By Beena Sarwar
The arrest in Bangladesh of the celebrated photojournalist Shahidul Alam is personal for me. He’s been a friend for over 20 years through our work on media and South Asia. As in Bangladesh, the nascent democracy in my own country, Pakistan, is marred by censorship, illegal detentions and extrajudicial killings.
Our common problems notwithstanding, the dominant narratives of Bangladesh, Pakistan and India are hostile to each other and suspicious of those who don’t follow the official script.
Shahidul, who is still in jail, has done more to promote a positive image of Bangladesh and counter stereotypes than those who ordered him to be arrested and are now charging him with ruining the country’s image through his social media posts.
Characteristically, he didn’t go quietly when some two dozen plainclothesmen barged into his house on Aug. 5, and dragged him, barefoot and blindfolded, into a van. They taped over CCTV cameras and confiscated eyewitnesses’ mobile phones.
Hours earlier, he had given a courageous live interview to Al Jazeera contextualizing the ongoing student protests in Bangladesh, catalyzed by the July 29 death of two teens in a road accident. Instead of focusing on road safety and apprehending those responsible, the government unleashed police on the protesters with rubber bullets and tear gas.
Among the 115 students and several journalists injured that weekend, Shahidul was also assaulted, his video camera smashed. Cycling away from where “people wielding metal rods and sticks” had turned on him as he filmed them attacking the students, he posted a series of Facebook Live videos recorded unobtrusively.
Police attacked the unarmed protesters and allowed “armed goons” affiliated with the ruling party to attack them, he told Al Jazeera. The demonstrations, he said, were not just about road safety, but involved factors related to corruption, extortion, censorship and “extrajudicial killings.” He slammed Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for her shaky legitimacy and broken promises. Protesters, mostly students, have been taking to the streets since April in protest; the government responded with force, injuring many. Brutally suppressing protests, said Shahid ul, was aimed at subduing the population ahead of the upcoming general election.
The growing authoritarianism and censorship in Bangladesh is illustrated by the frequency of raids on its critics. Government agencies typically deny any knowledge about abductions, leaving families clueless about the fate of their loved ones for weeks or even months.
Shahidul’s stature provides him some protection. As word spread about his abduction, protesters gathered at the headquarters of the police unit that had him in custody. When Shahid ul was produced in court the following evening, he could barely walk. A Facebook live video shows security personnel literally dragging him up the stairs.
Bangladeshis have historically put up a spirited resistance to such authoritarianism. Shahid ul has long been an integral part of the pro-democracy, anti-censorship movement.
Social media is critical for pro-democracy activists given the constraints faced by the traditional media. Yet it is also being used to victimize them.
And it is also here that calls to #FreeShahidul are resounding from around the world, from a staggering range of individuals and organizations, including ten Nobel laureates, the National Press Photographers Association, the Pulitzer Centre, Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, to the Prince Claus Foundation, over 400 Indian artists and various South Asian bodies. Amnesty has declared him a “prisoner of conscience.” Renowned figures like Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Eve Ensler, Naomi Klein and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Patrick Farrell have called for his release. “Shahid ul Alam’s detention underlines the growing crackdown on dissenting voices in Bangladesh, in a pattern that is visible elsewhere too,” says their statement.
The Bangladeshi government appears unmoved. In a Facebook post, Hasina’s son (and government adviser) Sajeeb Wazed Joy lashed out at “so-called ‘civil society’” and the foreigners and journalists supporting Shahidul Alam.
All those critical of the government face a massive smear campaign. Shahid ul was sent to jail and denied bail. His petition to advance another bail hearing date from Sept. 11 to an earlier date was rejected.
Picturing Shahid ul being dragged away, I think of his powerful 2012 exhibition “Crossfire,” which evoked the menace of illegal abductions and extrajudicial killings. This year has already seen an alarming rise in the number of extrajudicial killings and deaths in custody that analysts say is part of political intimidation ahead of elections.
Shahid ul has for decades consistently recorded such abuses, including the lack of due process for common criminals or terrorist suspects. Now he himself is being subjected to this lack of due process.
While the government appears determined to make an example out of Shahid ul, Prime Minister Hasina would be well advised to find a way out and let him go. History teaches us that suppressing democratic aspirations by force doesn’t work in the long run.
Beena Sarwar is a journalist, artist and filmmaker from Pakistan focusing on human rights, gender, media and peace.