Why should there be mobile courts against journalists?

Journalist Shafiuzzaman Rana. In front of the Sherpur district jail after being released on TuesdayProthom Alo

Journalist Shafiuzzaman has been released on bail. This may be good news, but Shafiuzzaman is certainly not at ease. The case against him, after all, hasn't been withdrawn. And he had to spend a few days in jail despite being innocent.

The upazila's assistant commissioner (land) and executive magistrate Md Shihabul Arif sentenced him to six months' imprisonment on charges of obstructing government work, entering a government office and misbehaving with government officials.

The mobile court is a concise method of trial. The judge of this court turns up at a location and sentences the guilty persons on the spot. Section 7 of the Mobile Court Act states, punishment may be conferred on the basis of confession. If the accused does not confess, the magistrate may either discharge him or refer the case to the appropriate court. Again, the executive magistrate is empowered to punish a person when the offence has been committed in his presence while conducting the Court.

But the magistrate had not been at the site in Nakla, Sherpur. And the accused Shafiuzzaman didn't even confess his guilt to him. Even so, he sentenced Shafiuzzaman to six months' imprisonment for entering a government office and misbehaving. He said that the Nakla UNO is a senior official. If a senior official of a government office asks for any persons to be caught and brought forward, the subordinates carry out the orders.

After being released on bail on Tuesday, Shafiuzzaman told Prothom Alo, "Before I was sentenced by the mobile court, I was told to say sorry. I said that I hadn't committed any offence. I had filled up a form and brought a right to information application here. I will not say sorry. They phoned the OC then. My elder son and I were standing under the CC camera. After a while, the OC came in civil clothes and took me away." He said he had not committed any offence and so did not admit to any guilt.

On the afternoon of the same day, lawyer Md Abdur Rahman submitted an appeal to the court of the district magistrate Abdullah Al Khairum against the sentencing of Shafiuzzaman. In the appeal, the lawyer stated that the sentence given by the mobile court against Shafiuzzaman was not in keeping with the law. Shafiuzzaman had not admitted guilt to the mobile court. The lawyer appealed for the sentence to be stayed and cancelled. District magistrate Abdullah Al Khairum accepted the appeal and sent it on to the court of additional district magistrate Zebunnahar for further action.

After the hearing at the additional district magistrate's court in the afternoon, his bail was granted. Shafiuzzaman was released from jail at around six on the evening.

Shafiuzzaman works as the Nakla upazila correspondent of daily newspaper Desh Rupantor. He was in jail from 5 March following the sentence issued by the mobile court. Describing the incident that took place at the UNO office, Shafiuzzaman said that he had gone to the UNO office, accompanied by his elder son Shahriar Jahan, to ask for information under the right to information act.

He had applied under the right to information act for information of the Annual Development Programme (ADP) and certain JICA projects. This angered the UNO, Sadia Ummul Banin, and she began hurling abuse at Shafiuzzaman and his son. She then summoned the upazila assistant commissioner (land) Md Shihabul Arif, set up a mobile court in the UNO office and sentenced Shafiuzzaman under two sections. The charges brought against him are completely false and fabricated.

UNO Sadia Ummul Banin said, "Journalist Rana came to apply for information, but he wanted the information right then. I told him I was in a meeting and I had 20 days' time in which to provide the information. But Rana started tugging at the file which was with CA Sheela and spoke in a rude manner. This created an unpleasant atmosphere in the office. That is why I asked the assistant commissioner (land) to set up the mobile court."

The Editors' Council and various journalist associations and human rights organisations condemned this incident and expressed concern. The Information Commission has ordered an inquiry into why the mobile court was set up and the journalist sentenced instead of providing him with the information he had sought under the right to information act. On Sunday morning the information commissioner Shahidul Alam (Jhinuk) went to Sherpur and began the inquiry. He completed work on Monday afternoon and returned to Dhaka.

When a mobile court is set up against a journalist, he is tried and sent to jail in no time at all. When a case is filed against government officials, investigations drag on and remain incomplete even after four years. Is this justice? Is this an example of the rule of law?

We hail this move by the information commission. We also called upon them to carry out similar inquiries into other incidents where the government offices are reluctant to provide journalists with information. There is no point in having a right to information act unless it is implemented. Initially there was a lack of interest among the people to seek information, but in recent times this interest has grown substantially. But a section of government officials prevaricate over providing information. They feel that if they provide information, their discrepancies and weaknesses will come to light. An inquiry should be made into whether this was the case in the Nakla UNO office.

It is not common for mobile courts to set up against journalists, but this is not the first time. On 13 March 2020, the DC in Kurigram set up a mobile court against the Kurigram journalist Arifur Islam. Before that, seven or eight persons had entered his house at midnight and beat him up in front of his wife and children. Arif's had incurred the DC's wrath by exposing how he had used the Food for Work funds to re-excavate a pond and name it after himself to gain glory and fame.

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Shafiuzzaman of Nakla, Sherpur, did not report against the UNO. He had gone there to collect information for a report. The UNO claimed that he had misbehaved with her and another female official in the office. Her claims have not been proven. But is it not misbehaviour on her part to set up a mobile court and send a journalist to jail for five days because he had sought certain information? Against whom will Shafiuzzaman set up a mobile court now? Government officials cannot remain above accountability simply because they are civil servants.

The public administration ministry had hurriedly withdrawn the DC in the Kurigram incident. The UNO in Nakla is still in place. Journalist Ariful Islam had filed a case against four persons including the DC for raiding his home and attempting to murder. Investigations into the case have not been completed. When a mobile court is set up against a journalist, he is tried and sent to jail in no time at all. When a case is filed against government officials, investigations drag on and remain incomplete even after four years. Is this justice? Is this an example of the rule of law?

* Sohrab Hassan is joint editor of Prothom Alo and a poet  

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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