Moment that mattered: Photographer Shahidul Alam is arrested in Bangladesh
On Sunday 5th August, Shahidul Alam gave a Skype interview to Al Jazeera English’s news anchor Hazem Sika. In the interview he explained why Bangladeshis had been protesting for more than a week against what he described as an “unelected government that doesn’t have a mandate to rule but clings on by brute force.”
The acclaimed photographer told Sika that the protesters, many of whom were students, had what he described as a “never-ending list” ofgrievances against their government, including “the looting of the banks, the gagging of the media… extrajudicial killings, disappearances, bribery at all levels and corruption…” He concluded the interview by saying that the government was using “armed goons” to stifle opposition. Later that day, a group of at least 20 men arrived at Alam’s apartment in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, took him outside, bundled him into an unmarked van and drove off.
“It’s vindictiveness. Nothing justified arresting him. This is the government saying, ‘Why did you criticise us in such a harsh way’?”
Alam is renowned for his photography and human rights advocacy within and beyond his home country. For decades he captured powerful images of political turmoil and natural disasters in Bangladesh, and he has helped to educate a generation of homegrown photographers through his photography academy and hispicture agency.
The news of his abduction soon reached Tanvir Chowdhury, an Al Jazeera English reporter covering Bangladesh. “I didn’t suspect somebody as prominent as him would be picked up that way,” says Chowdhury. “No one knew where Alam was taken that night. It was only late the next day that the family came to know he had been picked up by detectives and taken by them for interrogation.”
“It’s vindictiveness [on the part of] the government,” Chowdhury says of Alam’s detention. “Nothing justifies arresting him. This is the government saying, ‘Why did you criticise us in such a harsh way? We’re going to make sure you’re behind bars.’”
On 29th July, a week before the 63-year-old’s arrest, a speeding bus hit and killed two teenage pedestrians in Dhaka and simmering frustrations reached boiling point. Road deaths are common in Bangladesh: in 2017, there were nearly 7,400 nationwide, more than 20 every day. However these deaths struck a particular nerve with students, who took to the streets in their thousands. Children as young as 13 took it upon themselves to police traffic in the city of 18 million, setting up checkpoints, asking to see drivers’ licences and telling motorists to obey traffic laws. They demanded that the driver who killed Diya Khanam Mim and Abdul Karim Rajib receive the death penalty and for traffic laws to be enforced more strictly. Some parts of the capital were brought to a complete standstill.
On 4th August the demonstrations took a grim turn. Police allegedly used rubber bullets and teargas to disperse the student protesters – an allegation that has been denied by the police. There were also reports that members of groups linked to the ruling Awami League party attacked students and local journalists. Bangladeshi officials denied that police and members of the ruling party used violence to suppress protesters and claimed that opposition figures infiltrated the protests and turned them violent.
The next day, Alam gave his fateful interview live on Al Jazeera. “There were people with machetes in their hands chasing unarmed students, and the police are standing by watching it happen,” he said. “This morning there was teargassing and I saw the police ganging up trying to catch these unarmed students whereas these armed goons… are walking past and [the police] are just standing by.” Asked how he thought the situation would develop from here, Alam said “I think the government has miscalculated… you cannot tame an entire nation in this manner.”
Chowdhury agrees with Alam’s analysis that there were deeper causes than the traffic deaths behind the students’ outrage. “These protests were not isolated… [There is] pent-up frustration in the country because there’s no outlet. Opposition [supporters] are unable to go to rallies, people are arrested the moment they attend rallies and the media is curtailed,” he says. Rights groups have criticised the ruling Awami League, headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, of suppressing dissent by cracking down on social media use and restricting the press.
A day after his detention, Shahidul Alam was seen in court. Unable to walk without assistance, he told reporters he had been beaten by police. He was charged under section 57 of the Information Communication Technology Act, a clause that has received widespread criticism for its broad scope for misuse. In one instance of its use which caused outrage in the Bangladeshi media, a local journalist from the Khulna district was arrested for sharing an article on Facebook which said a goat had died almost immediately after a state minister gave it to a villager.
Chowdhury describes the as law “draconian”. “Student activists as young as 18 were detained under Section 57 for satirising Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the father of the nation [Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman] and government ministers on social media,” he says.
But the Digital Security Act, which replaced the old law in October 2018, could offer even more scope for suppressing dissent. Human Rights Watch has said the new law “strikes a blow to freedom of speech in the country”. “It could easily be used before the election to make it very difficult for the opposition to be critical of the prime minister or the government on social media,” says Chowdhury.
” Talking politics is a very integral part of the culture. But in the last five years, it’s almost been killed.”
With the election scheduled for 30th December, the law is not the only cause for concern over free speech in Bangladesh. One recent measure with a particularly Orwellian ring to it is the founding of the “Rumour Identification and Removal Centre”, a special police monitoring cell dedicated to detecting misinformation on social media. With Dhaka reportedly the city with the second-largest active Facebook user base in the world, such a measure could have a “dramatic impact” on the elections, says Chowdhury. “The younger generation is getting a lot of alternative news and information through social media. The government wants to curtail that before the elections.”
In early November, minister of cultural affairs Asaduzzaman Noor defended the state of free speech in Bangladesh. “Let me tell you one thing, everybody is free to talk. You should watch our television shows and you will see that everybody is criticising the government,” he told a reporter at UAE news site The National. Alam’s case, he said, would be resolved “in time”.
The detention of the photographer prompted a global outcry. Numerous rights groups issued statements calling for his release and more than 16,000 people signed an online petition to that end. On 17th November, more than three months after Alam’s arrest, the photographer was finally granted bail.
Chowdhury is pessimistic about freedom of expression in Bangladesh. “I’ve never seen this country so restrictive,” he says. “Talking politics is a very integral part of the culture. But in the last five years, it’s almost been killed.” He admits he was “nervous and scared” during the August protests. Though he has not faced any harassment himself, he says he has become more careful about criticising the prime minister.
“There is an atmosphere of fear and intimidation amongst the press community and the new digital security act can really hamper investigative journalists’ work” says Chowdhury. With elections looming, he says, “good reporting is bound to suffer during a very critical time in Bangladesh”.
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