‘Can’t afford rice’ quote lands journalist in jail


A journalist at a leading Bangladeshi newspaper has been jailed on charges of publishing "false" news after his report on high food prices went viral.

Samsuzzaman Shams of Prothom Alo daily appeared in court and was denied bail, a day after he was arrested.

His story - which ran on 26 March, the country's Independence Day - is alleged to have "smeared the government".

Rights activists have denounced the arrest and accused the government of stifling press freedom.

The government denies the allegation but media rights groups have warned of a steady erosion in freedoms under the governing Awami League, in power since 2009.

Reporters Without Borders ranked Bangladesh 162 out of 180 countries in last year's World Press Freedom Index, below Russia and Afghanistan.

The paper Mr Shams works for is Bangladesh's largest and the most influential daily. It was not immediately clear how long he would stay in jail.

The reporter was picked up at his home outside Dhaka early on Wednesday morning by plain-clothes officers.

His employers had no idea of his whereabouts for nearly 30 hours as police and other security agencies said they had no information on him.

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The report for which Mr Shams was detained featured ordinary Bangladeshis talking about their lives on Independence Day.

One quotation was from a labourer who asked: "What is the use of this freedom if we can't afford rice?"

The comment was seen to reflect growing worries about escalating food prices, which have soared around the world since Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The Prothom Alo article was shared by large numbers of people. When the paper posted the report on Facebook, it used a wrong photo of a person.

"Once we realised the error, we immediately pulled it down and issued a clarification under the (amended) report," Sajjad Sharif, the paper's executive editor, told the BBC.

"But we stand by the original report. The quote of the labourer on the food price was genuine," he said.

But supporters of the governing Awami League accused the daily of fabricating quotes and tarnishing the image of the country.

Police have also launched an investigation against its editor, Matiur Rahman, as well as a video journalist from the newspaper and several other people under the controversial Digital Security Act (DSA).

Law Minister Anisul Haq said Mr Shams had "misrepresented facts with the mala fide intention of creating discontent".

"The case was filed by an individual not by the government. Due process will follow," Mr Haq told the BBC.

He said the editor and the publisher of the daily also had responsibility for the report - and that's why police were investigating them.

The latest developments come amid concerns over the alleged harassment of human rights defenders and media personnel in the build-up to elections later this year.

The Media Freedom Coalition, an initiative by a group of Western nations in Dhaka, has expressed concern over recent reports of violence and intimidation of journalists, including the detention in the Prothom Alo case.

Bangladeshi journalists say there are increasingly under pressure for reporting that is critical of the government of Sheikh Hasina. They say the DSA has created a culture of fear.

According to media rights groups, cases have been filed against around 280 journalists under the DSA since it was enacted in 2018.

Mr Haq says the government is working with media houses on issues concerning the act. "I engaged with them [editors] to remove the fear. We are trying to take the best practices. If the DSA has to be improved we will make rules to do that," he said.