Bangladeshi journalist arrested for reporting on rising food prices

Samsuzzaman Shams, a reporter with leading daily Prothom Alo was arrested under the controversial Digital Security Act , after police officials raided his house in the dead of night

April 02, 2023 by Peoples Dispatch
Protesters hold signs up demanding that journalist Samsuzzaman Shams be freed.
Prothom Alo reporter Samsuzzaman Shams' arrest has sparked outrage and protests. (PHOTO: Prabir Das via The Daily Star)

Members of civil society, journalists’ bodies such as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the Editors’ Council, the Media Freedom Coalition in Bangladesh, and opposition parties have demanded the immediate release of reporter Samsuzzaman Shams, who was booked under Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act (DSA), along with editor Matiur Rehman, for publishing a report in leading daily Prothom Alo regarding rising food prices in Bangladesh.

Around 4 am on Wednesday, March 29, a group of 15 men in civil attire, who identified themselves as members of the police Criminal Investigation Department, raided his home in Savar town, on the outskirts of Dhaka.

On March 26, the Ramna police station filed a case under the same charges against Prothom Alo’s editor Matiur Rehman. At least 50 other cases have been lodged against the editor by successive governments in Bangladesh.

Bangladeshi authorities, under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, have been accused of misusing the DSA law to harass and intimidate journalists and human right defenders, muzzling dissenting and critical voices.

According to the CPJ, the First Investigation Report they accessed showed Dhaka Tejgaon police station claiming they were investigating Shamsuzzaman under the DSA following a complaint by a local political leader. The reporter was kept at an undisclosed location for 30 hours before being produced before a court. He was sent to jail on March 30.

“What did Samsuzzaman do? He wrote about the objections of low-income people regarding inflating commodity price? What is wrong in being an objector? That is what a citizen does—asks questions, seeks rights and objects about anything done otherwise. Citizens are not meant to be minions,” columnist Farjana Liakat wrote, condemning the arrest.

In his report on rising food prices, Samasuzzaman had quoted a laborer, Zakir Hossain, questioning the premise of independence celebrations in Bangladesh, saying “what will I do with the independence if I can’t afford food? We need the independence of rice, fish and meat.” The report was used against the reporter and Prothom Alo for allegedly “embarrassing the government”.

The newspaper has denied using any “fabricated or ill-motivated news” and instead defended the content of the article. It did note that a Facebook post had made a small error, which the social media team had immediately rectified.

In a statement, the Newspaper Owners Association of Bangladesh (NOAB) stressed the manner in which sections of DSA law are used is “tantamount to harassing him (Prothom Alo’s editor Matiur Rehman) and muzzling the bold journalism his newspaper does”.

A day after the reporter was picked up, the South Asian Network on Economic Modeling released a survey in which they found inflation in Bangladesh had dramatically impacted the poorest in the country. The lower strata of the population were finding proper access to food difficult and at least 32.38% of the people surveyed admitted they had had to put off meals despite hunger and 39.5% stated that they had run out of food at home.

The prices of essential items continue to climb and have increased up to 151 percent year-on-year on average in the country, according to estimates by the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh. The price of meat has risen by an average of 39% and rice by up to 30%, the state-run commerce body has noted.