Bangladesh authorities must immediately drop all charges against journalist Md Shofiuzzaman Rana and investigate the harassment of five journalists in northern Lalmonirhat district, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Wednesday.

Rana was held in jail for a week after police arrested the journalist on March 5. Rana, who works for the Bangla-language newspaper Desh Rupantor, was arrested at a local government office in the northern Sherpur district after he filed a right to information (RTI) application regarding a government-run development program, according to news reports, the local press freedom group Bangladeshi Journalists in International Media, and Mustafa Mamun, acting editor of Desh Rupantor.

Later that day, an assistant land commissioner, who is also an executive magistrate, sentenced the journalist to six months in prison on charges of disobeying an order by a public servant and insulting the modesty of a woman. The action was taken through a mobile court, which is empowered to try offenses instantly.

Mohammad Ali Arafat, state minister for information and broadcasting, stated that the country’s information commission would investigate the incident and told CPJ that he would receive a copy of the commission’s investigative report on Monday, March 18.

Arafat told CPJ on Thursday that the report found the chief of the government office where Rana filed the RTI application “to be at fault.” The information commission summoned the official for further questioning on April 2, Arafat said, adding that based on the commission’s findings, Rana may be acquitted during his appeal, but the decision would depend on the judicial process.

Separately, at around 12 p.m. on March 14, employees at an assistant land commissioner’s office in Lalmonirhat held Mahfuz Sazu, a correspondent for the broadcaster mytv and the newspaper The Daily Observer, after the journalist filmed a land dispute hearing allegedly conducted by an unauthorized official, according to news reports, Bangladeshi Journalists in International Media, and the journalist, who spoke to CPJ.

Twenty minutes later, four members of the Lalmonirhat Press Club arrived to help Sazu and were also confined within the premises. After a district revenue commissioner arrived at the scene, the five journalists were released around 12:50 p.m.

“CPJ welcomes a government investigation into the retaliatory jailing of Bangladeshi journalist Md Shofiuzzaman Rana. Journalists should not face reprisal merely for seeking information,,” said Beh Lih Yi, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “Authorities should launch a transparent probe into the confinement of five correspondents in a  government office in Lalmonirhat and ensure that journalists are not harassed with impunity.”

Rana’s arrest unfolded after an office assistant refused to provide the journalist with a receipt for his RTI application. Rana then called the Sherpur deputy commissioner, or district magistrate, to resolve the issue, Mamun told CPJ, citing Rana. The chief of the local government office arrived at the scene and shouted at Rana, saying, “You are a broker journalist” (an insult used to refer to a media member who makes money through one-sided stories).

Police then arrived at the scene, arrested the journalist, and seized his two mobile phones. Rana was held for one week in Sherpur District Jail and released on bail on March 12. A local magistrate court is scheduled to hear Rana’s appeal against the verdict on April 16.

Separately, Sazu told CPJ that after filming the land dispute hearing, he interviewed three people connected to the case in the corridor of the assistant land commissioner’s office when an official unsuccessfully attempted to confiscate his phone.

The official then called the assistant land commissioner. At the same time, the office staff escorted the three people he interviewed out of the building and locked the entrance, leaving the journalist confined within the premises, Sazu said.

Sazu told CPJ that the journalist’s four colleagues later entered the building with the assistance of a local ward councilor but were also locked inside the premises. The journalists were:

  • Mazharul Islam Bipu, a correspondent for the broadcaster Independent Television
  • SK Sahed, a correspondent for the newspaper Daily Kalbela
  • Neon Dulal, a correspondent for the broadcaster Asian TV
  • Liakat Ali, a correspondent for the newspaper Daily Nabochatona

The assistant land commissioner then arrived at the scene and shouted at the journalists, calling them “brokers” and threatening to send them to jail via a mobile court, Sazu said, adding that the journalists also heard him telling an unidentified individual on the phone that he would file legal cases against them.

Later that day, the divisional commissioner of Rangpur, which encompasses Lalmonirhat, issued an order transferring the assistant land commissioner to another locality. The order was executed on Thursday, Sazu told CPJ.

Arafat told CPJ Thursday that the government would also investigate the incident in Lalmonirhat.