New York, January 2, 2019–The Committee to Protect Journalists today called on Bangladeshi authorities to immediately release Hedait Hossain Molla, a reporter who was arrested in Khulna yesterday in relation to his election coverage, according to news reports.
A court today ordered Molla to be held for three days pending investigation into an accusation that he violated the Digital Security Act and reported “false information” about the number of votes cast from Khulna during general elections on December 30, according to news reports. Molla works for the Dhaka Tribune, Bangla Tribune and Probaho, but reports did not specify to which outlet the accusation is related. A second journalist, Rashidul Islam, from the daily Manab Zamin, was named in the police report on the same charge, but has not been arrested, according to the reports.
Molla and Islam both reported on initial elections results that indicated the number of votes cast in a certain constituency was higher than the number of voters, according to the Daily Star. An elections officer later asserted that this had been a mistake, but the reporters had already published their stories, according to the Daily Star. CPJ could not immediately determine if they published a correction.
The police report said that their articles were “false information that was made intentionally to make the election result seem questionable and controversial,” according to Reuters. CPJ’s phone call today to Batiaghata police station, where the case was filed, went unanswered.
“Arresting a journalist for reporting on alleged election irregularities and raising legitimate questions is a disappointing way for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League party to respond to their re-election,” said CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Steven Butler, in Washington, D.C. “The government should reaffirm its commitment to democratic values and refrain from abusing the Digital Security Act to attack press freedom.”
The Digital Security Act under which Molla and Islam face charges was enacted in September despite concerns that it would create extensive legal dangers for journalists performing their duties. The act replaces Bangladesh’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act. Authorities used that act to harass the press, including photographer Shahidul Alam, according to CPJ research.
Several journalists covering the election were attacked and denied entry to polling centers, according to news reports. On December 25, masked men used batons and hockey sticks to attack at least 10 journalists who were in a hotel in Nawabganj, where they had been covering an election rally, according to news reports. The attackers also smashed hotel windows and vandalized cars, according to the reports.
On election day, a group of about five men wearing Awami League badges questioned Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo, a journalist with the Daily Star, after he took photos outside a polling center in Dhaka, and then beat him, according to his paper. The same day, a group of about 15 men beat Al Amin, a journalist with news portal Cvoice24, after he tried to enter a polling center in Chattogram, according to the Daily Star. And Kafi Kamal, a journalist with the Bengali language newspaper Manab Zamin, was attacked and injured by several men while trying to film near a polling site in Dhaka, he said in an interview with Al-Jazeera. He was hospitalized and almost lost his eyesight, he said. The Daily Star reported that members of law enforcement and supporters of the ruling party allegedly denied a number of journalists entry to polling centers, despite them carrying identification cards.
No contact information was listed for the Awami League on the party’s website. CPJ attempted to contact the government press secretary but the phone number listed on the website did not work.