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Saturday, 20 July 2024 – 07:27

The Latest on Shahidul Alam and the Digital Security Act

What’s happening now?

Renowned photojournalist, Shahidul Alam, remains imprisoned following his forced abduction by detective police in Bangladesh last month. Alam was charged under section 57 of Bangladesh’s controversial Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, for making “provocative comments” during the student protests over the summer.

Today, the High Court failed to hear another bail petition put forward by Alam, as it was ranked 354th in the list of matters. He remains in prison since his arrest on 5th August. Earlier this month, two other petitions were put before the High Court and disposed of by judges, with the first declined as the judge felt “embarrassed” to hear the case. Alam remains in prison.

Shahidul Alam’s case – The government stance

Despite the international movement calling for Alam’s immediate release, the Awami League government’s position remains unwavering.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina spoke out on the matter at a discussion organised last month by The Bangladesh Chhatra League, stating that famed intellectuals have taken the opportunity of what she describes as “digital Bangladesh” to “spread false information on social media”. 

Without naming him, Hasina’s comment launched a clear attack on Alam’s documentation of the mass student protests and demonstrates her uncompromised attitude towards the charges held against him.

Sajeeb Wazed Joy, Hasina’s son and ICT adviser, has defended these charges in a signed article on RealClearPolitics – a US-based media outlet.

Joy accused him of “playing along with the BNP” (Bangladesh National Party) the government’s main opposition, during the student protests. Whilst Alam condemned the government’s handling of the student protests, it must be recognised that he has openly criticised both the Awami League and BNP on numerous occasions. Sofia Karim, Alam’s niece, further stressed this notion in an interview with the BBC discussing his involvement in politics claiming that “he is not affiliated with any political group”. Joy’s accusations attempt to infer Alam’s political objectives, a point which aims to detract from the work he has produced as a publicly available humanitarian activist. This further demonstrates the overt discomfort felt by Hasina’s government in dealing with those who seek to critique them.

The Digital Security Act

Last week, the Bangladesh government passed the Digital Security Act (DSA), which lawfully enables police forces to arrest or search individuals without a warrant. In conjunction with the ICT act, described by Human Rights Watch as ‘draconian’, the DSA provides further evidence of the governments’ paranoia and efforts to curtail political opposition. The DSA precisely reiterates what Alam described as the ‘gagging of the media’ in Bangladesh during his interview with Al Jazeera last month.

In reaction to the DSA, The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) wrote a letter to Bangladesh’s President, Abdul Hamid, expressing serious concern over its effects on journalism within the country.

Hasina commented on criticisms over the DSA during a speech in parliament and denied all claims of ‘gagging’, the Daily Star reports. She continued on to say that ‘journalism must not be meant to create conflict, give rise to the confrontational atmosphere, instigate terrorism and militancy or tarnish the country’s image’.

But this specific notion of what journalism ‘must not do’ sets a dangerous premise in which Hasina’s government becomes increasingly protected from any critics. The DSA notably provides legal justification for the police to carry out arbitrary arrest with little resistance and must be recognised as a deliberate move by the Bangladesh government who are pushing for greater jurisdiction.

As a profession which seeks to provide accountability and exercises the freedom of speech, the very objective of journalism in Bangladesh is under threat.

Hasina’s next move

Hasina is to receive two international awards this week at the UN summit in New York for Bangladesh’s efforts in the Rohingya crisis, the Daily Star reports. Although conscious of her reputation in the international community, Hasina’s focus lies in upholding a strong national image with the upcoming elections in December. Despite the global campaigns and media attention which Alam’s case has attracted, she is not bowing to international pressures. Thus, it becomes increasingly difficult to detect the government’s next move.

Alam’s case remains one of sensitivity and great significance to Hasina’s government. Admittance to the unjust treatment of Alam would not only tarnish the government’s reputation but open a Pandora’s box unveiling an array of other cases similar to Alam’s, which have been silenced by the authorities. Opening this line of questioning and speculation is precisely what Hasina and her government have tried so hard to conceal.

The case of Shahidul Alam clearly signifies the crackdown on anti-government sentiment in Bangladesh and is becoming more widely recognised by the global community. This facade of tolerance which Hasina’s government alludes to no longer holds.

Protests, exhibitions and rallies calling for his release continue to take place across the world. As a witness to injustice and a humanitarian activist, Shahidul Alam has become victim to the very injustices he fights against.


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Photo: By PopTech from Camden, Maine and Brooklyn, NY, USA (Shahidul Alam – PopTech 2011 – Camden Maine USA) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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