Police officers are seen confronting protesters in Dhaka, Bangladesh on January 12, 2019. Police in the country have detained and opened investigations into journalists. (Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain)

Bangladeshi journalists face physical attacks, legal cases, and detention amid COVID-19 pandemic

Between March 10, 2020, and May 21, 2020, authorities detained at least six journalists in Bangladesh and opened investigations into at least nine more under the country’s Digital Security Act, according to news reports and CPJ interviews with journalists. At least seven other journalists were assaulted by both the authorities and political figures, according to news reports. The Digital Security Act, passed in 2018, authorizes the government to investigate, fine, and imprison anyone whose online activities are deemed anti-state or a threat to national security or public order, as CPJ has documented.

On March 10, police launched an investigation into Matiur Rahman Chowdhury, editor of Bangla-language daily Manab Zamin, and 31 other people under the Digital Security Act on accusations of “publishing false news and circulating it on social media,” according to The Daily Star.

A ruling party lawmaker filed the case alleging that Manab Zamin published a story on March 2 that contained false information. The story regarded a former politician who was accused of running a gang, counterfeiting money, drug dealing, and operating a prostitution racket, according to the Dhaka Tribune. It implicated several lawmakers, according to The Daily Star.

Al Amin, a Manab Zamin reporter who shared the story on social media, was also accused in the complaint, according to The Daily Star. Chowdhury was granted anticipatory bail on March 18, according to the Dhaka Tribune. Shafiqul Islam Kajol, a journalist currently detained under the Digital Security Act, was also named in the complaint, according to the Dhaka Tribune.

On March 31, Sagor Chowdhury, editor of the news portal 360degree, was assaulted by Nabil Haider, a member of the Chhatra League of Dhaka University, a student political party that supports the ruling Awami League, according to news portal bdnews24 and the Forum for Freedom of Expression, Bangladesh (FExB), a network of media defenders. Chowdhury had filmed a video on the embezzlement of food aid, according to FExB, which did not say whether the video was published anywhere. According to New Age Bangladesh, Haider and five associates beat Chowdhury outside of Rajmoni Cinema Hall. Chowdhury told bdnews24 that he believes Haider attacked him because Chowdhury complained about irregularities in rice distribution and showed the video to local authorities. Police have arrested Haider, according to FExB.

On April 1, Shah Sultan Ahmed, a correspondent of the Dainik Protidiner Sangbad; Mujibur Rahman, a correspondent of Bangla Dainik Amar Sangbad; and Bulbul Ahmed, correspondent of private TV Channel S, were attacked with a cricket bat by Mahibur Rahman Harun, a local leader of the ruling party, according to FExB. According to bdnews24, 20 to 25 men who supported Harun were also involved in the attack. Ahmed had filmed a Facebook Live video on the misallocation of government food aid, which had angered Harun, according to FExB and news reports. (The reports did not say if the video was on Ahmed’s personal Facebook page or his employer’s.) Rahman and Ahmed were attacked when they tried to intervene to stop the attack on Ahmed, according to bdnews24.com. Ahmed was taken to the Osmani Medical College in Sylhet with critical injuries, according to FExB. In a June 18 phone call with CPJ, Harun denied assaulting the journalist.

From April 2 to May 7, Bangladeshi authorities blocked BenarNews, an affiliate of Radio Free Asia, Kate Beddall, managing editor of BenarNews, told CPJ via email. Since then, the website has remained mostly inaccessible, but it appears that some IP addresses or mobile towers may have access to the site, she said. On April 3, Bangladeshi authorities said that they had blocked some sites “involved in spreading rumors and misinformation,” but did not explicitly confirm that they had blocked BenarNews, according to the outlet. BenarNews had recently reported on a leaked draft of a United Nations memo that warned that up to two million people could die from coronavirus in Bangladesh if the government did not take appropriate action, according to the outlet.

On April 14, Golam Sarwar Pintu, a reporter formerly with the Bangla Daily Bangladesh Alo, was arrested under the Digital Security Act, according to FExB and news reports. Sheikh Salim, Dhaka city councilor of Ward 38, filed the case after Pintu reported on protests for food aid during the coronavirus lockdown on a Facebook page called Dainik Baddarer Khobor, according to FExB, the Dhaka Tribune, and Pintu, who spoke to CPJ via phone. Pintu was released on bail the week of June 8, according to Mohammed Shahin Miya, editor of the Daily Bangladesh Alo and Md. Parvez Islam, officer-in-charge of Dhaka’s Badda Police Station, who spoke to CPJ over the phone. Pintu told CPJ he was not charged.CPJ could not locate contact information for Salim.

On April 19, police opened investigations under the Digital Security Act against four journalists: Toufique Imrose Khalidi, editor of news portal bdnews24.com, Mohiuddin Sarker, acting editor of news portal jagonews24.com, Rahim Suvho, a contributor to bdnews24.com, and freelance journalist Shaown Amin, according to FExB and news reports. A local ruling party leader filed the complaint after the outlets had reported on his alleged ties to a rice dealer who allegedly misappropriated food aid, according to FExB. (The local leader denied these ties, according to reports.) The journalists are accused of publishing offensive, false, defamatory, or fear-inducing data or information, according to bdnews24.com.

Also on April 19, Bangla Vision TV correspondent Kamal Hossain was attacked by employees of the Department of Narcotics Control in the southern district of Barishal, when he tried to film a gathering that was in violation of the lockdown, according to news reports. According to The Daily Star, employees of the department were selling locally-brewed alcohol at their office and assaulted Hossain when he tried to record what was happening. (The report does not make clear whether Hossain was reporting for Bangla Vision TV when he was recording the incident.) Hossain told The Daily Star that the employees also damaged his camera and phone. The assistant commissioner of the Barishal district has ordered the Department of Narcotics Control to take action against those involved in assaulting the journalist and selling narcotics, an act that drew a crowd during a shutdown, according to The Daily Star.

On April 21, Abdul Latif Litu, a correspondent for the newspaper Bangladesh Pratidin and private TV channel News 24 in Thakurgaon was assaulted by police at a police checkpoint while returning home from work at the newspaper, according to FExB and news portal New Age Bangladesh, which did not provide further details of the assault. Litu was treated for minor injuries to his right hand and neck at a local hospital, according to New Age. The officer-in-charge at Thakurgaon Sadar police station Tanvirul Islam said police would take action against the officers involved, according to New Age.

On April 23, Sajal Bhuiyan, a correspondent of TV channel SATV, was assaulted by the Chairman of Amirganj Union Parishad in Narsingdi, according to the FExB and news reports. Bhuiyan told Deutsche Welle that he went to visit sub-district administrator Nasir Uddin Khan to interview him about government misappropriation of food aid during the coronavirus pandemic for SATV when the official and his supporters physically assaulted him until he was unconscious. Bhuiyan suffered injuries to his head and eyes and has lost vision in one of his eyes, he told DW. He has filed a case against his attackers, according to DW. Khan refused to comment when CPJ reached him by phone June 18.

On May 1, three journalists from in Narsingdi were arrested and detained under the Digital Security Act, according to The Daily Star and Lakshan Burman, managing editor of Dainik Grameen Darpan. These include: Ramzan Ali Pramanik, news editor of Dainik Grameen Darpan, Shanta Banik, a reporter with Dainik Grameen Darpan, and Shaon Khondoker Shahin, editor of news website Narsingdi Pratidin, according to The Daily Star.

Inspector Johirul Alam of the Ghorashal Police Outpost filed the complaint, alleging that the journalists had quoted him in a published report, but had never reached out for comment. The reporters were released on bail on June 18, after being held for 48 days, according to Burman.

On May 14, Meherpur police opened an investigation under the Digital Safety Act into three journalists of the daily Meherpur Pratidin for allegedly publishing false information, according to The Daily Star and the Bangla Tribune. Sabuj Hossain, nephew of Maqbool Hossain, a former local Awami League leader, filed the complaint against publisher Emon Ahmed, editor Yadul Momin, and editor Al Amin alleging that they had tarnished his uncle’s reputation when they published a report in Meherpur Pratidin on May 11 that Maqbool had allegedly refused to leave a house after it had been marked for demolition as it was structurally unstable, according to the news reports. CPJ was unable to locate contact information for Hossain.

On May 21, Police in Habiganj arrested the editor of Dainik Amar Habiganj, Sushanta Das Gupta, according to the Dhaka Tribune. Sayeduzzaman Zahir, the general secretary of the Habiganj Press Club, filed the complaint against Das Gupta and three other Dainik Amar Habiganj journalists, accusing them of violating the Digital Security Act by publishing false reports against a district Awami League president, according to The Daily Star, which did not detail the contents of the report. Das Gupta was detained for about three weeks before being granted bail on June 14, according to The Daily Star. Das Gupta was released on June 18 without being charged, according to the Dhaka Tribune.