Twelve journalists and bloggers covering the pandemic have been charged by police since it began.
Some even volunteered to get themselves arrested.
The demonstrations were in support of prominent investigative journalist Rozina Islam, who was arrested this week for allegedly “stealing” government documents related to COVID-19. The case is being watched closely in a country where the government has carried out an increasingly violence crackdown on media freedom, according to Human Rights Watch.
The 42-year-old works for Prothom Alo, one of the country’s largest newspapers. According to police reports reviewed by the Associated Press, Islam took photos of government documents related to procurement and negotiations of COVID-19 vaccines at the health ministry in the capital Dhaka.
On Monday, she was arrested and charged with theft under the feared Official Secrets Act. The colonial-era law carries a maximum penalty of the death sentence.
Islam’s colleagues and family also alleged that she was detained at the health ministry for over five hours, where she was mentally and physically harassed.
Zahid Maleque, the country’s health minister, dismissed reports of the hours-long confinement. “I don’t have any idea whether she was tortured after being confined at the Health Ministry,” he told the media.
He claimed Islam entered an office without permission and left the ministry with the files by hiding them inside her clothes. “Those were state’s secrets. She did the wrong thing,” he said.
At least 12 journalists and bloggers have been charged by police for covering the COVID-19 crisis, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Human Rights Watch also found that at least 247 journalists were attacked, harassed and intimidated by state officials and those affiliated with the government in 2020.
Sajjad Sharif, the managing editor of Prothom Alo, told the media that Islam routinely unearthed corruption in the health sector and the government took “corrective measures” in response to her journalism.
“She has become a victim of vengeance of people who have been angry about her reports,” Sharif added.
The newspaper already had a testy relationship with the government, which banned its reporters from official press conferences.
Islam’s husband Monirul told reporters that he was worried about her physical condition and said she was “not well”.
On Wednesday, 60 Bangladeshi journalists and activists signed an open letter in support of Islam, demanding an investigation into what happened.
For now, the case has been handed over to a specialised unit of Bangladesh Police that previously investigated murders of three prominent journalists and bloggers.