition and placed him on a two-day remand in the case filed with Hazaribagh Police Station.

On July 29, Metropolitan Magistrate Baki Billah of Virtual Court-6 rejected his bail petition and on August 24, Judge KM Emrul Kayesh of the Metropolitan Sessions Judge’s Court of Dhaka denied him bail.

On September 9, Judge Kayesh again denied Kajol bail and the same judge followed that up with yet another bail denial on September 14.

“During the pandemic, hardened criminals were given bail to ease overcrowding in the prisons, but Kajol was denied bail. This is impunity,” said Faruq Faisel.

Time and again, lawyers and leading journalistshave pointed out that the sections under which journalists are being prosecuted are non-bailable. These include Section 21, 25, 28, 29, which punish activities ranging from defamation, “hampering religious sentiments”, publishing “offensive” information, publishing “propaganda” against the Father of the Nation, the Liberation War, the national anthem or the national flag.

“We always say that defamation cannot be criminalised. The person can be brought to court, questioned by the Press Council, reprimanded or fined. These have to be civil lawsuits, not criminal cases. What is the job of the Press Council if journalists are being taken to prison and denied bail?” said Faisel.

Statistics obtained from the police states that 53 journalists, five teachers and eight students were prosecuted under the DSA between January and June 2020.

This newspaper, tallying up numbers from media reports, found that 38 journalists were arrested between January and October this year. It is unknown just how many journalists are languishing in prison like Kajol after being denied bail.

The majority of arrests happened during the lockdown, creating alarm among the journalist community and leading the Sampadak Parishad to issue a statement of concern on June 30.

“The Bangladeshi media is playing a vital role in keeping the people informed, publishing news of successes and hope, pointing out inadequacies of our pandemic response, and facilitating public dialogue to map out our course for rebuilding. An attack on the media at this time is to endanger our possibility of stable recovery,” said the statement.

The statement added that DSA has become a plaything in the hands of a vested quarter who uses this anti-press and anti-freedom of expression law whimsically to harass and intimidate journalists and to prevent them from exposing corruption and misuse of funds that the government was allocating for the people, especially the poor.

For the last few months, updates about his father’s bail has formed the crux of the text messages between this correspondent and Monorom Polok, Kajol’s son.

Polok would message “Bail not granted” or “Bail denied. Again” and the reply would be a dispirited “I’m sorry”, or a sad emoji. Once or twice, his messages were met with silence. What does one say to a son whose father has been incarcerated for the better part of the year for a Facebook post?

 





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