Journalist detained over criminal defamation complaint in Bangladesh

September 6, 2016 1:48 PM ET

Bangkok, September 6, 2016--Bangladeshi journalist Siddiqur Rahman Khan has been detained since September 1 after a criminal defamation complaint was filed against him under Article 57 of the 2006 Information and Communication Technology Act, according to news reports. The Committee to Protect Journalists called today for Khan's immediate release and an end to the use of criminal charges to harass and stifle online media in Bangladesh.

Khan, the editor-in-chief of news portal Dainikshiksha, was detained by cybercrime unit police in the Shikkha Bhaban district of Dhaka, the capital, according to reports. Police spokesman Masudur Rahman told reporters that Khan was arrested for publishing "fictitious, false, and shameful" news online. News about his arrest did not indicate details of the reporting in question. Police also confiscated five hard discs from Khan's office, the reports said.

Dhaka metropolitan court judge Maruf Hossain on September 2 denied a bail request for Khan, who has not been charged, on the grounds that the court lacked the legal authority to consider his petition, reports said. Under amendments made to the Information and Communication Technology Act in 2013, bail is not an option for those arrested under parts of the act, including Article 57.

"The legal harassment of Siddiqur Rahman Khan underscores the recent rapid deterioration of press freedom conditions in Bangladesh," said Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative. "Khan should be immediately released, the criminal complaint against him dropped, and Bangladesh's criminal defamation codes amended in ways that protect reporters' ability to do their work without fear of frivolous and unwarranted litigation."

Fahima Khatun, a former official with a government department that regulates schools and colleges, filed the complaint over an article she claimed had "defamed and tarnished" her image and that of the state, according to reports that cited the criminal complaint. Khatun is married to ruling Awami League party lawmaker Obaidul Muktadir Chowdhury, news reports said.

Khan's lawyer, Khurshid Alam Khan, said he would contest the legality of his client's detention, reports said. The lawyer raised questions in a submission to the court about why Khan was remanded by the state when the complaint was filed by a private individual, reports said.

At the journalist's bail hearing, the judge said he would allow investigating officials five working days to question Khan in detention. It was not immediately clear from the reports if Khan would be released when the five-day interrogation period expires.

Maximum penalties for convictions under Article 57 of the Information and Communications Technology Act allow for 14 years in jail for publishing material that hurts religious beliefs, offends the state or damages law and order.

Khan's arrest comes amid a mounting government clampdown on online dissent, CPJ research shows. In August, Bangladeshi authorities launched criminal proceedings against three journalists with the banglamail24 news website over a story they published that refuted a rumor that the prime minister's son, Sajeeb Wazed Joy, had been killed in a plane crash. The reporters could face a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison if convicted under the 2006 Information and Communication Technology Act.

On August 22, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's Cabinet approved cyber-security legislation that, if passed into law by the legislature, will impose severe prison penalties for publishing material online deemed to be anti-state or a threat to national security and order. The vaguely worded Digital Security Act 2016 allows for maximum penalties of life in prison for spreading false information about the country's 1971 war of liberation from Pakistan or national founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and seven years in prison for disturbing public order.

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