O Opinion

What Happened To Shahidul Alam and What Does His Case Signify?

Renowned photojournalist, Shahidul Alam was forcibly abducted by police in Bangladesh last month following his television interview with Al Jazeera, where he criticised the government’s handling of student protests in the capital.

Subsequently, the 63-year old social activist was imprisoned for spreading anti-government propaganda, under Section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information Communication Technology Act (ICT), Al Jazeera reports. In a video posted hours after his capture, Alam is seen supported by two officers claiming that he was beaten whilst in detention and remains in prison.

 

Global reactions

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government has received widespread condemnation from a number of international organisations over Alam’s case, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International who call for his immediate release. Alam’s older sister described her brother as ‘fearless’ and dedicated to ‘fighting injustice in any part of the world’.

Protestors gathered outside the Bangladesh High Commission in London on Friday and performed musical tributes and speeches in solidarity.

Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia Director at Human Rights Watch who joined the protest, criticised the lack of action taken by judges in the Bangladesh High Court, who [earlier this week] she states refused to hear Alam’s plea on the basis that ‘they were embarrassed because Shahidul Alam is still in jail’. The battle for his freedom continues.

Acts of solidarity in reaction to Alam’s case have taken place across the world. Outrage and frustration have been felt by numerous global figures who have spoken out against the Bangladesh government. A coalition of Nobel Laureates have condemned the incarceration of Shahidul Alam.  Arundhati Roy, Eve Ensler, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky and Vijay Prashad have also issued a statement demanding his release declaring that;

“Anything less than that stands as a rebuke to justice and liberty, decency and hope for a better future”.

As international urges continue to build, Hasina’s government faces further pressure and scrutiny.

 

The Background - Student Protests

The student-led protests which Alam referred to in his interview last month, were sparked after a speeding bus in Dhaka lost control and crashed into a bus stop killing two students, Reuters reports. Mass protests broke out in the crowded capital, a city renowned for its busy streets. Protestors called for stricter enforcement of traffic laws in response to the lack of current transport regulations in the capital home to 18 million people. Demonstrators were beaten by police and pro-government supporters who used tear gas and clubs, resulting in multiple injuries, including an Associated Press photographer covering the protest who was attacked and hospitalized with a head injury. Protests continued to spread to across the country to other cities including Chittagong and Sylhet, revealing the extent of discontent and resistance towards Hasina’s government.

 

What does Alam’s case signify?

Alam’s abduction and imprisonment not only symbolises the oppressive behaviour of the state and paranoia of opposition forces, but also the legal systemic flaws in Section 57 of the ICT act which Alam was charged with.

Section 57 has enabled the state to effectively silence political dissent and has been described by Human Rights Watch as ‘a draconian’ act. It authorizes the prosecution of any person who produces material that is defamatory or ‘corrupt’, according to the international organisation. Human Rights Watch stated that amendments made to the act in 2013 eliminated the need for arrest warrant - permitting the government to further tighten its crackdown on the opposition. Intolerance to the freedom of speech shown by the Bangladesh authorities contributes to Hasina’s autocratic style of government. It is not limited to Alam’s case but represents a much wider issue and questions the political stability of Bangladesh.

Alam’s high profile case provides only a glimpse into what he calls ‘the gagging of the media’. This global platform provides an opportunity to continue Alam’s fight for freedom and to hold the government to account. It must also pose further questions to the mistreatment of other journalists and activists - those silenced by the government who do not have this voice.

Saiful Islam, brother-in-law to Shahidul revealed that information of campaigns for his release taking place across the world has reached Shahidul through the family that have visited. Saiful said that he replied saying “please tell them to be strong because I am and I believe that our strength will overcome all of our difficulties”. Whilst Shahidul’s optimism pervades efforts must continue to ensure his immediate release.

He has captured years of struggle in Bangladesh and has amplified the voices of the disempowered. His enforced silence is not only of his own but that of the millions his work represents.


Photo: By PopTech from Camden, Maine and Brooklyn, NY, USA (Shahidul Alam - PopTech 2011 - Camden Maine USA) [CC BY-SA 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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