The arrest of Rozina Islam, one of Bangladesh’s most prominent investigative journalists, is an assault on all reporters argues Syed Badrul Ahsan, associate research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

Rozina Islam’s confinement at Bangladesh’s ministry of health for more than five hours was an assault on all journalists in the country. It also exposed the ugly truth that the ‘establishment’ has now arrogated to itself the power to humiliate journalists with impunity and let them know that there are red lines beyond which they cannot go.

Known for her anti-corruption reporting, Islam was allegedly subjected to a body search and had her mobile phone confiscated. Bangladesh’s journalism has been crumbling for years and treating her in such an ugly manner sent a clear message to the media community that their voices did not matter anymore. And that is the other side of the truth. Restrictive laws, the frequent calls to journalists for positive news stories, the hectoring they receive when trying to ask questions – these are the realities the media is expected to acknowledge. Rozina Islam went to the Secretariat with a bagful of questions. Now our profession has come under question and will remain that way unless we shape a firm response to what she experienced.

And that brings us to the unavoidable. Over the last couple of decades, through pusillanimity, the media community has frittered away its energy, vitality, and intellectual strength, providing the establishment with the space to pounce on it today. If there is a lesson to be learned from this episode, it is that partisan journalism has left us wounded and bleeding with an ever-widening chasm among practitioners that is based on political beliefs.

It is time for journalists to come together to let the country, the ruling circles and the political opposition know that when the media is under assault, it is democracy that takes a battering and politics that dwindles into the pointless. Beyond and above partisan political beliefs, it is the fundamentals of journalism, based as they are on the principles of secular democracy so eloquently expressed 50 years ago as we marched off to a war for freedom, which must be restored.

Democracy must have room for dissent. Governance and administration are never threatened by the media, only refined by its inquiries. It is now time for journalists to say ‘Enough!’ and uphold their independence in this 50th year of the sovereign existence of our cherished People’s Republic.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is an associate fellow at the School of Advanced Study’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies and editor-in-charge at The Asian Age. His biography of Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, From Rebel to Founding Father: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was published in 2013. Recent works include Glory and Despair: The Politics of Tajuddin Ahmad, and History Makers in Our Times. He contributes to Dhaka CourierFirst News, Dhaka Tribune, Bangla Tribune, Our TimeIndian Express, Asian Affairs, and South Asia Monitor.

Cover image: Female journalists take part in a protest demanding the release of detained investigative  journalist Rozina Islam. Mamunur Rashid/Shutterstock