May 31, 2020, 1:43 pm

Arrest of famed photojournalist Shahidul Alam is a stranglehold of free speech in Bangladesh

Arrest of famed photojournalist Shahidul Alam is a stranglehold of free speech in Bangladesh

Md Ahsanul Wadud

The arbitrary arrest of Shahidul Alam, an internationally recognised photojournalist isa reinstatement of clear threat on free speech right in Bangladesh. The police has arrested Alam on 05 August. Alam was arrested only because he gavean interview to Al-Jazeera; in which he expressed views critical of the Bangladeshiregime’s fierce suppression on public demonstrations in Dhaka. His comment aboutstudent protest on Al-Jazeera branded as ‘provocative’.Following hours after the interview photojournalist Shahidul Alam Dhaka home wasstormed by at least 20 plain-clothes police officers around 10 pm. After a day, he wascharged under Section 57 of Information Communications Technology Act, anextensive law against electronic communication that “tends to deprave or corrupt” theimage of the state. Arrests and disappearances under section-57 are now common inBangladesh. Authorities had already arrested many journalists, activists and ordinarycitizen under this repressive act. Each of these arrests took place in a common patternplain-clothes officer storm into the home and forcibly arrests the person withoutexplanation or warrant. They seize all the CCTV or camera footage before they leavewith arrestee’s. In this type of arrest government agencies completely deny anyknowledge of such arrest and keep the families clueless about the fate of their lovedones. Shahidul Alam was very lucky compare to many who have the same fate. Because ofhis extreme success as a photographer, he was popular to the media and news of hisarrest spread like wildfire. Dozens of people immediately rushed to the DetectiveBranch Office, where he was believed to be held, to show their support and demand toknow his whereabouts.4After a tense 12-hour wait, the Detective Branch was forced toadmit they had indeed detained Alam. The official announcement was a big relief forhis family, as they feared they might not hear anything about the photographer’s fate. On Monday, Alam was taken to the Magistrate court for the first time. He appearedshaken and was visibly limping in the court. Alam told reporters outside themagistrate’s court that he had been beaten so badly in police custody that his bloodstained clothed needed to be washed and given back to him before his appearance inthe court.Alam was indeed fearless given his frank interview with Al Jazeera in the currentdreadful situation of Bangladesh. Alam spoken of things in the front of media thatalthough most Bangladeshi accepts as true but never dare to mention it in an interviewbecause of the well established fear of savage retaliation. Massive demonstrations instigated in Bangladesh after a fast-moving bus killed twoteenagers on July 29, with student protesters pressing the government to make thecountry’s chaotic and deadly roads safer. The government pretended that the protestswere only about road safety, but Alam revealed to al Jazeera that the demonstratorswere driven by “larger” factors than road safety alone.

Alam pointed in his interview that “the looting of the banks and the gaggling of the media” and epidemic of “extrajudicial killings, disappearing’s, bribery and corruption” as the real reasons behind the public’s growing anger. He said public enraged in the country was building up for a very long time and the killing of the two teenagers was only “a valve” that allowed these feelings of disappointment and fury to go through.

Alam justified Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina lost all credibility in the eyes of the Bangladeshi public when she failed to reform the “rigged” quota system earlier this year after promising to do so amid widespread protests. He also linked the government’s brutal response to the current protests to the general election that is expected to take place later this year.

Alam further said, ‘They know if there is a free and fair election, they would lose.’ This was why, Alam claimed, the government is brutally attacking protestors – they are desperately trying to subdue the public and retain to power.

The elites and intellectuals in Bangladesh long ago choose to remain silent on the face of increasing government brutality towards opposition activists and ordinary citizens. They stay out of politics and even persuaded the ruling party to secure their own protection and prosperity. Alam’s arrest is a message to the urban elite and the secular cultural establishment that you either maintain silence or accept the sufferings. 

Bangladesh intellectuals facing a turning point now either they will follow Alam lead or suffer in suffer in silence.   Taking a right courageous decision by intellectuals can reshape the future of our country and may be the only the way forward to protect people from oppression. 

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