Washington, D.C., September 21, 2021 — Bangladesh authorities must immediately drop all charges against journalists Kabir Kishore, Tasneem Khalil, and Shafiqul Islam Kajol, and cease harassing members of the press under the draconian Digital Security Act, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On September 8 and 12, the Dhaka Cyber Tribunal accepted Digital Security Act charges against Kishore, a cartoonist; Khalil, editor of the Sweden-based news website Netra News; and Kajol, a photographer and editor with the Daily Pakkhakal magazine, according to multiple news reports and a person familiar with the cases, who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal by Bangladesh authorities.
Kishore and Kajol are currently free on bail, according to those sources. Authorities have issued an arrest warrant for Khalil, who lives in Sweden, the journalist told CPJ in a phone interview.
Khalil said that the Bangladesh government did not inform him of the warrant, and he heard about it in the news. Bangladesh authorities have blocked domestic connections to Netra News since December 2019, according to Khalil and CPJ’s documentation from the time.
“The Bangladesh government must immediately cease its legal harassment of journalists Kabir Kishore, Tasneem Khalil, and Shafiqul Islam Kajol, who are being persecuted for their political commentary,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “Authorities must drop all charges against them, stop harassing journalists in retaliation for their work, and repeal the draconian Digital Security Act, which enables these legal abuses.”
The Dhaka Cyber Tribunal accepted a charge sheet against Kajol on September 8, stemming from a criminal defamation complaint filed against him and dozens of others in March 2020 by Saifuzzaman Shikhor, a member of parliament with the ruling Awami League political party, according to various news reports, the person familiar with the case, and CPJ research, which said that two other people affiliated with the Awami League also filed two additional complaints against Kajol at that time.
The complaints cited Kajol’s critical writing on Facebook about local political leaders, and accused him of “publishing false news and circulating it on social media,” according to those sources. CPJ was unable to review Kajol’s Facebook posts, which have been taken down or set to private.
Kajol was charged under sections of the Digital Security Act pertaining to transmission or publication of offensive, false, or threatening information; unauthorized collection of identity information without lawful authority; publication or transmission of defamatory information; and publication or transmission of information that creates enmity, hatred, or hostility between different classes or communities of society, according to person familiar with the case and the charge sheet, which CPJ reviewed.
If convicted, each of those charges can carry a prison sentence between three and seven years, and a fine from 300,000 to 500,000 taka (US $3,517 to $5,861), according to the law. The next hearing in his case is scheduled for October 20, according to news reports and the person familiar with the case.
CPJ emailed and texted Shikhor at the address and phone number listed on his website, but received error messages in response. CPJ emailed the office of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who also serves as president of the Awami League, for comment, but did not immediately receive any reply.
Separately, on September 12, the cyber tribunal accepted charges submitted by the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime unit of the detective branch of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police against Kishore, Khalil, and five others, according to various news reports and the person familiar with the cases.
The charges stem from a police report alleging that Kishore and five others ran a Facebook page that criticized the government; that Khalil made derogatory comments about government officials on his Facebook page; and that Khalil also “instigated” Kishore to “make anti-state rumours go viral on social media,” according to CPJ research and a report by Netra News.
In March, Kishore told CPJ that, during his previous detention as part of this case, unidentified men beat, abused, and tortured him while asking about his cartoons. CPJ has called on the Bangladesh government to conduct an independent investigation into the allegations of torture.
Kishore and Khalil were charged under sections of the Digital Security Act pertaining to the publication of propaganda against the liberation war of Bangladesh or national symbols; transmission or publication of offensive, false, or threatening information; publication of content that creates enmity, hatred, or hostility among different classes or communities; and abetment of an offense, according to the person familiar with their cases, who reviewed the charge sheet.
Those charges can carry prison sentences between three and ten years and fines of 300,000 to 10,000,000 taka (US $3,517 to $117,207), according to the law.
The next hearing in Kishore and Khalil’s cases is scheduled for September 30, according to the person familiar with the case.
CPJ contacted Khandaker Al Moyeen, the director of the legal and media wing of the Rapid Action Battalion, which opened the investigation into Kishore and Khalil in May 2020, via messaging app for comment, but did not receive any response. CPJ also contacted Mohammad Rassell Mollah, the investigating officer who submitted the charge sheet against Kajol, via messaging app for comment, but did not receive any response.
CPJ also emailed Md. Shafiqul Islam, commissioner of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police, for comment on all three cases, but did not receive any reply.