Bangladesh: Shahidul Alam is back, free speech is not

Attacks on freedom of expression in Bangladesh continue even after the release of the renowned photojournalist.

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    Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam reacts as he is released from Dhaka Central Jail, Keraniganj, near Dhaka, on November 20, 2018 [AFP]
    Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam reacts as he is released from Dhaka Central Jail, Keraniganj, near Dhaka, on November 20, 2018 [AFP]

    Shahidul Alam, the internationally recognised photographer who was detained by the Bangladeshi authorities in August after making allegedly "provocative" statements in an interview with Al Jazeera, has recently been released on bail after spending over 100 days in prison. 

    Following his detention, the award-winning photojournalist immediately became a poster child for free-speech advocacy around the globe. #Freeshahidul became a popular hashtag on Twitter, as Nobel laureates signed petitions, prominent newspapers published numerous op-eds, and diplomats from major nations engaged in overt and back-channel negotiations with Bangladeshi authorities to secure Alam's release.

    The outburst from the international community surprised the Bangladeshi government, given the country's long and habitually dismal record on human rights. In the eyes of the authorities, Alam was perhaps just another journalist to be thrown into jail, like the many before him, and the more soon to follow. Luckily for Alam, the protestations from the international community eventually became too overbearing for the Bangladeshi authorities to handle. 

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    Prior to Alam's eventual release, the penultimate flurry of activities from the international community included a full-fledged resolution on the human rights situation in Bangladesh adopted by the European Parliament, in which a special section was dedicated to Shahidul Alam.

    Concurrent to the European Parliament's resolution, but perhaps coincidentally, renowned Indian writer Arundhati Roy published an open letter on Shahidul Alam, drawing parallels between the assaults on free speech in India and Bangladesh. India wields significant psychological and literal sway over affairs in Bangladesh, and Arundhati's letter was clearly trying to make an emotional appeal to Bangladesh-watchers within India.

    Although it is hard to establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship, it is noteworthy that within just 48 hours of the European Parliament resolution and Arundhati's letter, Shahidul Alam was granted bail by the same Bangladeshi judicial system, which only days earlier had refused petitions for his bail four times, as some judges felt "embarrassed" to hear his case. 

    Although Bangladeshi authorities expressed their willingness to pursue an appeal against Alam's bail, for the time being, he appears to be free and talking publicly.

    Freedom of expression still under threat

    The international community played an extraordinary role in securing Shahidul Alam's release and in keeping his case alive in the realm of global conscience. However, much work still needs to be done as freedom of expression, particularly when it touches politics, remains as perilous as ever in Bangladesh - a country that is becoming increasingly authoritarian.

    Take for example the case of Maidul Islam, an associate professor of Sociology at Chittagong University, one of the largest public educational institutions in Bangladesh. Just weeks after Shahidul Alam's arrest, Maidul was detained and jailed for making "derogatory" remarks about Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Facebook. Maidul's state-run employer chose to quickly suspend him, rather than attempt to protect the freedom of expression of one of its faculty members.

    Maidul was victim of the infamous section 57 of the country's controversial Information Communication and Technology Act (ICT Act), which allows non-bailable arrest of anyone the police considers to have engaged in defamation of the prime minister or her father - the founding president of Bangladesh, also known as the "Father of the Nation" as per the current constitution of Bangladesh.

    One intriguing aspect of Maidul Islam's case is that none of the numerous news stories on his arrest spells out the exact phrases he used in his Facebook post to "defame the prime minister". This is reminiscent of news reports on blasphemy coming from illiberal societies, where the news media often refrains from quoting the blasphemous words of the accused, due to the fear of themselves being accused of committing blasphemy.

    And Islam's is not an isolated case, as the jailing of academics, teachers and other ordinary citizens for allegedly defaming authority figures is quite common in Bangladesh.

    Earlier in April, the Dhaka University, Bangladesh's premium academic institution, suspended Professor Morshed Hasan Khan for criticising the Prime Minister Hasina's father in a newspaper article. In August last year, 13 high-school teachers were arrested on sedition charges for allegedly making derogatory remarks about the "Father of the Nation".

    According to statistics from Human Rights Watch, during the first quarter of 2018 alone, Bangladeshi police filed 282 charge sheets accusing people of criticising the government, defamation, or offending religious sentiments. There are instances where people went to jail, not for authoring, but simply liking, sharing or commenting on Facebook content that the government found offensive.

    Witnessing the rising tide of intolerance towards political dissent, Bangladeshi civil society, which was once known for raucous political debates, has now grown accustomed to exchanging political messages in guarded whispers.

    Silencing the opposition

    Amid the backdrop of increasing censorship, Bangladesh is nearing the December 30 parliamentary elections. The country's beleaguered opposition is already feeling the heat of the government's increasing crackdown on freedom of expression.

    Bangladeshi opposition parties have formed an alliance to electorally challenge the well-oiled political machine of Prime Minister Hasina - flush with cash and aided by the ever-oppressive state apparatus hell-bent on perpetuating the status-quo. 

    As part of the alliance's candidate selection process, Tarique Rahman, the exiled heir-apparent of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) - the country's main opposition party - was conducting interviews with prospective candidates via Skype from London.

    Realising Rahman was using Skype to communicate with aspiring MPs from his own party, the Bangladeshi authorities blocked access to the communication platform across the country. All internet-based communication services were temporarily shut down by authorities around the office of BNP Chief Khaleda Zia.

    Following the detentions of Shahidul Alam, Maidul Islam and Morshed Hasan Khan, among many others, it is already a well-established fact that the authorities in Bangladesh do not respond well to public criticism of their policies and conduct.

    However, on top of silencing and even jailing everyone who publicly criticises the government, the authorities are now trying to prevent opposition figures from even talking privately among themselves. This is an extraordinary development even given Bangladesh's abysmal standards and is likely a sign that further violations of free speech are down the road.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.


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