The organization asks government to stop intimidating the press
Independent press freedom advocate the Committee to Protect Journalists has expressed concerns over the Bangladesh authorities looking into the bank accounts of 12 journalists including Rozina Islam, senior reporter of the daily Prothom Alo newspaper.
“Authorities should immediately drop these investigations, cease harassing journalists, and commit to allowing the media to operate openly and freely,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, terming the move suspicious.
In a statement issued on Tuesday, the New York-based group said the investigations opened by the Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit (BFIU) of the central bank looks like “selective law enforcement aimed at intimidating the independent press.”
The BFIU, a government agency responsible for investigating money laundering and terrorist financing, on August 11 ordered all scheduled banks to provide details of any accounts associated with Rozina Islam, who is facing a case filed under the Official Secrets Act by the Health Ministry.
“Scheduled banks” refer to the 61 banks that are controlled and supervised by the Bangladesh Bank.
Separately, on September 16, the BFIU ordered banks to provide such information for an additional 11 journalist leaders, including the National Press Club President Farida Yasmin (pro-Awami League) and General Secretary Ilyas Khan (pro-BNP).
The nine other journalists also include Dhaka Reporters’ Unity (DRU) President Morsalin Nomani and General Secretary Mosiur Rahman Khan, and Awami League-backed Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ) faction President Molla Jalal and acting secretary general Abdul Majid.
The rest five leaders, whose bank details are sought, are President of the BNP-backed faction of BFUJ M Abdullah, and Secretary General Nurul Amin Rokon, General Secretary of pro-ruling party DUJ Sajjad Alam Khan Topu, President of the BNP-backed faction of DUJ Abdul Kader Gani Chowdhury and General Secretary Md Shahidul Islam.
The BFIU has sought all kinds of information on the bank accounts maintained by the senior journalists, including account opening forms with all documents, KYC, transaction profile, transaction details by Tuesday, according to reports.
The CPJ says, quoting M Abdullah, the authorities have not disclosed any reason for the order targeting those journalists.
National Press Club leaders also criticized the initiative, saying the move to launch a "sweeping decision against elected leaders of a particular professional" was motivated.
What the government says
Several journalist groups and the Editors’ Council have condemned the government move. On this, the BNP alleged that the BFIU had sought the bank details as part of a government move to gag the media.
“The government has long been enacting various black laws to suppress the media. They are now trying to shutdown online news portals through the court,” said BNP Senior Joint Secretary General Ruhul Kabir Rizvi.
The journalist leaders also sat with the information and broadcast minister, Hasan Mahmud, the ruling party’s joint general secretary.
The minister later said the government could seek anyone's bank details, including the MPs, government employees, and leaders of various business organizations, and “if people are transparent, they have nothing to worry about.”
He also said: "But it is a concern that why the bank details were sought in the name of organizations. I've told them that I will look into the matter as none will be harassed unnecessarily."
At another event, the minister said that he had already spoken at various levels about the importance of the issue. “The government is also trying to solve this problem quickly.”
He requested the leaders to suspend the protest programs for the sake of protecting the environment of cooperation in this regard.
Speaking at another program, Hasan said the country was moving forward because of the government’s close relations with journalists, and that the media flourished significantly in the country in the last 12 years.
He, however, said that some frauds were involved in flourishing media.
Closure of newspapers, online portals
Hasan Mahmud said that the government had taken steps to stop publication of irregular newspapers and started a process to send letters to the deputy commissioners asking them to cancel declaration of 10 newspapers.
He said that the people, who do not run newspapers after taking declaration, take those as a business to bring newsprint papers and sell it in the black market.
Meanwhile, in response to a High Court order, the telecom authorities on September 28 started blocking the unregistered news portals operating freely.
The CPJ says the August 11 order stemmed from an ongoing investigation by the Dhaka Metropolitan Police into a complaint filed by the country’s Health Ministry.
On May 17, authorities arrested Ms Islam for allegedly taking pictures of sensitive official documents related to Covid-19 vaccine purchase and other deals at its Secretariat office. She was released on bail on May 23.
Mr Islam has frequently reported on alleged corruption and mismanagement of the health sector’s Covid-19 response.
If charged and convicted, she could face up to 14 years in prison or the death penalty, according to the law.
On September 19, the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate Court in Dhaka rejected her request for the return of her two mobile phones and press identification card, which were seized during her arrest, and her passport, which was seized as a condition of her release on bail.