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'Insecure Govt Locks People Up': Outrage After 'Torture' of Photojournalist Shahidul Alam in Bangladesh

On August 5, Alam gave an interview to Al Jazeera, speaking out against the Bangladeshi security forces. He said that the government was using force against unarmed student protesters. His 'provocative' comments led to his arrest.

Rakhi Bose | News18.com

Updated:August 11, 2018, 4:13 PM IST
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'Insecure Govt Locks People Up': Outrage After 'Torture' of Photojournalist Shahidul Alam in Bangladesh
Image Source: Reuters
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Celebrated photojournalist Shahidul Alam had been documenting the protests that had been raging across Bangladesh’s capital since July 29 when two students were killed by a speeding bus in Dhaka.

On August 5, Alam gave an interview to Al Jazeera, speaking out against the Bangladeshi security forces. He said that the government was using force against unarmed student protesters. His 'provocative' comments led to his arrest. Soon after, Alam's name filled social media timelines and captured headlines worldwide.

Midnight ‘Abduction’

The very same night after his interview appeared, some 30 men in plain clothes, claiming to be from the Detective Branch (DB) raided Alam’s residence in Dhaka’s Dhanmondi area and abducted him. The men allegedly put tape on the CCTV cameras of Alam’s housing complex and allegedly dragged him out by force before driving him off. By Monday, the government of Bangladesh had charged him under Section 57 of the criticized Information Communication and Technology Act and taken him into custody.

The next day Alam was brought in front of a magistrate’s court where he claimed to have been tortured by authorities. Speaking to News18.com, Alam’s colleague Rezaur Rahman said that when he appeared in court, Alam was bare feet and propped on the shoulder of prison guards, unable to walk on his own. He told the magistrate that he had been physically and verbally abused.

Alam is the founder of Drik Picture Library, a multimedia journalistic organization based in Bangladesh. Rezaur, who is the Managing Director of Drik, said that the Magistrate refused to admit Alam’s complaint and it was only after a High Court hearing on Aug 8 that the photojournalist was sent to a hospital.

The men who had raided Alam’s home where he lives with his wife Rahnuma Ahmed remain unidentified as does the unit of DB that the men allegedly belonged to. A Facebook post made by Drik states that the local police (Dhanmondi police station) initially refused to lodge an FIR without orders from ‘superiors’.

The visuals of a harassed and allegedly abused Alam, an award-winning photojournalist who has inspired several photographers in Asia to take up journalism and street photography, have provoked international outrage against Bangladeshi authorities. Journalists across the world are now asking for a repeal of the ‘draconian’ ICT Act which has traditionally been used to suppress dissent in the nation.

End draconian laws

Renowned Indian photojournalist Raghu Rai told News18.com that such laws were ways for the weak governments to eschew dissent in order to maintain control over the state.

“These acts are common in times when the government is insecure after letting people down. When it has to answer for non-performance, for corruption, for price rise, it would rather not allow those uncomfortable questions at all. It is the ego and the arrogance of insecure rulers who have the impunity to cherry pick individuals at will and lock them up," Rai said.

Section 57 (1) of the ICT Act allows Bangladesh to take action against those who 'publish or transmit online or through other mediums content which is 'false and obscene' and may 'prejudice the image of the state' among other things. People that propagate content that may hurt religious sentiment, incite readers to become 'dishonest or corrupt', or pose a threat to law and order are also persecuted under the same law.

In essence, the Act allows for absolute murder of dissent within the state and Bangladeshi journalists have borne the brunt of the Act, simply for speaking out.

Alam spoke out against the government’s handling of the unarmed students. But he also added that the resentment that boiled out in the form of protests against ever-increasing road deaths and an apparent lack of road safety in the country, may have deeper roots. Alam, who is also a social activist, said that the present Sheikh Hasina government is an 'unelected one and that it did not enjoy popular support.

In the short, under four minutes interview, he spoke about the gagging of journalists in Bangladesh, the rule by brute of force despite lack of mandate, looting of banks, the quota system for government jobs that favours the ruling party and extrajudicial killings, disappearances and bribery at all levels including in fields such as education. Alam, who also founded Pathshala South Asian Media Institute – a school for training photographers, has previously been targeted by Bangladeshi authorities for his reportage on the extrajudicial killings that took place during the Sheikh Hasina government.

Rai blamed the problem on lack of nation building, adding that the government of Bangladesh is unlikely to respond to international pressure as long is continues to be fractured and sporadic.

International Outcry

The arrest and the accompanying images and videos have led to massive international outcry. Members of the civil society, intellectuals and thinkers of various countries have condemned the incident and the arrest has received generous media coverage.

A New York Times article reported on the August 9 hearing, stating that when the renegade artist was asked in court when he would stop speaking against the government, a defiant Alam replied that he would stop when the present government falls.

While News18 could not confirm that statement, sources close to the journalist said that the fight to bring back the face of Bangladeshi photojournalism was on.

According to Alam's colleague Rahman, Alam was represented in court by the eminent jurist Dr Kamal Hossain. After the hearing, the court has asked Bangladeshi authorities to produce a second report on Alam's health. The first report had stated that Alam was in good health and needed no hospitalisation. However, to prove claims of torture, detailed examination of his injuries was required and such an analysis was missing from the medical report.

Outside the legal chambers, the movement to repeal the draconian ICT, which allows for unbailable arrest and a prison term of up to 14 years for those convicted under it, has gained steam in Bangladesh and abroad.

A petition on Change.org seeking the release of the activist has amassed almost 4 lakh signatures in just a matter of two days. Strong statements were given by Amnesty International against the incident, the UK based Guardian ran an editorial stating the Bangladeshi governmnet should immediately free Alam. On August 9, Dhaka Reporters Union (DRU) organised a rally demanding the release of Alam and action against those who attack journalists.

The Bangladesh Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu has announced that journalists injured while covering the protests will be treated free of cost. But the response comes as too little too late with journalists and influencers in Bangladesh including Tanima Rahman, Barrister Sara Hussain and others are calling for a repeal of the ICT Act. Social media is also rife with criticism.

In India too, journalists have reacted with equal eloquence. The Indian Editors Guild put out a statement against the alleged attack on the right to practice freedom of journalism. It added that editorial freedom was the hallmark of independent and effective journalism and that the government or its arms cannot use denial of journalistic freedom as a weapon. Many eminent journalists, filmmakers and photographers including Anurag Kasyap and Raghu Rai himself spoke out against the matter on social media. Raghu Rai wrote an open letter to Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina, asking her to release Alam, who has been Rai's friend and colleague for almost three decades.

Journalists have also organised rallies in cities like Kolkata, demanding justice and a repealing of the ICT Act. Speaking to News18, award-winning photo-journalist Ronny Sen said it was about time governments put down such laws that hurt journalistic and artistic freedom.

"To be able to critisize one's governmnet is one of the basic political tenets of a democracy. No country can survive on brutal murder of freedom of speech like this and as a journalist and artist, I feel everyone should support Alam's freedom from incarceration," Sen said.

He added that instead of arresting those that point out problems in a country, the role of the government needs to be that of solving the problem itself.

Dhaka, which is home to more than 18 million residents, has one of the worst road safety crises in the world. A 2015 WHO report on road safety estimated that in 2013 there were between 17,349 and 25,283 road deaths in Bangladesh. The official figures for 2013 were just above 3,296.

While Bangladesh has announced a tougher punishment for those violating traffic rules, the accompanying arrest of Alam may be read as a warning against those who are not with the Hasina government and increasing attacks on journalists have only heightened such concerns among the progressive members of the Bangladeshi civil society as well as large sections of the general populace.

Meanwhile, Alam’s case has been scheduled to be heard again on Monday.

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