The committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has called for protection of journalists in Bangladesh, ahead of a human rights review in the United Nations (UN).
The US-based press freedom campaigner organisation came up with the call in a joint submission to the United Nations, along with Robert F Kennedy Human Rights, and Asian Legal Resource Centre.
It was noted in the submission that Bangladesh authorities are increasingly attempting to silence the media through arbitrary detention, legal harassment, and censorship.
It documented impunity in cases of killings and abductions of journalists, violence against members of the press in custody, and the death of writer Mushtaq Ahmed in jail in February 2021. Besides, it highlighted instances of violence against family members of critical exiled journalists.
The report was disclosed on the website of CPJ on Wednesday, noting that it was submitted for the 44th session of the Universal Periodic Review Working Group scheduled for November.
The three organisations assessed the concerning human rights situation in Bangladesh leading up to the January 2024 national elections, which has been defined by closing civic space; pre-electoral targeting of violence against human rights defenders, civil society organisations, journalists, and the opposition; and reprisals in response to the United States’ sanction designations on the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB).
The report noted that Bangladesh is scheduled to hold the next election in January 2024. As in the lead up to previous elections, the ruling Awami League has restricted civic space and escalated political repression and violence.
The organisatiosn alleged that the 2018 elections were fraught with abuse, including attacks on opposition party members, voter intimidation, and partisan behavior by election officials. The RAB and other security forces were central to intimidation campaigns and alleged voter fraud in the 2018 election.
Besides, the government failed to implement recommendations from the third UPR cycle in 2018 calling on Bangladesh to expand its democratic space online and offline. Instead, it arrested and harassed journalists under the DSA, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, and colonial-era Official Secrets Act (OSA).
According to the report, journalist Rozina Islam was imprisoned for seven days under the Official Secrets Act and Penal Code of the colonial period in May 2021 after reporting the corruption in the public health sector at the beginning of the epidemic.
She was granted bail on the condition of submitting a passport even though there was no conditional bail provision in the Criminal Procedure Code.
It said that in January 2022, the court temporarily allowed Rozina Islam to return the passport of Islam for six months. Whenever he traveled abroad, he had to request the court to return the passport.
In July 2022, the Dhaka Metropolitan Police’s Detective Branch submitted its final investigative report to a Dhaka court and called for her case to be dropped due to lack of evidence.
However, in January 2023, the court ordered the Police Bureau of Investigation to further investigate. As of early 2023, authorities continue to subject her to judicial harassment.
If charged and convicted under the Official Secrets Act, she may face up to 14 years in prison or a maximum penalty of a death sentence.
There is a set of recommendations in the submission, including creating an independent commission of inquiry to investigate all allegations of enforced disappearances, abductions, torture, extrajudicial killings, and custodial deaths.
The commission should be formed in consultation with victims, their families, and independent experts.
The authorities should conduct full and impartial investigations into all allegations of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, abductions, and violence against HRDs and journalists by state and non-state actors. Hold all perpetrators accountable.
Besides, it urged an end to all harassment, intimidation, and attacks against human rights defenders, journalists. At the same time, it called to end all arbitrary arrests, detentions, harassment, and attacks against opposition leaders and supporters and guarantee their right to peacefully assemble and participate in the January 2024 elections.