New Delhi: A Bangladeshi journalist has been put in custody for three days by a local court over a complaint of an ‘inaccurate’ report of probable voting irregularity, capping a series of attacks against the media during Bangladesh’s national election.
The arrest was made under a new legislation which media houses had opposed at the time of its promulgation, citing its draconian provisions.
Bangladesh held its 11th parliamentary polls on Sunday, which returned Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to power for a third consecutive term. The ruling Awami League-led alliance won 287 seats in the 300-member parliament, while the opposition alliance obtained just six seats.
On Tuesday afternoon, Hedait Hossain Molla, a correspondent for online portal Bangla Tribune and a city editor of a local daily was arrested based on the complaint of the assistant returning officer of Khulna-1 constituency.
As per reports, the complaint claimed that despite 80% turnout in Khulna 1 constituency, the journalist had reported that 22,419 more votes were cast than the total number of voters.
The original report, as translated on its sister publication, Dhaka Tribune’s website, said that after the results were announced, the total number of votes polled by the candidates of Awami League and BNP was more than that of the registered number of voters.
“The discrepancy was noticed after Returning Officer Md Helal Hossain announced the results,” said the report.
It added that the results were re-announced on Sunday night with new voting numbers.
The article is no longer available on the Dhaka Tribune website.
The police complaint was made by assistant returning officer Debashish Chowdhdury, who said the “content of the report were untrue”. Another journalist, Rashidul Islam of daily Manab Zamin was also named in the first information report, but has not yet been arrested.
According to the Daily Star, the two media outlets ran the reports before the “correction” was made by the returning officer.
On Wednesday, Khulna Judicial magistrate remanded Molla to three-day custody. His lawyer claimed that the police had originally demanded custody for seven days.
Digital Security Act
He was arrested under the 2018 Digital Security Act, which came under fire from media groups and civil society when it was drafted and later approved due to its sweeping powers against the media.
International media advocacy group, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called on Bangladeshi authorities to immediately release Molla.
“Arresting a journalist for reporting on alleged election irregularities and raising legitimate questions is a disappointing way for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League party to respond to their re-election. The government should reaffirm its commitment to democratic values and refrain from abusing the Digital Security Act to attack press freedom,” said CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Steven Butler in a statement.
There have also been several reports of assault on media persons during the campaign and on the voting day.
Five days before voting, journalists were attacked in their hotel after returning from an election rally by a group armed with hockey sticks and batons. Around ten journalists were injured in the attack by the masked group, which also vandalised media vehicles parked outside the hotel, as per a Reuters report.
A Daily Star photojournalist and two other reporters were allegedly attacked by ruling party workers in different parts of Bangladesh in separate incidents last Sunday.
In Dhaka, a Daily Star journalist was beaten up by five-six men wearing badges of Awami League near a polling station. The police helped retrieve his mobile phone from the alleged attackers, but only after the journalist agreed to delete some photographs.
Over all, at least 18 people were reported to have died in poll-related violence on December 30. Both the US and European Union expressed concern over the violence and other irregularities which allegedly did not allow for a level-playing field to the opposition. The BNP and its allies rejected the results and called for a fresh vote.
The Bangladesh election commission had however, got a clean chit from observation missions sent by Nepal, India and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).